The three stages of teaching a command

Puppies do not speak English:

  • they need time to learn and understand the behaviour that you would like them to offer
  • they need to understand that this behaviour has a word or sound associated with it.

There are therefore 3 stages to teaching a command:

  • STAGE 1: Teaching the Behaviour – Shape the behaviour with the clicker WITHOUT ANY WORDS until the puppy understands the behaviour and offers it consistently.
  • STAGE 2: Association of the behaviour to a word – When the puppy is constantly offering the behaviour, add a word for the behaviour WHILST the puppy is demonstrating the behaviour. You should be saying the word at the same time as you are clicking. The puppy will soon associate the word to the behaviour.
  • STAGE 3: Giving a command– It will not take long before your puppy associates the word with the behaviour, so after a while give the word BEFORE the puppy is demonstrating the behaviour; this word has now become a command.

Puppies should enjoy learning a new behaviour. It should not be too hard, and it is all a game so make the learning steps easy for them.

Why is clicker training so valuable?

  • The clicker has a sharp, consistent, and neutral sound
  • The clicker provides clear and consistent information that the puppy has given the correct behaviour and therefore is right
  • The clicker provides information that a reward is coming (the reward should be small and healthy)

The exercise should be easy enough so that reward comes quickly to keep the puppy entertained and focused, otherwise the puppy may become distracted, bored, or frustrated and will give up.

What if I just do not have or do not like the clicker, how do I train?

First thing, I would advise you to try and persevere. With time you may start to like it. However, if you really cannot or do not like it, it is not the end of the world. There are other options but from experience a clicker is often best.

If you do not want to use the clicker or do not have the clicker available at least use the verbal command YES.

  • YES, is short
  • YES, is consistent
  • YES, is handy when you do not have the clicker with you
  • I use YES whilst I click during most of my training sessions so when I do not have my clicker or when I phase out the clicker, my dogs understand the YES command as well
  • Try to keep a consistent tone with your YES as your puppy may interpret a low pitch or high pitch YES command differently (which cannot happen with a clicker)

“Good Boy/Girl” or “Clever Boy/Girl” is a no go to mark the behaviour because we use it too much in other situations. The expression is not a consistent marker.

As it is difficult to get away from the “good boy” expression (we keep on forgetting), I would advise you to say YES first (at the time of the behaviour) and then add “good boy/girl”.

When and how to reward:

  • Puppies should enjoy learning a new the behaviour, it should not be too hard, and it is all about playing games.
  • The click or/and the yes command should happen right at the time the puppy has done the right behaviour or taken the right choice.
  • With young puppies the reward should arrive very quickly after the click (but not at the same time). With time the reward can come with more delay.
  • To give value to a behaviour /object / position / zone always give the reward in the area / object / zone or position you would like to reinforce (e.g. reward a sit behaviour whilst the puppy is sitting; reward a “say hello” behaviour in the hand the puppy’s nose has touched)
  • The exercise should be easy enough so that reward is coming quickly to keep the puppy entertained and focused, otherwise the puppy may become distracted, bored, or frustrated

Introduction to the clicker

We want to teach our puppy to associate the sound of the clicker with a good experience.  And what better experience than tasty treats!

Spread a few treats around your puppy and click each time your puppy finds a treat; this will help your puppy to associate the sound of the click with a treat and get your puppy used to the clicker noise.

Do not click near your puppy’s ear! Stay away from the ears as the sound of the clicker is quite strong. Remember that and a dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than a human’s.

Controlling your puppy’s daily food intake

Clicker training initially involves the use of a lot of food treats, as such be careful of not over feeding your puppy.

Instead of using treats that are in addition to your puppy’s normal meals, I would advise you to take the training food allowance out of your puppy’s daily meal allowance.

It is possible that you could decide to ditch your puppy’s food bowl altogether and use his whole daily meal allowance for training. You may think it is cruel to make your puppy work for its food, but there is evidence to suggest otherwise. By doing so:

  • you are going to teach your puppy to interact with you using ludic games that will entertain it. Research has shown that dogs can experience positive effective states in response to their own achievements.
  • you can help eliminate stress and boredom.
  • you will be applying the concept of Contra freeloading: most living beings prefer food that requires effort to obtain, to food that is just given to them for free.

It is an interesting concept that may change the way you are interacting and feeding your puppy. Ditching the food bowl and using your puppy meals to strengthen your relationship with your puppy increase your puppy’s focus on you and encourages your puppy to be more eager to work and play with you.

The following link is to an e-book entitled Ditch the Bowl. This e-book was written by a veterinarian who is also a behaviourist.

Say Hello

The “Say Hello” game teaches your puppy to make contact with your hand.

Teaching the behaviour

  • Show an open hand to your puppy. For this game this is now your “Say Hello” hand.
  • Keep your hand close to his nose (it needs to be easy)
  • Make sure your puppy can see your hand

As soon as your puppy touches your hand:

  • Click
  • Do not move the “Say Hello” hand
  • Reward by using your free hand to put the treat in the “Say Hello” hand

Associating a sound to the behaviour

When your puppy understands the game, you can start associating a sound to the behaviour by saying “Say Hello” whilst you are clicking.

Very soon your puppy will associate the “Say Hello” sound with the behaviour.

Be patient, you need quite a few repetitions for this association to occur. Imagine if you were learning a new language. It takes time.

Giving the command

When you believe your puppy has associated the “Say Hello” sound to the behaviour, start to say “Say hello” before your puppy does the behaviour: “Say Hello” has now become a command

When your puppy becomes good at this game increase the distance; make your puppy chase your hand a little bit. It is a game, make it fun!

Call me once and Grab my collar

The “Call me once and Grab my collar” game teaches the puppy to answer swiftly to its name and to be comfortable being grabbed by the collar or harness so you can make contact with your puppy in any situation.

  • Position yourself no more than a meter away from your puppy
  • Call your puppy once
  • Use your clicker and Click as soon as you puppy turns its head toward you to acknowledge you
  • Show your puppy that you are holding a reward (you can lure your puppy a little bit)
  • As soon as your puppy comes near you to get the reward, gently grab its collar
  • Reward your puppy

I like playing this game with two people with the puppy in between so that the game can be repeated many times over a short period of time. It is also a good setting for the puppy not to be distracted by the surrounding environment.


  • To click as soon as you puppy turns its head towards you, so your puppy understands that it made the right decision by acknowledging you (instead of ignoring you)
  • To grab your puppy’s collar: your puppy needs to associate having his collar grabbed with a good experience.
  • Aim to call your puppy only once and no more than three times. If your puppy is unresponsive after the first call, call your puppy for a second time, but if you need to call your puppy more than twice you are teaching it to ignore its name.

If your puppy is ignoring you when you call its name STOP – THINK- ADAPT to your setting.

  • Are there too many distractions?
    If so, consider a change of environment so there are fewer distractions.
  • Are you too far from your puppy?
    Reduce the distance between yourself and the puppy to re-establish focus.
  • Does you puppy find the session exciting?
    Make the game more fun for your puppy or provide more reward.

With time, you will be able to increase the distance between you and your puppy.

On your mat

Instead of making the bed or mat a punishment for your puppy, it is valuable to teach your puppy to love going on its mat or bed. This effort will have a lot of benefits in the future.

The obvious ones are sending your puppy to its mat when someone is ringing your doorbell, when you are eating instead of letting it beg, or sending your puppy to lie calmly on its bed whilst you are watching TV.

You can also use this behaviour to later teach your puppy to wait/stay and respond to commands from a distance.

I like to use the raised bed for this exercise as it gives a better understanding of the boundary to the puppy.

The puppy should regard being on the mat as a place of value, so to reinforce this the rewards should not be given from your hand, the rewards should be positioned on the mat.

Do not forget that we are starting with baby steps.

To start with, click as soon as your puppy has at least one paw on the mat and throw the reward on the mat.

For puppies that struggle with the exercise you can even click just for watching the mat and put the reward on the mat, then click when the puppy has one paw on the mat and increase slowly the difficulty until the puppy understands that it needs to have 4 paws on the mat.

When your puppy starts liking the mat, add the words “On your mat” when the puppy is on the mat or is on its way to the mat, so it associates the action to the words. When you think your puppy has understood, you can then use the words as a command.


  • You need to change your position as you want the puppy to understand that it to be on the mat is what is important, not its position relative to you.
  • You should be able to send the puppy to the mat by increasing the distance between the puppy and yourself.
  • With time, you should be able to walk all around the mat and your puppy should stay on it.
  • Give a release command when you want the pup to leave the mat.

For more advanced work, after your puppy has reached the mat you can give the sit command.

Clicker Mania

You should not restrict the use of the clicker only to the exercises that I am currently teaching you.

Start using the clicker for other tricks or games your puppy can do or you would like to teach your puppy, such as sit, lie down, give a paw, watch me, etc.

But do not forget It has to be fun! We want the puppy to only have positive association with the clicker and with you!

No pressure, training is just a game that will build a long-lasting relationship with your puppy.

Finally, remember that training a little bit, even just a couple of minutes, multiple times a day will bring much better results than training once a week for 30 minutes.