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What to Look For in a Puppy Class

Puppy classes can help you socialize your puppy and learn about how she communicates. You’ll get puppy-rearing pointers as well. Learn what a good puppy class can do for you.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
December 3, 2012
Episode #177

What to Look For in a Puppy Class

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA 

In a typical manners class that you might take with an adolescent or adult dog, the focus is on just that – manners. Lessons might include a down, a stay, some version of “Leave that alone!,” coming when called, and polite leash walking, plus a trick or two. Puppy classes, generally aimed at the 16-week-and-under crowd, are a bit different. This week, I’ll explain the why of puppy classes and tell you how to find a good one.

Sponsor: The podcast version of this article is brought to you by Betterment, an easier way to invest. Visit www.betterment.com/dogtrainer.

Socialization in Puppy Classes

Puppy classes focus mostly on socialization and upbringing. That’s not because puppies can’t learn manners behaviors – they certainly can, with allowances made for their shorter attention spans. The point of a puppy class, though, is to take advantage of the window of early behavioral development when young dogs are primed to learn about what’s normal in the world, and how to behave socially. It’s important to take advantage of this open-window phase, because when the window closes, it pretty much slams shut. Suppose you happen to neglect teaching your puppy a stay until he’s six months old. That’s usually no biggie. But if you hold off on socialization, your dog’s quality of life may be permanently damaged as he grows up mistrustful of the everyday world.

During puppy play, your instructor can show you how to read dog body language and understand your dog’s signals.

Puppy Classes Can Help Shy or Overbearing Puppies

Four or six weekly sessions of puppy class won’t cut the socialization mustard all by themselves; you’ll need to put in time and care on your own. But a well-supervised class is a valuable opportunity for your Puppalini to interact safely with other pups. If the person running the class is competent, he or she will look out for shy or over-assertive pups. A shy pup may watch the others from behind a barrier at first. Later in the same class, or the following week, she can be introduced to one or two gentle puppies about her own size. As she builds confidence, maybe she can join the whole group.

The over-assertive pup, who bowls other puppies over and keeps on with the rough stuff even if his playmates squeal and move away, can be interrupted gently and given a brief time out when he breaks canine social rules. Or he can be matched with a bold but socially more adept pup whom he won’t intimidate. Some trainers are lucky enough to have “nanny dogs,” adults who can bring a pushy puppy into line with a just-forceful-enough snark.  (A word to the wise: Humans shouldn’t try to replicate the reprimand an adult dog might deliver. We’re shaped differently, we move differently, and we just plain don’t “speak” fluent Dog. Taking an over-the-top puppy out of play is effective and it’s as much of a correction as we should attempt.)

A Chance to Practice Dog-Dog Communication

Through well-supervised play, puppies can learn important dog-dog skills: how to signal friendly intent or the need for a break and how to use their teeth carefully so play doesn’t turn into combat, for two. Play is also a great educational opportunity for the humans involved. Your instructor can narrate the play, pointing out the puppies’ body language and social signaling to help you learn to read them for yourselves. A good basic understanding of canine communication is something I’d love to equip all my clients with. With that understanding you’ll know when play is appropriate – or isn’t. And you can apply your ability to gauge your puppy or dog’s comfort level to any situation, helping your dog avoid or minimize damaging stress and maybe even preventing aggression. Puppy play is cute. Carefully narrated puppy play is golden.

What If Your Puppy Doesn’t Have All Her Shots?

All this puppy interaction brings us to the question of disease. Sadly, many vets still advise their clients to isolate puppies until all vaccinations are complete. However, a puppy class held in a clean place poses little or no risk to the puppies’ physical health as long as they have one set of vaccinations on board. (Any puppy who shows signs of illness should skip class, of course.) Undersocialization, on the other hand, poses grave risks to a growing dog’s behavioral health. And behavioral problems are the #1 cause of euthanasia in young dogs. If your vet advises you to keep your puppy home, please share with him or her the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statement on puppy socialization.

Helping Your Puppy Feel Comfortable with Strangers

Puppies also need to grow up at ease with unfamiliar people. I’ve said it over and over, but it always bears repeating: I would lose at least half my revenue stream as a behavior consultant if in early life every puppy got lots of pleasant, relaxed exposure to many different kinds of people. Your instructor may ask everybody to wear a big hat or sunglasses one day, or to carry a cane if no one in the class already does so. In many classes there are games of “pass the puppy,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Being passed around can scare some puppies, however. If I had my druthers everybody would instead take turns walking their own puppy from person to person in the class and letting the puppy choose to meet and greet.

More Socialization Opportunities! More! More!

Puppy class may also deal with handling – your puppy’s response to ear inspection, nail clipping, and being lifted, for instance. The instructor can show you how to introduce these important parts of dog life gently and pleasantly. She can also troubleshoot simple problems and spot any that are less simple. If your puppy responds to normal handling with fear or aggression, it’s good to intervene right away to help her learn more relaxed, friendly behavior.

To help accustom the puppies to the world’s various weird sounds, the instructor may play recordings of trucks and trains while everybody feeds their puppy treats. And she’ll suggest other socialization activities for the rest of the week, when you’re not in class: finding unusual surfaces for your puppy to walk on, for example.

Puppy Manners

Most puppy classes will include a little basic manners work. Some possibilities include an “attention cue,” that is, a cue that means “Puppalini, look at me now,” and practice in polite walking on leash. You can also leverage puppies’ natural tendency to stick close to their people and start teaching them to come when called.

Finally, the instructor will probably set aside part of each class for Q and A. The truth is that you can find good answers online and in books to most of the usual puppy problems, like housetraining mishaps and nipping. But many of us prefer to hear those answers from a teacher in person, or have specific concerns that generalized advice, even if it’s good advice, doesn’t address.

For my money, the most important feature of a well-run puppy class is that it should be fun. Socialization should be fun. Play should be fun. Training should absolutely, positively be fun. Puppies who learn that the world is a safe and pleasant place have the best odds of growing into dogs who are safe and pleasant friends to us.

You can visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer, and follow me on Twitter as Dogalini. Or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I really appreciate your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading, and go smell some puppy belly at your earliest convenience!

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Two Labrador Puppies, Playing Puppies and Woman Holding a Pomeranian images from Shutterstock

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