By Fiona Petersen
When purebred dog breeders use clicker training with their litters, show and pet puppies learn fast. Research reveals that breeders can raise the bar of excellence in breeding by implementing environmental enrichment and neurological stimulation with puppies almost immediately after birth.
Early training enhances physical and mental development. By the time puppies are four weeks old, clicker training jump starts learning to a surprising degree by stimulating neurological pathways in the brain.
Clicker training teaches puppies how to learn with positive input and results in eager and enthusiastic learners, regardless of the job they perform. The notion that puppies can’t start training until they’re six months old is old school and simply not true.
Click the Clicker for Brain Enrichment
All types of enriched environments offer neurophysiological and behavioral benefits, including faster learning, better memory, reduced anxiety, and enhanced immune systems. Enrichment and early lessons influence electrical and chemical activities in the brain.
Neurons fueled by dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure right after the neuron fires result in neurons firing more often. The greater the number of neurological pathways that develop in the brain, the greater the individual’s capacity for learning, so the sooner this development begins, the better.
The sound of a clicker directly stimulates the amygdala, or the integrative center of the brain that controls emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. Reward-related neurons are more active, so that the more a puppy learns at an early age, the more it can learn.
When breeding and raising quality, purebred litters, it helps to consider these developmental stages:
- The Neonatal Period: birth to 12 days.
- The Transitional Period: 13-20 days.
- The Awareness Period: 21-23 days.
- Canine Socialization: primary 3-5 weeks, secondary 6-12 weeks
Introducing environmental variations and novel stimuli have become well-known factors in behavioral training during the 3 to 5 week socialization period, the time when the stimulation of neurological pathways impact mental development and the ability to learn, which makes the use of the clicker a very effective tool. Whether the goal is to breed champion and grand champion show dogs, outstanding performance dogs, or well-adjusted companion dogs, clicker training facilitates a puppy’s potential for excellence and success.
Clicker Training Schedule
To train puppies to respond to a clicker, follow these steps:
- Introduce the clicker as soon as puppies begin the weaning process.
- Click immediately before you put the food dish down. This pairs the click (the secondary reinforcer) with the food (the primary reinforcer).
- Between week 4 and 5 work individually with each puppy. Click, then let the puppy lick a taste of baby food off your finger. When a puppy is old enough to eat solid food, use tiny pieces of cooked chicken or turkey. Once the puppy understands the click means a treat is coming, you can start clicking any behavior you like.
- If the puppy looks at you directly, click and give the treat (click-treat, or C/T). If the puppy sits or downs, C/T. Moves toward you? C/T. Soon you will see the puppy offering all kinds of behavior to get you to C/T. Verbal cues aren’t needed at this stage of learning.
- During week 5 adding a game called “101 things to do with a box.” Use a cardboard box with sides about 2” high. C/T when the puppy interacts with the box in any way: looking at it, sniffing it, touching it with a nose or paw, climbing into it, sitting in it, or pushing it around. The idea is to teach puppies how to learn by reinforcing offered behaviors and encouraging them to voluntarily try new things. As the puppies grow, C/T for standing on the top of the box. This is great foundation training for show and agility prospects. There are no wrong interactions with the box. Everything pays! The puppies receive mental stimulation, learn how to learn, and have fun, which all pave the way for successful future training.
- By weeks 6 to 7 start working on basic obedience behaviors, such as “watch me” (making eye contact), “sit,” “down,” and “come.” Always C/T for offered behaviors, then start shaping desired behaviors. Add hand signals or verbal cues as the puppy starts offering behaviors consistently.
- During this time, introduce loose leash walking: walk one or two steps and stop. C/T when the puppy stays at your side. Repeat the sequence. When the puppy understands the game, walk three to four steps, stop, and C/T. Gradually mix up the number of steps that you take before stopping so that the puppy never knows when the C/T will happen. The puppy will realize that staying by your side earns a treat, while forging ahead and pulling doesn’t.
RAISING THE BAR
With show puppies, teach free stacking and focusing. C/T eye contact, standing square, and allowing body touching. Use a verbal cue, and voila! The future champion has a head start in the conformation ring, and is happy to perform the behaviors required in competition. For agility puppies, C/T walking on different surfaces, running through a play tunnel and walking the length of a 2’ X 12” X 8’ board placed flat on the ground. Use the clicker to teach 2 on 2 off, or running contacts on the flat board on the ground and walking over PVC poles.
Other ways to use the clicker in agility training include:
- Using an upturned trash can lid as a tippy board.
- Draping a thin towel over a puppy to prepare it for the chute.
- Teaching front, rear, and blind crosses on the flat.
The possibilities of using a clicker to teach agility obstacles are endless. Introducing clicker training at this early stage builds confidence and targets prime learning time. By the time puppies are eight weeks old their ability to learn and perform behaviors is nothing short of spectacular.
Remember to always set puppies up for success by:
- Keeping training sessions short.
- Increasing training time in small increments.
- Adding interactive play, such as tug to keep the learning process fun.
Puppies who receive mental enrichment and increasingly complex stimuli are far ahead of the learning curve. They mature into well-balanced dogs that are a pleasure to live with.
Fiona Petersen is a DWAA Maxwell Medallion winner and has been training dogs for agility, obedience, and breed with positive reinforcements for over 20 years.