The First Week with a Clicker Puppy

This past week I have considered making up bumper stickers which say “Puppies are a pain in the butt: Rescue!”.  I realized that of the many, many dogs we’ve had over the years, very few have been 8 weeks of age when we got them. Some were adults, some were adolescents but the mayhem of an 8 week old puppy had faded into the deep recesses of my mind. The last 8 week old we had was my dear Jack Russell, Beetle, who is now 15 years old. When he was a pup, I had two kids at home to help exercise, entertain and supervise him. Thankfully, we have several mature dogs who are taking the place of the kids in this department.

I have become a huge supporter of rescuing dogs.  There are just so many great dogs  in need of homes and so much support for choosing, training and rehabilitating if necessary. So why did we get a puppy? We need a working dog. We rely on a Border Collie to manage over 100 head of livestock (NOT horses). In the past, I have tried a couple older rescue Border Collies and I just did not do a good job of transitioning them from pets to working dogs, though both were well bred and both had the instinct.  I will take all the blame.  I think I could do a better job now but my confidence was shaken and the stakes are too high. Our current working dog, Nell, is 7 and she needs an assistant!  I usually plan on the young dog being two years old before he can be a reliable assistant so by then poor Nellie will be nine years old and her body will be ready to hand over the more strenuous tasks.

Enter Case:IMG_5095

Don’t be fooled.  He looks like all sweet cuddly softness but I only have pictures of him like this from above when he has finally crashed.  If I move, he’ll be up and a blur in no time.  And as soon as you reach for that soft puppy fur, you feel sharp puppy teeth. My husband and I both have the wounds to prove it.

So how to deal with this monster?  Just like I tell all my clients: management and training. I have to manage every minute of his day until I can use positive reinforcement to train the behaviors we want.

I do not want him to “practice” peeing in the house.  Nor do I want to punish him if he does. If I say “no!” or grab him as he pees, he will learn that it’s not safe to pee in front of me and in rooms that I am in most often.  If he sneaks off to the bedroom where no one is looking and pees there, he will learn that running off to a back room is a safe place to pee. What I WANT is for him to learn to pee (and poop) outside. I know that puppies don’t like to mess their sleeping area.  By confining him when we cannot watch him, and reinforcing him strongly for peeing outside, we have used both management and positive reinforcement. At the end of the first week, we have great success.  It’s only noon but we haven’t had any accidents in the house yet today 🙂  We have had several successful trips outdoors.

Last year I attended a talk by Ian Dunbar and my favorite part was his protocol for puppies. He suggests breaking the day up into cycles.  The younger the puppy, the shorter the cycle.

Crate->outside for a potty break which is rewarded with 3 treats->walk, fun time, training time->back in the crate with a food stuffed toy->repeat

When we get up in the morning, we let Case out of his crate and take him straight outdoors.  After a long night (only once this week have we heard and responded to a request to go out in the night), he immediately pees.  For this, he gets three tiny treats, handed to him one at a time in a flat palm. Then he poops and again, gets three tiny treats. Ian recommends that this takes place where you want the puppy to learn to use as his toilet spot for his life.  That’s a bit of a challenge for us because we still have so much snow that there are limited places to go.

After he has taken care of his potty needs, then we go for a walk. Puppies love walks, or as Jane Killion calls them, “sniff and strolls”. IMG_5089 Young puppies should be allowed to go at their own pace, stopping to examine their world as they wish. This activity functions as a reward for Case’s successful potty break.  If instead, you take the puppy right back inside after he pees, that can be viewed as punishment and he’ll learn to hold out as long as possible.

If the weather is not conducive to a sniff and stroll, then we come inside for an interactive play time or a mini training session. We play tug, or fetch and allow him to investigate new toys while we watch him knowing the bladder is empty.  He learned how to play with Eloise and they will IMG_5080wrestle, tug with some encouragement and play keep away. Beetle lies on his large bed in the corner curling a lip in warning if Case gets too close. It only took one day for Beetle to teach Case that he was not going to tolerate puppy nonsense in HIS corner. Doing his best Clint Eastwood “stay off my lawn”  imitation, he growled, snarled and snapped if Case got too close. At first this was sufficient, but being a bold and brash puppy, Case decided to push it and torment the old man by sneaking closer and closer, ignoring the warnings.  That’s when he found out the old man’s gun was loaded. Beetle leapt off his bed, landed on Case and gave him a good thumping.  Case came running to us and hid behind our feet. Since then, if Case gets too close in a moment of forgetfulness, all is takes is a rumble from Beetle to send the puppy running to us for cover.

Don’t be fooled, in 24 hours he learned how to climb out of this 3 foot ex-pen, howling and shrieking indignantly.

When playtime winds down and we need to get on with our day, then it’s time for Case to go back in his crate.  Every morning I measure out his day’s food and put it in a safe place near his crate. When I need to put him in his crate, I put a little kibble in his dish, moisten it with hot water and then scoop it into a kong.  This is what he gets when he goes in his crate.  After all that play, he’s ready to eat and having it in a kong or other stuffed toy is the other brilliant part of Ian Dunbar’s protocol.  Not only does it make the crate a pleasurable place to be (he gets fed in there!), but it teaches him, by practice, an acceptable chew object.  Kongs are rubbery and with food down inside it, Case works at it with paws and tongue until he’s sleepy and drifts off for a nap. This builds a good habit, as opposed to building a taste for furniture legs or shoes.

note: Dunbar recommends doing this each hour especially for young puppies, but Case seems to have a longer cycle.  He will stay awake to play inside or out for a couple hours, and then sleep for a couple hours during the day.  It is working for us to go by his schedule, waiting until we hear him stir to take him out of his crate, but you can also set a schedule as long as it’s age appropriate.

That isn’t to say that he hasn’t grabbed a shoe or gnawed on a table leg. But because we are actively watching him when he’s loose, we see it immediately and we can redirect him with an acceptable toy.  Toys are much more fun when there is a person on the other end of them.  They move and wiggle and bounce! The bulk of his “practice” of toy play and chewing is with items we have chosen so that as he grows, he will have a habit of playing with dog toys, not household items.

I have a training journal for Case in which I wrote goals for the week and I log important things like successful potty trips outside, when and where he has accidents inside, what new things he is exposed to and how, people he meets, etc.

For the first week, my goals were “name association, housetraining, fear free habituation to house, car and yard. All eliminations outside to get verbal praise and treats”. We have been careful with his name. Only half joking, I have said what we are calling him most of the time is Hellboy. He has picked up several other nicknames and we use those most often. I reserve using “Case” for when I have high value treats to follow it up immediately. Initially, this was specific training sessions.  With ten treats in my hand, I’d say “Case” and hand him a treat, immediately followed by nine more repetitions of that. It only took a time or two before he knew that “Case”=treats! (it did take a day for him to learn about treats themselves, never having had them before). Once we had an immediate reaction to the name, then we began using it when we were 100% sure he would respond. If he was wrestling with one of the big dogs or exploring a wonderful smell outside was not one of these times. There was a good chance he would choose to stay with his current activity rather than leaving it. But if he was quietly hanging out almost looking for entertainment, we could say “Case” and he’d look and we’d hand out a treat followed by some play. In this way, we now have a great response to his name. We still don’t use his name unless we are 100% sure he will respond and we are prepared to follow up with great reinforcement.

His first car ride was a long four hours home from Massachusetts. So this week he has gotten in the car just for treats or for short rides (a mile down the road and back). As a result, he will now voluntarily put his front feet up into the car if we open the door.

Finally, fear free habituation. We took Case from his birthplace, his first environment, his dam, his litter mates and his first people. We brought him to a new environment, new dogs, new smells, new people, new sounds. We wanted him to settle in with as little stress as possible. As I’ve already mentioned, he’s a pretty bold little monster so there were very few things which frightened him but we were also very careful to watch for any signs of concern: body posture, eyes, tail. If any of those signs told us he had any concern, we removed him immediately to a safer spot or used food treats and body comfort.

The one thing which we did notice was the noise of motors: vacuum, blender, airplanes. Outside, if an airplane went overhead, I’d see his body posture go into a little cower as he looked up and around so I’d scoop him up and feed treats (not being able to get away from the noise).  Indoors, we were careful to have him on a different floor with Ed feeding treats and playing or comforting if I ran the vacuum (didn’t happen often but we did break a glass one day that needed to be vacuumed up). When I ran the blender, I’d turn it on and then go across the room to feed until it shut off (luckily my blender has an automatic shut off after 60 seconds).  At this point, he is no longer reacting to any of these sounds, but we’re still counter conditioning to be sure.

In case anybody sees the wound on Ed’s face, here’s proof it wasn’t me.

All in all, it’s been a successful week. An exhausting week, but a successful one.



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