While clicker training is a powerful and effective training method, it offers unique challenges for those who have several dogs. I have two dogs myself, and many of my clients have multiple dogs. Today, I’m sharing a few recommendations on how to clicker train in your home or business with any number of dogs.
+ Train separately first:
Its always best for your dog to learn a new behavior or skill in an environment where there are as few distractions as possible. Ideally, you should choose a fairly quiet room or area in your home no television, music, cats, children, or other dogs so that you can give your dog your full attention and he can reciprocate by giving all of his attention to you.
+ Condition unique markers for each dog:
Start by doing this separately. Dogs can learn to respond to any marker or signal that is charged in the same manner as a clicker. The click itself can be ambiguous if you start training multiple dogs in a single session, often leaving each dog wondering, Was that click for me?
My Chow mix gets very jealous when I am training my Saint Bernard. If she is outside and she hears a click, she runs up the back stairs, hurling herself at the door and howling madly. Because of this, I like having a visual signal charged for each dog a finger point in each dog’s direction allows me to train Cuba in silence without inciting the wrath of Her Royal Chowness.
Make sure that if you use a visual marker like a finger point that it does not resemble any existing body cues. If pointing at your dogs butt is your usual cue to sit, you might want to choose a closed fist or intentional, deliberate blink as your new marker.
I also like to condition a group marker (for this, your clicker will work just fine) that means, Everyone did the right thing, everyone gets a goodie!
+ When your dogs are individually reliable, begin working them in small groups:
One of my clients lives with six dogs. Each needed to be trained individually; then they were trained in small and changing groups of two or three dogs before all six dogs were eventually worked together.
If you are training multiple dogs to the same level of performance, have races!
Try asking all the working dogs to sit and reward only the fastest dogs, creating a bit of a competitive edge. (Note: When I am training Mokie and Cuba together, she is much, much faster than he is, so this tends not to be very fair!)
+ During individual training, crate or tether the dogs that are not currently being worked, or have them settle on a mat or practice a down-stay.
Waiting is often much harder than working for many dogs. In these situations, I always like to give the non-working dogs a higher value reinforcement than the dog that is working (waiting may get paid with boiled liver treats, while working may get paid with kibble).
When you are training with positive reinforcement, working with your dog obtains its own reinforcement value. Train patience, waiting, and politeness like a behavior to avoid frustration and frequent interruptions.
For more tips on working with multiple dogs in a household, you may enjoy the following resources:
How to Be the Leader of Your Pack: And Have Your Dog Love You for It by Patricia McConnell, PhD.
How Many Dogs?! Using Positive Reinforcement to Manage a Multi-Dog Household by Debbie McMullen
Photo courtesy of the Hounds of Bassetville