Puppies pay off
There are many shelters, breeders, and pet owners with litters that would benefit from early clicker training. Getting a puppy off to the right start benefits the puppy’s development and introduces new owners to clicker training. As a new Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP), I was able to network with breeder friends to work with and train a number of puppy litters. This experience of many puppies, a variety of breeds, and varying personalities (canine and human) combined into some solid experience for me to take forward.
Of course, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. Most of my initial work with puppy litters was as a volunteer. However, because the new puppy owners were so pleased with the results of clicker training, many of my “students” from these litters continued training with me in group classes. Working with litters is a great way to grow your business!
Launching a training business requires not just training skills and experience, but also carefully set priorities. Aside from the actual training, the emphasis should be on communication and organization.
From the outset, it is important to get to know pet owners and understand their goals for the puppies. It can be an advantage to meet with an owner at home. Be prepared to ask a lot of questions. The answers will help you develop a training plan.
Here are some suggestions of questions to pose to prospective clients/owners of puppy litters:
- How did you hear about me?
- Is this your first litter?
- Basic information about the litter: date of birth, date puppies will be weaned, number and gender of puppies, how puppies are identified (names, numbers, codes?), health concerns for any puppy, date puppies will go to new owners
- What kind of life will these dogs lead (performance sports, conformation, family pets, etc.)?
- What method of training have you used in the past? Are you familiar with clicker training?
- Do you have an area where training can take place? (Typically a 10’ x 10’ area suffices.)
- How much did you want to be involved in the sessions?
An owner’s (breeder, shelter worker, etc.) involvement is an important consideration in planning training time (and everyone’s overall safety), especially if there are several puppies and/or older dogs in the training location.
Other questions might focus on how often and how long to train, the logistics of setting up and breaking down a training session, permission to videotape training sessions, and more areas of communication unique to a particular assignment.
Organization is as important as communication. Since puppies at 5-6 weeks of age rely on social reinforcement from their littermates, training members of a litter together makes sense. In fact, working with an individual puppy at this age might not be as successful as working with puppies in a group. Having a littermate nearby seems to give puppies confidence and a feeling of security, particularly in a new environment. Of course, it all depends on each individual puppy.
For a first session, organize groups of 3 or 4 puppies, depending on the size of the litter. Unless it is a very small litter, put males and females in separate groups. Hearing- or sight-impaired puppies should be grouped together regardless of sex. (For hearing-impaired puppies, perhaps use a small flashlight. In my experience, it produces the same results as a clicker. Remember, Karen Pryor used a flashlight to train fish!) Record the specifics of the initial groupings.
Keen observation is a necessary part of a group training session; enlist the puppy owner to make observations as well! Typical observations might include:
“timid, didn’t move around much”
“boisterous and liked to play with the other puppies”
“wandered away to explore the environment”
If a group seems imbalanced, make a note to reorganize the puppies in the next session. For example, boisterous dogs can be grouped together, timid dogs can be grouped together, and a pup that remained on the outskirts of a group should be put into another group. In addition to direct observation, reviewing video of training sessions can also yield insights and help with future groupings.
In most cases, once a puppy is put into another group, training proceeds much more smoothly. Timid dogs appear more confident and are more willing to engage because they are not focused on more dominant puppies. Boisterous puppies tone down their behavior paired with puppies that have the same energy level. They, too, are able to shift focus to the trainer and training rather than on the more timid puppies. I found that by the fifth training session of my training classes all of the puppies were working in pairs, and by the sixth session all of the puppies were working individually. (At this point the puppies are generally 7 weeks old.)
To record notes while assessing groups, it helps to use a log book. While I often use a sectioned spiral notebook and pencil (to keep my laptop free of the inevitable mess and stickiness of a training class), it’s recording the information that matters and not the method. With some experience, you can figure out how best to organize the log book. Here are some suggestions of dividing up a physical notebook like mine:
General Information: a list of what to bring to each session (a timer, camera and tripod, fully charged batteries, the Log Book); copies of e-mails between you and the owners; any other information related to the project.
Diary: Record here an overall assessment of each session. How did things go? What should change? How were the puppies grouped? How did the puppies interact? What reinforcers were used: food, toys? Where was the session held—same room? new room? inside? outside? (A change in environment could affect behavior.) How did the puppies act as a whole: were they tired or wired? How recently were the puppies fed? Exercised? List any equipment used in the session. List any observers present—typically prospective new owners.
Progress Charts: I like each puppy to have his/her own section in my log book, which includes a photo. A Progress Chart form is attached. Initially, I had high hopes for the form and included lots of detail (length of session, motivation level, number of trials, criteria, etc.). Soon those hopes became unrealistic. There is only so much time and there are so many puppies! The form is certainly useful but in more of a free-form fashion, as you will see in the image below.
Recording specific information about each puppy after each session helps to identify changes in their confidence level, their willingness to engage, and their interaction with the other puppies. Since puppies grow so fast, the differences can be quite very noticeable. Did the puppies’ size change significantly? Were the puppies timid? Independent? Boisterous? Sensitive to sound or touch? Did they play well with others? Were they engaged in the training or was the environment more engaging? Did they offer behaviors?
Calendar and schedule: This section includes the days of the week dedicated to training sessions. For me, there are typically three sessions per week—usually twice during the week after work, and once on the weekend. Each session runs from 1.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the size of the litter.
Maps: Maps and directions to each owner’s home, at least for the first few sessions. When owners’ homes are in rural or remote areas without streetlights, it is important to have specific landmarks and directions.
Prepare for puppies!
Be sure to bring the logbook, a pencil, and an eraser. Reading glasses if you need them. Necessary equipment might include a camera, tripod, and extra charged batteries, as well as a timer. A digital kitchen timer works well. Remember that your hands will get greasy and sticky, so think twice before using the timer on your phone.
Another item to prepare is a pair of clean shoes in a bag. The puppies likely have not been vaccinated, so the owner will ask you to remove your street shoes at the door. Bring clean shoes in a bag that you can wear around the puppies; change back to street shoes at departure time. At home, wash the puppy shoes with soap and water and spritz a little bleach on them, then put them in a bag for the next session.
Having a training plan helps you organize your thoughts even before working with the puppies. In advance, develop a reasonable training plan and then discuss it with the owner.
For puppies this young, the plan must align with their abilities—and it must be fun for the pups! I focus on foundation behaviors such as engagement, impulse control, recalls, targeting, platforms, and cones. There are many other ideas as well. My training techniques are primarily capturing and shaping, and I never use a leash or collar. The 10 x 10 X-pen keeps puppies within the working area. Time every session (just a few minutes for each puppy) and ensure that every session starts and ends with play. Try training some of the following behaviors:
Recalls can start immediately in the first session and continue throughout the entire training schedule.
Ask the owner to put down the puppy in the training area and hold the pup while you call its name. The owner lets go and the puppy dashes directly to you! Reinforce the puppy with lots of petting and silly giggles. These restrained recalls proved to be a great way to start each session.
Engagement can be challenging to teach and achieve with puppies at 5-6 weeks. The puppies are very interested in exploring their environment. You as the trainer are only one part of that environment!
Try using the puppy’s favorite squeaky toy (provided by the owner) and use your best high-pitched puppy voice to attract the puppy. Any engagement (coming over, looking at you) should be reinforced with play and petting. The goal is to have the puppies initiate the engagement. Within a short period of time, this can be achieved.
As puppies grow older, the presence of the X-pen itself becomes a cue that training is about to take place. The puppies learn to engage with their trainer immediately upon entering the training area.
Eye contact is another part of engagement. Since the puppies are really small, an adult trainer appears really tall standing next to them. Modify your distance to be 2-3 feet away from the puppies. Squatting down works fine, too, if you have good knees. In the beginning, expect that the farther apart you are, the more able the puppies are to look at your face. Be sure that every glance or look gets a click and a treat!. The puppies will improve at this game as they grow older and taller.
Puppies can learn to hand-target very quickly; targeting can become a favorite game. In the first session, introduce nose-touching and following your hand.
By the third training session, introduce a lollipop target stick. I have found that puppies can increase their repertoire to include nose-touching, following the target stick in large circles, and, eventually, following the target stick into spins and twists. From this point forward, include targeting in every session (include foot targeting, too!).
Four on the floor
Jumping on people always needs to be nipped in the bud. Working on this behavior early in training provides the foundation for good lifelong behavior. To accomplish this, train so that every time the puppy returns four paws to the floor, s/he receives a click and treat. Next, increase the criteria so that you are offering a click and treat before the puppy lifts the front paws off the ground.
Following and moving with you
In early training sessions, I like to back away from the group slowly and have them follow me. Following receives a click and treat! Often by the sixth session, the puppies were moving with me on my right and left sides. At this stage their position certainly won’t be perfect, so the following behavior does not have to be not put it on cue. The primary goal is to create a history of reinforcement for being on your left or right side. Within a few sessions, the puppies will likely position themselves at your side.
“It’s Yer Choice” is a great game to start with. In this game, controlling the impulse to get to the treat is reinforced by getting the treat. Hold the treat in a closed hand and let the puppy sniff at it. As long as the puppy tries to get the treat, your hand remains closed. Once the puppy stops trying, quietly open your hand and give the puppy the treat. Puppies often back away from the hand holding the food. You can use this inclination to pairing a hand signal with a backing behavior.
Impulse control: platforms
Working with platforms is another easy way to create impulse control. I find it easiest to introduce platforms around the sixth training session and when I am working with puppies individually. Shape an interaction with the platform using the clicker. Let the platforms define the space where the puppy is to remain. Create a history of reinforcement for being on the platform.
Platform work allows you to move into the correct position relative to the puppy. You’ll see that over the subsequent weeks, the puppies’ platform work becomes amazing! They learn which way to face, how to get onto the platform from many different angles, and to remain on the platform until released. If any of the puppies are going into conformation at their new homes, shape a stack using the platform.
Cones are typically introduced by the 10th or 11th session. Cone work is an excellent way to shape behavior and put behavior on cue. Puppies seem to enjoy going around a cone and often attempt to interact with it the moment it is put on the floor.
At the end of every session run a “Show Me Something New” game. Encourage the puppies to throw all sorts of behaviors at you and capture the ones you I like. Some behaviors I have seen through this game are spinning, backing, and hopping. Some puppies might do all three at once! Capturing behavior through this game is a way to end each session in laughter and praise.
My "V-8" moments
Training puppy litters taught me quite a lot. Sharing some of my lessons can make your own experience simpler.
1. Taking a treat is a learned behavior! At 5 weeks old, puppies were not the least bit interested in the treats and wouldn’t even open their mouths!
2. Floor surfing is also a learned behavior. As we were training, treats would drop all over the floor. The puppies walked right over those treat and looked up at me for their treats.
3. Bring Band-Aids! Puppies have very, very sharp teeth!
If you are motivated to work with litters in shelters, in pet homes, and with breeders, use some of the tricks and tips above to launch puppies and owners to a right start! Your business will thank you down the line as you develop and deepen connections with owners of new dogs.
My own training opportunities with puppy litters would not have been possible without my breeder friends Tana, Jen, and Shelley. Thank you!