Patience, Patience, and more Patience. That is the most essential skill that you need. It has been a while since I last trained a puppy, two years to be exact, and my youngest pup was seven weeks old when I got her at that time.
I introduced my last litter to the clicker when they were five weeks old. For the next week-and-a-half their training sessions consisted of charging the clicker; that is, I clicked the puppies and delivered a yummy treat to their tiny mouths. They didn’t have to do anything in particular. The object of the exercise was to get them to associate the click with something good, ie food.
At about six-and-a-half weeks I began shaping behaviors, and that’s where I needed the most patience. At that age the puppies had the attention span of a gnat, and could not focus on anything for too long. They would offer me a sit, and I would click and treat them, then they would wonder off to explore. That is perfectly normal. I had to keep lessons very short, literally seconds, and they had to be frequent, and fun, fun, fun.
I found that in shaping behaviors I had to be very quick and observant, if not, I’d miss a lot of clickable behaviors. Training puppies really teaches humans the power of timing. Interesting while I awaited the arrival of this litter, I contemplated honing my clicker training skills with the help of a chicken. Well, that didn’t happen, for many reasons. Had I done it, it would have helped.
My timing with the clicker certainingly improved, but it’s still not at the level that I would like. I find that I miss things, even when I train my adult dogs. It’s exasperating, but like most skills, it will improve with practice… and patience!
If there are two things that I learned from training puppies between the ages of six and nine weeks it was 1) Train in a small area that’s very boring to the puppy. That way the puppy will choose to pay attention to its lessons (assuming that the reinforcer, ie the treats are really yummy to the puppy, and he’s not tired), and 2) deliver a very high rate of reinforcement.
Number two above is so very important, even when training adult dogs. I think it was last Christmas that Karen Pryor wrote in her newsletter about the power of abundance. Her message was simple: reinforce your dog frequently for behaviors that you want with a lot of treats. A general good rule of thumb is to deliver one click for a behavior followed by three treats. Sometimes I do more.
What I found most helpful to get the puppies in “training mode” was to give a series of fast clicks followed by food as in click-food-click-food-click-food. I did this as fast as the puppy could eat its treat, which meant that I had to make the treats very small to begin.
As the puppies got older and they became more clicker saavy, I found much of the above unnecessary; they had all grown up. I no longer train in an isolated area, but in my living room. They focus quite well, though I still keep their sessions short and intersperse it with a lot of play. I no longer charge the clicker because they know what the clicker means. I still deliver a high rate of reinforcement, though, because it pays off with both the puppies and the more seasoned dogs.