by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Whenever I give clicker training seminars, the question of whether it is possible to train multiple dogs at the same time always comes up. At first I was surprised by this question. Now I expect it. People seem very curious as to whether clicker techniques will allow them to train multiple dogs in the same session. I guess this would be a product of our multi-tasking mindset. Doing a single thing at a time is seemingly not enough for people these days. But in dog training, concentration on a single thing is essential. Therefore, my short answer to this question is “No”.

In my mind, you can only train one dog at a time and you need to concentrate totally on that specific animal. When using a clicker as a behavioral marker it would be very confusing for the dog to determine if the click was for him or for another dog. Imagine this scenario, you are training your three dogs to pay attention to you. When you click, Dog A is staring at you adoringly, Dog B is sniffing the floor, and Dog C is cleaning himself. All three dogs may think that the click is for them, and all three may increase the behavior they were performing when they heard the click. This is definitely not an effective way to train.

However, in thinking about it I realized that I do often train all three (now four!) dogs in a single session. In these sessions I may concentrate on the working dog while the others are holding sit or down stays a short distance away. When the working dog gets clicked and treated for a behavior the dogs doing stays also get a treat (as long as they’re holding their stays). Then I can switch working dogs and staying dogs. If one of the dogs breaks the stay the dog that is performing correctly gets a treat and the ‘offender’ is simply asked to stay again. Missing out on the treat is a serious enough consequence for my ravenous retrievers (and the greedy little Papillons too)!

When working on attention with all the dogs I look at the dog I’m reinforcing, give a verbal marker, and give that dog a treat. I think this makes it clear that the specific dog is the one I’m working with at that moment. As long as each dog maintains attention they get their turn at reinforcement. If they look away, ‘oops!’ no treat. Sometimes I’ll simply wait until one gets distracted and looks away, then reinforce the others who are still paying attention. This really seems to make the one who looked away more convinced than ever that focusing on me is important.

When working on stays for competition obedience we will have the person playing judge walk down the line of staying dogs and quickly pop a small soft treat into the mouth of each dog holding a stay. We teach the dogs to take a treat while remaining still first. A dog that moves or changes position gets passed by. This has been an incredibly effect, non-punitive technique for teaching strong, reliable stays.

I will often give a verbal cue to all my dogs for a behavior they know well such as sit or down. The first one to take the position gets a verbal marker and the treat. The others are told they are good dogs for responding, but they didn’t win the reinforcement that time. This can really help build speedy responses! Even the 5-month-old puppy has figured this game out and, being so quick and low to the ground, often wins the fastest down contest.

When my dogs are out in the back yard and I call them to come in the first one inside gets the treat. Again, the others are told they are good dogs, but didn’t win the prize that time. My old Lab figured out that to win she needed to stay on the patio and wait for me to call. She had several housetraining accidents before I figured out that she wasn’t doing her business because she was hovering by the door waiting to get called back inside!

One of my favorite multi-dog behaviors is the ‘synchronized spin’. The three older dogs all know how to spin both left and right, with different verbal cues for each direction. A spin to the left is ‘spin’ (really creative, huh?) and a spin to the right is ‘zoom’. When I give the verbal cue the dogs that respond and spin in the correct direction get reinforced. The one who went the wrong way, or did something else altogether, or didn’t respond at all, is ignored. After a few repetitions, they get really good at responding at the same time and remind me a bit of the dolphins at Sea World. My kids are highly amused by this trick!

I learned a really cool idea for dogs that beg while you eat from my friend, Ken McCort (a therapy dog trainer). Ignore the dogs that are closest to you while you are eating and toss bits of your food, or treats, to the dog that is the furthest away. In my household, only Copper (Papillon) was able to figure this out. He will sit across the room whenever I eat. It might be that the retrievers understand the requirement, but can’t quite bring themselves to move away from the food source. That seems to go against their basic nature.

My favorite multi-dog game is ‘find it!’ This game is actually a precursor to scent discrimination as well as just plain fun for everyone involved. I take a Kong toy, put a treat inside, scent it with my hands, let each dog sniff it, then ask the dogs to sit and stay while I go hide the toy. When I return I release them to “go find it!” They race around the house, air scenting, trying desperately to be the first to find the toy and get the goodie (don’t do this with food or toy possessive dogs!) At first I hide the toy in plain sight, then just around a corner, increasing difficulty as they get the idea. As they start to understand the concept I make it harder and harder to find the toy. Some good hiding places include the bathtub, under your pillow, and on a dining room chair. Also, once they get the concept I stop putting a treat in the Kong and simply scent it with my hands. This is a great activity for a rainy or snowy day when everyone needs some exercise.

So, even though I tell people that you can’t clicker train more than one dog at a time, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do lots of training activities that involve multiple dogs. One of the side effects of clicker training is that the dogs all want to be involved. Bring out the clicker and they all compete for attention. Not a bad side effect for a training method to have! However, most multi-dog activities involve individual training first, then working with the group. Most dogs don’t care what you do with them as long as you do something fun! Be creative and invent with your own multi-dog games and activities.


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