I teach puppy classes. It’s a weird category, and people have different expectations from a class called “puppy class” or “puppy kindergarten.” If you take my flyball class, you expect to be taught how to do flyball and help teach your dog to do flyball. If you take a class in competition obedience, you know you’ll be learning, among other things, how to teach your dog to heel, front, finish, sit, stand, down and stay. What is puppy class for? Doesn’t your puppy already know how to be a puppy?
Yes – in fact, for many, that’s the problem! They want help in teaching their puppy to be clean in the house, not bite them with that mouthful of needles, and not play tug with their pants leg. Also, it would be nice if the pupper didn’t scream when put in his crate. But at the same time, puppy owners’ last class was often a more traditional obedience class, and perhaps without thinking about it, they expect to do some sits, downs, stays, and heeling.
Truthfully, what I could cover in a puppy class would fill pages of bulleted lists. Puppies are sponges! The trouble is… well, there just isn’t time to teach them “everything.” We have an hour a week for perhaps six weeks. So my goal is to pare it down to a list of Stuff That Is Critical to Learn Now and Which They Quite Possibly Won’t Learn Anywhere Else In Time.
What is this “now” – this “in time”? Puppies are in a critical developmental period that ends around 13-16 weeks, depending on which study you read and on the breed and the individual puppy. If the puppy has not learned certain kinds of skills by this age, she is at a much higher risk of being fearful of new things, and, as we know, fear generates all sorts of uncomfortable and difficult consequences such as inability to go out into the world, or aggression, or stress-related illnesses. Some pups are genetically bolder than others, but if we can get these skills installed by, we’ll call it 14 weeks for purposes of this entry, then we’ve maximized their potential.
During this period, puppies are learning the two most essential skills in life:
1. How to relate socially to other animals of her own species and in the case of dogs, with humans, their “substitute” packmates. Technically, this is what is known as socialization though dog people tend to use the word more broadly
2. How to handle novel things in their environments.
You’ll notice that sit, down, and heel are not on this list.
A class may be our only chance to teach the puppies’ owners how to teach their pups new skills and to solve problems that are bound to arise. Many dogs’ only class ever is Puppy Kindergarten, so it’s our opportunity to help owners understand learning, teaching and management.
Actually, skills like sit and heel, or tricks like shake or roll over can be taught and learned any time in life. We teach some of them in puppy class because they are useful skills for other purposes. A puppy who has a nice solid sit isn’t eating the couch or jumping on visitors! Also, a peppy sit is a great tool for the pup to learn to use to say “please,” to politely request interaction. We can use “sit” to start making life rewards contingent on good behavior (“nothing in life is free” or “sit to say please” programs). So yes, we do teach sit (and down).
Socialization doesn’t mean taking your pup out willy-nilly and throwing the world at him. Just as he is very sensitive to learning good things right now, he is also going to be sensitive to bad experiences. He’s more likely to have one-trial learning; for a genetically skittish dog, one bad experience with a man with a hat can make for years of fear of men with hats. Class should expose puppies to some new and odd things in a brief, upbeat and yet low-key way. Puppies can have an opportunity to wander onto and off of odd flooring or tippy surfaces. They can notice wheelchairs or crutches being used, or hats being worn. They can meet all the other owners in the class. But they won’t be forced to deal with anything scary to them. “Pass the puppy” is a good game if it allows the puppy to check out new folks at his own speed; it can be a disaster if a terrified, squirming pup is forcibly held by a series of strangers! And look for the instructor to explain how to do more socializing out in the world: in a way that’s not scary, but is thorough. The instructor should mention that this is time-sensitive and suggest possible stimuli to expose the puppies to (trains, people of different races than its owners, people who use crutches or walk with a limp, crowds, cows, grass, concrete, and dogs with many different looks). She or he should also bring some stimuli into the class so the puppies are correctly exposed in the class, and the owners can see correct exposure techniques modeled. The instructor should help the owners observe the pups’ body language to identify fearful or aggressive responses so that owners can respond quickly in the real world.
What about puppy play? It’s important for puppies to play with puppies, but it’s not important for them to do it a lot. In play, they learn a lot about inhibiting their bites; we think that’s probably why Mother Nature gave them all those horrible needles! They also learn that if they play too rough, another puppy might get mad and retaliate, or might leave… or that the human in charge will end the game. We need our dogs to care about us and respond to us under conditions of distraction, so play should always be serving multiple purposes: In addition to allowing the pups to say hi, burn off steam, and practice their inter-dog skills, it can be used to allow the owners to practice recalls from a big distraction, and can be used as a reward for good behavior. If I can show an owner with a socially driven puppy how we can use releasing the pup to go play with her boyfriend as a reward for sitting when she really, really wants to get away and go do her thing, then the pup’s just learned a lesson in self-control… and the owner’s just learned a huge lesson about controlling reinforcers!
The one obedience skill I try to emphasize in puppy class, besides a snappy sit, is loose leash walking. Why? Because it is a huge issue for owners once the pups get a little stronger, and once the dog has learned to pull, it is very, very hard for the dog unlearn. Then we end up using some kind of aversive, and/or the dog stops getting walked, desocializes and perhaps ends up being rehomed. It’s such a critical issue that I like to get everyone started early.
Finally, we use talking time in puppy class to go over basic strategies for accepting and handling puppy biting, housetraining, alone time, and puppy relations with young kids and elderly dogs in the home. We also use talking time to gently restrain and massage the pups to help them relax. Learning to relax out of arousal is a key adult skill and the earlier we help them learn it, the better they will function as adults.