The Clicker Litter

When we planned to breed our bitch, I was very enthusiastic about starting to train the puppies from a very early age. Having been a clicker trainer for (at that stage) past fifteen years, I firmly believe in the mantra “any animal can be taught anything it is mentally and physically capable of doing”. Clicker training is a very elegant method of teaching animals all sorts of behaviours with the use of an event marker, usually the sound of a plastic clicker. This sound is paired with something the animal likes, so that the animal (be it a bear or a mouse, a dog or a chicken) learns that when it hears the sound, something good will follow. This puts the animal in control of the learning situation – it offers and appropriate behaviour, which is marked with the click, and knows that a treat will follow. Pretty soon the animal will become very inventive, trying to work out what it is that will earn it a treat.

The reason I prefer a clicker to e.g. a sound (like the words “good dog”) is because the sound of the clicker is unique – the puppies will never hear that particular sound during the course of the day. The sound of the event marker needs to be distinct, it needs to be exactly the same every time, and quite different from normal environmental sounds.

As soon as my puppies ears opened, I started clicking whenever they woke and started feeding from their dam. So the puppies became conditioned that the sound of the click meant something they wanted was going to follow – and this before they could even walk!! So the puppies learnt that their own actions sometimes caused the clicks that lead to treats. And puppies that make this discovery have a big head start on a happy future.

As the puppies (there were seven of them) were being weaned, I started clicking as the food was placed amongst them. They had already began to startle when they heard the click sound – an indication that they understood that the click meant something good was about to arrive. A flick of the ear towards the sound, a turn of the head, and slamming on of brakes if they were going in another direction etc. are all indications that the animal has made the connection between click and treat.

Now it was time to do a little bit of one-on-one interaction. I took one puppy at a time and clicked it for sitting, looking in my eyes, staying four-feet-on-the-floor (as opposed to jumping up for attention). I used bits of minced meat, liver treats, raw chicken etc. as treats for them. I knew which puppy I would be keeping, and taught her to lift her paw (beginning of a wave). This was easy – every time she shifted her weight onto one side, I would click and treat. Pretty soon she was shifting her weight more and more obviously, until her foot came off the ground. It took about 10 clicks, and my puppy could wave!! Amazing muscular control for a 6 week old pup. And you should have seen her face – “WOW: I just made this huge human give me food just by lifting my little paw!!”

Now that each of the puppies could sit, I worked them all together. I’d take them for a walk together at the back of the property (we live on a 2 acre stand so there’s plenty of space). When I stopped walking, seven little bottoms would hit the ground. The ones that sat the fastest got a click and treat. In a very short space of time it became a race to see who could catch me out – before I actually halted, little puppies would be sitting solidly in my path demanding a click and treat!! What a pleasure. And of course my little bitch puppy would add in a wave in for good measure …..

It is important that the animal is not coaxed or lured into the required position. Let them work it out for themselves – it’s their action that earns a click and treat: not following a food treat until their position is changed. This teaches them a major life lesson – they learn to want to find out what people want them to do. In other words, interaction, the desire to please, to experiment, to try and try and try again to give the human what they are looking for becomes self-rewarding to the puppy. What a super relationship to have with your dog. If you assist all the time, the dog will not learn that it is its own actions that elicit the click and treat.

The other beauty of clicker training is that it’s so fast. Just a couple of clicker lessons, no more than five or so minutes each, and your pup will have learnt another cute behaviour. No need to keep going over the same thing again and again – once the dog has worked out for itself what behaviour earns a reward, it will retain that knowledge for the rest of its life. Sure, if you don’t reinforce it for some time, you might need to go back and polish it up a bit, but the dog will never forget. And those initial fun clicking session at five or six weeks of age convert a puppy from a floppy blob into an eager, observant learner.

Carrying it Further
Of course you can take this whole thing much further. Most puppies will rush to greet visitors, jumping up and yapping when they appear. If your puppies understand clicker training, you can reward the puppies that sit quietly rather than tearing clothes with sharp little puppy teeth. The puppies can be clicked and then picked up and petted.

I also enforced a strong recall (come when called) in these little puppies. I would let them all play together, and then call them (not individual names at this time, just a sound that I used to get their attention). The first ones to arrive (sitting!) at my feet earned a click and treat.

So the puppies went to their new homes with some basic manners already instilled in them. A couple of the new owners phoned to check whether their puppy was not sick – whoever heard of a pup that walked on a loose lead and sat when you stopped walking? One that didn’t jump up, but rather waved at you to get your attention?

Of course the fun that I had with the puppies was only the very beginning of the learning they needed for future life. But at least they started their lives learning how to learn, and were all very ready and eager to learn more.

Sterilization of Dogs. Should one spay/neuter?

It is generally agreed amongst the doggy fraternity that the main reason to breed a dog is to improve the species, either in looks, health, working ability and/or temperament. Breed dogs are therefore carefully selected and matched, and required to meet certain standards e.g. be clear of hip dysplasia, be a breed champion, have a certain working qualification, etc. To breed dogs indiscriminately is unfair not only to the dog, but to its offspring. Every month thousands of dogs in this country are euthanased because the welfare organisations can no longer keep them. Similarly, dogs that are bred with physiological problems results in puppies having a painful and restricted life. E.g. poor temperaments result in biting incidents causing the dog to have to be euthanized; bad hips result in poor movement and veterinarians being forced to recommend that the dog be put out of its misery.

So by all means breed your dog if it meets the following criteria:

  • Pure bred and registered with the Kennel Union of South Africa (or a recognised Federation)
  • Hip score of preferably 0:0 done at 2 years of age (in breeds requiring this)
  • Clear heart score (in breeds requiring this)
  • Free of von Willebrand’s disease (in breeds requiring this)
  • Has at least a “v” grading in the breed ring, but is preferably a breed champion
  • Has a working qualification if it is a working dog
  • Has a sound temperament

You also need to ensure that:

  • You have found a compatible mate for your dog
  • Suitable homes are available for the puppies (preferably before the bitch is mated)
  • You have a suitable room and whelping box for your bitch
  • You can afford the stud fee and visits to the stud dog (which might be in another province)
  • You are capable of raising the entire litter by hand should the bitch die
  • You are prepared to stay with the puppies and care for them and their dam before they move to their new homes e.g. deworming, removal of dew claws, weaning, innoculations, microchipping
  • You have the necessary cash flow to cope with unforeseen expenses e.g. enforced caesarian section, sick puppies, pyometra
  • You have an outside grassed run which the puppies have access to as they grow older
  • You have a suitable contract that allows you to check on your dogs throughout their lives
  • You are capable of killing a puppy if it is deformed when it is born

The wrong reasons for having a litter would be:

  • To “show the children” – rather buy an educational video than bring more unwanted animals into the world

Before you decide to breed with your dog, it would be a good idea to visit the local SPCA and see how many dogs are looking for homes. Recent statistics shows that a dog is euthanized about every 3.2 seconds because nobody wants to take care of it! It would be even better if you could help hold a perfectly healthy dog whilst it is put to sleep, its only crime having been that it was born in the first place.

Neutering/Castration of Male Dogs

Dogs may be sterilized at any age, but to have the greatest effect, the procedure should be performed before the dog reaches an age where hormones start to take effect. Ideally a male dog should be castrated before 6 months of age, which is the average age at which testosterone levels start to increase. It has been scientifically proven that dominant aggressive behaviour and the production of testosterone is directly linked. This applies to both dog-on-dog as well as to dog-on-human aggression. The testosterone level in a dog peaks at about 30 months of age, with the most aggressive incidents occur between 24 to 30 months, so obviously it is preferable to neuter before this time.

Most dog-on-human aggression happens on the dogs’ territory (i.e. at home) and it is usually a member of the family that is bitten. Often these incidents could have been avoided, and would definitely have had a much lesser chance of happening if the dog had been castrated at an early age.

Statistics prove that dogs that are more likely to bite meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • No or poor socialisation – not used to e.g. children, or old people, or hats etc.
  • Usually not able to see out of the property, and are therefore often fearful of new situations
  • Spoilt and have learned that they can rule their owners
  • Often those kept as “security” dogs – i.e. kept in a certain area of the property, and once again lack stimulation (mental and/or physical) on a regular basis
  • Those that have little or no interaction with the family – just a dog to have in the yard, with no knowledge of appropriate behaviour
  • Have been abused – either physically, psychologically or emotionally
  • Not often educated i.e. have not attended a reputable puppy class during the formative weeks (8-14 weeks of age) and have had no further instruction on what behaviours are acceptable to humans and which are not
  • have been allowed to become inappropriately protective towards their owners or environment
  • are restricted in movement i.e. chained or kept in a small cage
  • have been teased and frustrated by e.g. children
  • Injured or have an illness that has not been treated effectively
  • have been taught to bite people i.e. have attended some sort of home defense training with no thought of the long-term effects.

Disadvantages to neutering:

  • A neutered dog may not been shown in a breed ring except in “for exhibition only” classes

Advantages to neutering:

  • Dog will probably live longer
  • Greatly lessened likelihood of cancer
  • Incidence of marking lowered by about 70%
  • Mounting (leg or furniture humping) is lessened by about 70%
  • Neutering lowers aggressive behaviour towards humans by about 65%
  • Neutering lowers aggressive behaviour towards dogs by about 65%
  • Dogs prone to straying tend to prefer to stay at home once neutered
  • Castrated males are more relaxed when left at home and are therefore less likely to develop destructive behaviours
  • Castrated males as much less likely to try and escape from the property
  • Improves dogs’ focus and concentration
  • Easier to work as is not distracted by bitches

Spaying of Female Dogs

Bitches may be sterilized at any age, but to have the greatest effect, the procedure should be performed before the dog reaches an age where hormones start to take effect. Ideally a bitch should be spayed before 6 months of age, which is the average time that the hormonal level starts to increase.

Disadvantages to spaying:

  • unknown

Advantages to spaying:

  • Bitch will probably live longer and will definitely have fewer health risks
  • She will not come into season, (thereby attracting all the neighbourhood dogs)
  • She will not develop pyometra (pus in the uterus) as she gets older
  • she will not suffer from doggy PMS before and after her season, making it difficult to work and/or relate to her
  • She will not have false pregnancies
  • She will not become pregnant
  • You will save on kennel fees as she will not have to be kennelled twice a year when she’s on heat
  • No more blood and/or discharge etc. to clean up when she’s on heat
  • Greatly lessened likelihood of cancer
  • Easier to work as she will not miss several months of the year due to seasons.
  • She will not try and break out to look for a mate when in season
  • Improves dogs’ focus and concentration
  • She will become more predictable, relaxed and amenable – in other words, a much better companion

In conclusion, breeding is not something that can be done with any success without quite a large amount of forethought and planning. It is not cheap and often involves heartbreak and pain. Sure, anyone can put two dogs together and come out with a litter of puppies – that is not difficult at all. But can you ensure that the resultant litter is an improvement on the parents? Can you be certain that they will all live an active and fulfilled life? Are you sure that you have contributed to the gene pool of your chosen breed? (NB the breeding of crossbred or mongrel dogs is considered immoral and is not dealt with in this article).

Assume 6 puppies in every litter just for the sake of argument. First generation produces 6 puppies.

Assume each of those 6 is responsible for 6 puppies (i.e. has co-created ONE litter). Second generation 6 x 6 puppies = 36

Same assumption. Third generation 6 x 6 x 6 puppies = 6^3 (6 cubed or 6 to the power of three) = 216 puppies.

If you went to 10 generations, then, it would be 6^10 puppies = roughly 60.5 million puppies. And that’s assuming each dog has produce only ONE litter!

How To Raise A Dog You Can Live With

Responsible dog ownership comprises three main categories: management (including nutrition and care), relationship (interaction between owner and dog) and training. These three aspects hold equal importance, and to neglect any one of them could result in health and/or behavioural problems in your pet.

There are many important facets of responsible dog ownership such as correct nutrition, regular veterinary checks, innoculations and de-worming, attention to your dog’s needs, and lots of love. In addition, teaching your dog correct and acceptable behaviour allows you and your dog to live in the same environment and enjoy each other’s company.

In order to integrate a dog into your home (which is by definition an unnatural environment for a dog), you need to modify his behaviour to comply with your life style. There are many misconceptions about what is natural dog behaviour, and what is unacceptable behaviour to humans. Make sure that you fully understand the idiosyncrasies of your chosen breed before you embark upon modifying the behaviour of your pet. Of course you cannot begin to modify behaviour until you have built a relationship with your dog, and training is the easiest way of going about cementing a good relationship.

The easiest way to modify any dog’s behaviour is with positive reinforcement. Here are some useful pointers to bear in mind when introducing a new dog into your home, and adapting it to your life style:

  • Learning takes place constantly, and not just in formal situations. So be careful to be consistent – if you do not want the dog on the sofa, then Fido should never be allowed on the sofa.
  • Always reward what you like. For instance, every time the dog sits and offers a paw instead of jumping up on your visitors, praise him.
  • Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated (this is the basis of all training)
  • Remember to vary your reward to keep it interesting. For instance, sometimes reward with food, sometimes verbally, sometimes with a pat, etc. Make sure you use something that is rewarding for the dog – in other words, just because you like biltong doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog will!
  • Try not to use negatives – rewarding behaviour that you like has far more impact than punishing your dog. If you don’t want your dog to jump up, reward him for sitting; if you don’t want your dog barking at the front door every time the bell rings, reward him for running to his basket instead. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Set your dog (and therefore yourself) up for success. In other words, don’t expect Fido to be perfect immediately.
  • Train behaviours incrementally. Reward an attempt to sit before expecting a perfect sit-stay. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Be aware that what is cute behaviour in a puppy can turn out to be quite unacceptable in a grown dog.
  • Never reward undesirable behaviour such as whining, barking, digging, etc. Even paying attention to undesirable behaviour might reinforce that behaviour in certain dogs. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated.
  • Keep training sessions short. Try and turn it into a game for both you and your dog. Use lots of positive reinforcement. By doing this you will have a dog that looks forward to training sessions, clear in the knowledge that he will receive praise and enjoy the interaction with his owner.
  • Don’t allow your dog free access to all rooms in the house until you know that he is truly house-trained
  • Be careful to keep articles that you don’t want chewed out of a puppy’s reach.
  • Don’t leave an untrained dog unsupervised – it just isn’t fair to scold a dog for what is to him a natural behaviour
  • Prevent undesirable behaviour by managing the situation e.g. your dog cannot jump on you at 4 a.m. if he doesn’t have access to your bedroom. Once you have taught him that the behaviour is inappropriate in your home, then allow him into the bedroom
  • Never call a dog to scold it or to expose it to a potentially unpleasant situation (e.g. nail clipping).
  • Reward your dog every time he chooses to interact with you – whether he just looks at you, brings you a stick or a leaf, or runs up to you for attention. Remember – behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated. The more your dog wants to be a part of your life, the more chance you have of moulding his behaviour to suit your lifestyle.

Above all, enjoy the time you spend with your dog. Give him all the love and attention you can, and he will reciprocate by becoming a willing, biddable companion. Never force, intimidate or physically control your pet – rather use your mind than your muscle to get him to bend to your will.

Please remember that the above are just guidelines to a better life with your dog.