In the last year, it seems like I've been doing nothing but raising puppies. First came Ned, a Shetland sheepdog who's bright but a little on the shy side. Then Riley, an outgoing, bouncy retriever puppy I'm raising for friends.
While most of what I do with puppies involves socializing them to new people and places, sights and sounds, I also lay a foundation for a lifetime of learning by setting limits and by teaching a few basic behaviors in a way that makes it clear that training is fun.
To get that latter idea across, the tool I reach for is what trainers call a "clicker." It doesn't look like much, but it's an object that seems to possess a magic power when it comes to building a good relationship with an animal – any animal.
To the untrained eye, a clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand – a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it – click-click!
Of course, the clicker itself isn't magic. What it provides is timing – it allows a trainer working with a dog that understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior it's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated.
The clicking noise becomes a reward because in the early stages of training, the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants – most usually, a tiny treat.
You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place where you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or even bits of kibble).
For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again, and again and again. Eventually, your pet will show you it understands that the sound means food. For example, it may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.
When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions – less than 10 minutes – every day.
When you're all set up again, sit quietly with your clicker and treats – and wait. Your dog should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your dog will initially be confused, but should eventually offer the behavior again.
Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait again.
Say you clicked your dog a couple of times because it finally got bored and sat. Soon your dog will sit to test its theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the same principal that keeps you pulling the slot machine handle).
In future sessions, you'll move on from the "sit" that your dog knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" – training in segments and putting them together.
One more thing: Never punish your pet for not "getting it right." Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your dog to do.
And that's true no matter if your puppy is big or small, outgoing or shy. In my house, both Ned and Riley, although very different puppies, are thriving as they learn that training is fun.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.