Clicker Training Puppies, Start Right Away!

Ohhhhh puppies!!!  They are probably one of the cutest furry forces on earth!  I love just about everything about puppies.

And, I love clicker training puppies, too!

Honestly, as a trainer, I am having a bit of puppy fever right now.  Both of my dogs are getting on in age and I have an insane yearning for a young dog to play and compete with at the moment.  I will keep you all posted on how that goes and how I arrive at whatever decision I make.  Because, adding a puppy or any pet isn’t something to be taken lightly, it is something that should take a lot of consideration and you should weigh the pros and cons first! The dog will be with you for ten years or more!  As dog trainers, and vet techs I have learned this wholeheartedly.

But, back to puppies!  Who doesn’t love puppy breath, and puppy naps and puppy zoomies?  Seeing the world for the first time through your puppy’s eyes is also mesmerizing.  His first snow, his first meeting with family and friends are memories that will last you and your dog a lifetime!

Now, there are two schools of thought for dog trainers when it comes to puppy training.  The first is to wait until your puppy is about 6 months old or so to begin training, and the second is to begin positive reinforcement, rewarding good behavior and puppy clicker training right away.

Why is there such a big difference of opinion?

Because there are two very different schools of thought when it comes to dog trainers.  Not all dog trainers are created equally, and it is important to find the right trainer, and method for your puppy.

Wait Till 6 Months or Older

This is very a very “old school” thought process, because this is for using excessive force to teach your puppy.

Puppies that are younger than six months can be easily intimidated, scared, and “broken” (emotionally) if dog owners use excessive force.

A puppy over six months can handle more of a physical correction when it comes to obedience training, without as much risk of  making him fearful or aggressive.

Unfortunately, in my early years, this is the mentality that I was taught.  And, I can attest to it being true in most cases, although some 6 month old puppies can’t handle this kind of stress or correction either.  Many of these puppies are then just labeled difficult or aggressive or unworthy of staying in their homes.

This mentality is for dog trainers who are using; choke chains, pinch collars, shock collars and other forms of corrective devices.  Now, for those reading this who are undoubtedly becoming offended, I am simply being honest.

I had a trainer contact me several articles ago and said “they are not called choke chains, or pinch collars, or shock collars anymore.  They are called slip collars, prong collars or sprenger collars, and e-collars.  Anything else is false and misleading.”  I have never been one for being overly politically correct or sugar coating it.  Choke chains, choke.  Pinch collars, pinch.  Shock collars, shock.  Period.

Feel free to use your devices, but know that they are not all they are cracked up to be and they can do more damage than they do good.  I have seen damaged and aggressive dog time and time again because of this kind of training.  After all, if you shock me or hit me in the name of teaching me good behavior, you had better be ready for an all out aggressive brawl because I will defend myself no matter how big or intimidating you are.

Shock collars HURT!  Don’t believe me?  Strap one onto your neck and give me the remote.  For more on why they can be harmful for your pet, click here.

The whole reason many trainers wait until the dog is older is so that the dog can handle the pain of the correction.  I know of a local well known and unfortunately successful dog training company in my area that regularly puts 8 week old puppies in prong collars.  In my opinion, that is no way to train.  Sure it will affect your dog’s behavior… but is that how YOU would like to learn a task?

Read why this veterinarian hates pinch collars, here.

Begin Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training Puppies Right Away

The second theory, among dog trainers, is to begin puppy clicker training with rewards, and positive reinforcement right away.   Sessions don’t have to be long!

Heck, I start puppy obedience training when I am at the breeder picking out or picking up my puppy!  I have rewards and tasty treats and I immediately begin positive reinforcement of good behavior in an attempt to open up good communication as quickly as possible.

Dogs aren’t people.  I know that is hard for some to understand.  They have a whole different way of communicating and understanding their environment.  In order or us to communicate effectively, one of us has to learn the other’s language.  And, let’s face it, humans are waaaay too self absorbed to learn operative canine communication skills.  So, we must TEACH our dogs.  I put that in caps, so that we remember they aren’t hard wired to know our rules and expectations.

In the aforementioned example, we aren’t really teaching the dog how to communicate with us, we are waiting until he is 6 months and has established many bad behaviors and then trying to “correct” them.

By teaching your dog clicker training, we open up the lines of communications through marker training.

Marker training is a simple way of saying “training with a marker signal”.  The signal “marks” the EXACT moment the dog does what you are wanting and is followed by something desirable to the dog.  Using a marker signal is a science based teaching method where the marker identifies for the animal when it is doing the right thing.  In dog training we use clickers, with marine mammal trainers (like whales or sea lions) they use whistles, etc.   For more on that click here.    Dog clickers can be purchased almost anywhere.

I always tell my clients, “We are so busy telling our dogs when they do something wrong!  How often do you actually tell them when they do something right?”  “Do you reward your puppy when he lies down?  Do you reward him when he is quietly chewing his toys?  Do you reward him for paying attention to you?”  Teach your puppy that good behavior brings reward.

The honest answer is usually, NO.  I mean, a lot of times people want to convince me that they do… but typically your “rewards” don’t come fast enough and don’t have enough meaning.  Simply praising isn’t generally enough to teach the dog to continue doing what he is doing.

So in order to communicate effectively with him when he does something exactly right, we need to cue or teach a marker!  Again, sessions don’t have to be long training sessions should be fairly short and should leave your puppy wanting more.  Teach your dog often and for short periods of fun and excitement.

A clicker is not a magical “dog remote” you can’t take it out of it’s package and click it to turn your dog’s good behavior on or stop his unwanted behavior.  You have to pair the clicker with a primary reinforcement (something the dog wants like food or a toy).  A click always followed by a treat conditions your dog that the click = the treat.  Search Google there are many dog clickers to choose from. lic

Remember old Pavlov?  He rang a bell each night before he fed his dog.  After several nights, just ringing the bell inspired the dog to drool because the dog was conditioned that the bell = dinner.  We can use this to our advantage in training to mark, or click the exact moment our dog or puppy does something that we like or want to continue to see.

But, like Pavlov in following studies; if you stop rewarding after the click, the clicker or marker loses it’s meaning and the dog is desensitized or no longer conditioned to the marker.  We certainly don’t want this!  So if you click you must reward.

I know it sounds like a lot of work!  But it isn’t!  Trust me most dog owners will prefer positive reinforcement, marker training and clicker training puppies over trying to correct unwanted behaviors later.

It’s Simple Science

By rewarding your pet (and any pet can learn, even chickens) you are teaching him what your expectations are and what your rules are and what you like when it comes to behavior.  From here it is easy to get these behaviors on cue or command.  This means you control the behavior and when it happens and you can simply avoid bad behavior.  By avoiding bad behavior you are avoiding conflict and sculpting the dog that you want!  Make sense?

Want to read more about the science, click here.

As Proven by a Shelter Dog Experiment

I have worked in numerous animal, pet and dog shelters in my career.  I have run temperament tests, I have walked dogs, I have trained dogs and I have done much of the grunt work at the shelter to help the animals.  I have even sat on the board of directors at one shelter.

But we decided to implement an experiment that another well known shelter had seen great progress with when it came to adoptions.

Adopting “wild” and uncontrollable young dogs from shelters can be tough, at best.  Many of these dogs are simply euthanized because no one wants to deal with their unruly behavior.  Although, sad, in some cases I understand no one wants to take home a dog they think they can’t control.

Jumping is one of the number one issues for failed probable adoptions.  The new family takes the dog, who has been  in a kennel run almost 24 hours a day 7 days a week into a room or a yard and the dog is so very excited he begins to jump all over the people and run and flail himself with excitement.

As trainers and shelter workers, we stuffed our pouches with treats or their meals, armed ourselves with clickers and headed into those runs.  We taught those dogs, that if they “Sit” when we entered, they would get a reward.  We DID NOT put it on cue or command.  We simply clicked and rewarded.


Because most people wont shout or demand “Sit”.  We wanted the act of entering their run with a pouch of rewards and then entering the adoption room to bring about the behavior without having to ask for the behavior.

It is even less likely that school of thought number one would have worked.  If we had had to use a physical correction and a correction collar, it would have had to have been used by the potential adopters in the same exact manner.  What are the odds of that?  No one wants to pop a sad shelter dog they are looking to adopt with a leash.

Adoptions skyrocketed!  Gone were the uncontrollable dogs!  In front of people were the dogs sitting for attention and reward and looking like well trained and easy to train dogs.

This game also taught these dogs to control their impulses even when they were most excited (with no physical or verbal correction), which was an even more important lesson for them!

Can you see, that by using positive reinforcement and marker training, you can literally help the dog to make the correct behavior decisions without even using a cue or a command?  You are actually conditioning him that the behavior, in and of itself, is rewarding and should be continued.

Science is amazing!

Want to help your shelter pets out?  Click here.

Getting Started with Puppy Clicker Training

What You Will Need as a new Dog Owner

A Treat Pouch or something that you can strap around your middle so that you have treats available whenever you need them.

A Leash (to control your puppy’s wandering

A Clicker (they even have ones that strap to your finger or your wrist)  I like searching Amazon or going to your local pet supply store to look at their selection.

Great soft small treats (I prefer human food over dog treats because I know I can control the salt and the fat and the ingredients if I make the treats; with premade dog treats I have no idea what is really in them).

Their very own puppy food, measured out and accounted for can also be used as a treat for training or used throughout the day for training.

Load the Clicker

Find his favorite treat!  I like boiled chicken breast, liver or cheese.  I even use his own kibble when it is feeding time.  Use the smallest treat possible to elicit excitement (pea sized or smaller).  And, avoid fatty foods like bacon which can be bad for dogs, or foods high in salt!

Remember that clicker you just bought isn’t a magical dog remote!  It must be loaded or the dog must be taught that it has meaning.  So, begin “Click = Reward, Click = Reward, Click = Reward” until you click and your dog looks at you with excitement and anticipation because he knows his favorite snack is coming.

What if your puppy is afraid of the clicker?  Read This!

Jackpots Are Where it’s At

A jackpot is a bigger or better reward to drive home the idea that listening to you can bring REALLY GOOD rewards.  So a small handful of chicken breast or a piece of chicken breast if I am using his kibble are both considered a jackpot.  The jackpot is what he is working for, ultimately.

Jackpot Theory

In order to not have to use bribery (where you have to show the dog the treat in order to get him to listen to you, even when he is 2) you must begin teaching him the jackpot theory.

Dogs are gamblers just like humans.  We play the slots because there are odds, even if small, that we could in fact hit the jackpot.  Sometimes we win double more of our money, sometimes we lose and get nothing but sometimes we win enough to make the gamble worth it.

So, the key to good dog and puppy training is that once they know the behavior and are fairly reliable, you don’t have to reward them each time anymore!  Sometimes you reward, sometimes you don’t (very important) and sometimes you jackpot them (even more important).

Begin Training

I like to keep my puppies on leash when they come home.  This allows me to restrict their access to my whole house, helps me teach them manners and allows me to better potty train them.

The leash also allows me to be in control and in the “know” when they show good behavior so that I can click or mark and reward.

Let’s say that the puppy sits down on the ground himself, I would click and reward.  When he lies down, click and reward.  When he looks at me or recognizes his name, click and reward.

By puppy clicker training in this manner, I am teaching him what I like so that if he wants a reward and if he wants to make me happy (most dogs want to please but don’t know how) he knows how to do that.

The Only Time I Don’t Use a Clicker or Treats

I know this probably doesn’t make sense, after what I explained earlier; but I refuse to use or recommend using food or treats for potty training.

I kept having clients coming to me saying “My puppy will go potty outside and then go inside and squat and go again, right in front of me”.

It took me a bit of time to understand that the puppy was understanding that going potty in front of the owner was rewarding, NOT going potty outside.  He was understanding the behavior that was being rewarded but not where it was being rewarded, which makes total sense now!

If we reward a behavior, that means we want to see it often, right?  YES!

So instead, I recommend a very quiet praising when he goes potty outside.  Not overly loud so as to stop what he is doing, but calm and soft so that he just understands the behavior he is showing is correct but not rewarding enough to do in front of you all of the time (i.e. in the house).

So grab your leash, your puppy and your clicker and get started with a training program today!

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