While you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, the best way to ensure your dog learns good behaviours from the start is to train them from a young age. Whether it is training your puppy to sit or how to walk on the lead without pulling, one of the most effective techniques is by using a clicker.
A clicker is a small plastic device with a button which, when pressed, makes a clicking sound. Using voice commands and rewards are still effective, but there is often a slight delay between your puppy doing the action and receiving the praise. This can lead to confusion over what action is being rewarded. Having a clicker means you can help them to instantly identify the good behaviour. As soon as your puppy does the action you want, click the clicker. This should be followed by obvious praise or a treat – always. However, the benefit of the clicker is that you don’t need to reward them immediately afterwards. They can complete the act, you click, and then you can praise and reward them when you’re both ready. Make sure you don’t wait too long as your puppy may not link the two!
There are two ways to use a clicker to encourage more complex behaviours in your puppy: catching and shaping. Catching is the act of using the clicker to encourage actions your puppy is already doing. For instance, if they go to toilet in the right place, use the clicker as soon as they have finished. Then, when they go back to the same spot again, wait for them to just finish their business, then use the clicker again. Shaping is using the clicker to encourage a series of behaviours that your puppy might not do on their own. For instance, if you want them to wait on the other side on the room before coming to eat their food, you should first train them to ‘stay’. Training your puppy to stay needs to be done slowly by building up their duration; if your puppy sits for a couple of seconds, click and reward them. Gradually increase the number of seconds you want them to wait if they are successful with each attempt. Once they have mastered that, put the food down and wait until you want them to come; use the clicker to end the behaviour and they can be rewarded with their meal.
While your puppy will take a bit of time to learn to follow your voice commands, clickers will be useful throughout your dog’s lifetime. As long as your dog always associates the clicker with reward, he or she will always respond to it. So keep it close, as well as a handful of treats, in case you ever need to refresh their behaviour or teach them a new lesson.