So many puppies! Looking at my calendar, I count 13 puppies currently enrolled in puppy behavior training with me and I have another 3 that I need to schedule in. I typically have 3 – 5 puppies enrolled at a time on any given month, but this year I’m hitting a new record. That’s what led me to this week’s topic about puppy clicker training.
When training puppies under 6 months old – especially at the 2-month mark – we’re essentially working with a clean slate. The rare exception being puppies born with genetic behavior issues.
This is a crucial time for socializing your puppy, and it’s also when what is known as the “fear period” happens. You definitely want to make sure that their experiences and training is positive.
As much as I am an advocate for the use of electronic and prong collars in training to ensure reliable performance, I also am an advocate for clicker training – especially with puppies under 6 months old. It really simplifies things for the puppy and the human in communicating exactly what it is we’d like them to do.
Before moving forward on to why clicker training is the best way to start training your puppy, I’m going to answer a few common questions people ask.
What is a Dog Clicker?
It’s simple; it fits in your hand much like a remote would, but it’s generally around 2 inches long 1 1/2 inches wide with one button that makes a clicking noise when you press it. That’s it.
You can find them easily at your local pet store or pet superstore, or buy one online, and they run around $1 to $25 – depending on how fancy you want to get – but a dollar clicker works just as well as a $25 clicker.
How a Dog Clicker Works
Think of the clicker as a camera. When you press the button on a camera you see a flash and it captures a moment in time. It’s the same thing for the puppy. When they hear a click, it captures a moment in time for them that they register in their brain as, “Hey, when I put my butt on the ground, I hear this click and then I get a treat; let me try that again!”
This analogy works really well because dogs see things in pictures and operate according to the context of how things look in the moment (this is especially true in remote collar training).
We always begin by teaching puppies that when they hear a click, it means they are going to receive a treat. This is known as “loading the clicker.”
In a distraction-free environment and when your puppy is on a leash, take your clicker and hold it in your hand so that your thumb is on the button (I prefer to hold the clicker behind my back or in a coat pocket to muffle the sound as it can startle some puppies in the beginning.) Then, press down and you should hear a clicking noise. Once you’ve done that, immediately reward your puppy with a treat.
Do this a few times and you should start to see your puppy looking to you expecting to receive a reward. This is a good sign and shows they’re understanding the concept of click and reward.
How to Train Your Puppy with a Clicker
Once the puppy understands the idea of “when I hear a click I get a treat,” you can start training immediately. For obedience commands, you’ll have to shape the positions using food to lure them.
But if obedience training isn’t your thing and you really just want something that will speed up the potty training, this will be a game changer because any time your pup hears a click they will be more inclined to repeat the behavior again in the future.
Waits patiently for food? Click and treat! Whines at the door to let you know they need to go potty? Click and treat! Comes to you whenever you say their name? Click and treat! Sits instead of jumping on your guest? Click and treat! Gives you their paw when your training? Click and treat!
The effectiveness of the clicker comes in training default behaviors as you go about your day to day activities.
Maybe you notice every time you go to the kitchen your puppy sits at a distance, watching you curiously. This is a calm and respectful behavior that you can click and treat to tell them, “Yes, I like this behavior and I want you to do it again.”
Or, maybe your puppy jumps at you frantically each time you go to the kitchen. Here you’d want to begin with clicking every time all four paws are on the ground, gradually making them work more for the reward and requiring they keep all four paws on the ground for longer periods of time.
Another option would be clicking when they sit down in frustration as their jumping is receiving no acknowledgment. In these examples, you’re saying, “Don’t do that, but do this instead.”
The possibilities are endless, but it does take time and consistency to ingrain these behaviors into them to the point where you no longer need to click and reward.
For those looking to train their puppies with positive reinforcement only, I suggest at least the first year of the dog’s life is clicking and rewarding all the behaviors you like, all the time. There is a limitation in what you can achieve with this method, but a lot can be accomplished.
Not to forget all the cool tricks you can teach your dog or puppy! More complex combo commands like bang and play dead, sit pretty and hold your toy, and grab me a beer from the fridge are a series of smaller commands combined to make one big complex behavior.
A clicker is very effective in building these commands as you can slowly push for more as your dog problem solves, trying each time to figure out what the next step is. And when they hear the click, they know they did the right thing!
Why a Clicker is the Best Way to Start Training Your Puppy
It’s cheap, clear, and concise. Dogs are simple animals; humans tend to make things difficult. This tool allows us to clearly communicate to our puppies exactly what it is we’d like them to learn or do on command.
We can use the clicker to teach foundational obedience, how they’re body mechanics work, problem solving, potty training on command, complex tricks, alternate behaviors and so much more!
So if you have a puppy and you haven’t started working with your puppy yet, I highly recommend you run out, buy a clicker, and get started with training your puppy!
I’ve posted a couple of video clips of client dogs that I’m currently clicker training to do tricks down below.
Chicago's Premier Master Dog Trainer and Behavior Expert.
Student of The Miami Dog Whisperer - Richard Heinz.
Over 10 years of working experience with dogs.
Professional Member of the International Association Of Canine Professionals.