If I told you there was a way to help prevent your new puppy from having behavior problems like aggression, fearful responses to the world, barking and lunging at dogs or people when on leash, hatred of nail trims, and bad manners as an adult, would you jump at the chance to do it? Most people would absolutely say yes! Who wouldn’t want to help try and prevent problem behaviors before they start? Well, thankfully there is a way to help increase your odds of avoiding behavior problems in adulthood—puppy school!
Most people know about puppy school, but did you know that your new pooch can start class as early as 8 or 9 weeks old and should start sooner rather than later? Puppy brains are primed to accept new things and situations between the age of 4 weeks and 16 weeks old. After 16 weeks, there is a large decrease in the puppy’s natural sociability and willingness to easily accept new things and situations as safe. So, important socialization needs to happen early (this isn’t to say you can do remedial socialization with an adult dog). Your puppy should experience as many things as possible that you want him to be comfortable with as an adult, before he hits 16 weeks old.
Although some veterinarians suggest waiting until a puppy is fully vaccinated (which is often after the prime socialization period ends), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published a very clear position statement on puppy socialization and in it they conclude that, “it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
A good puppy school provides a place where a puppy can continue to socialize with other dogs and people with minimal risk of illness. The more puppies learn how to feel comfortable around and communicate with their own species, the more likely it will be for them to remain at least tolerant of other dogs as they mature. Puppy schools that have sound adult dogs visit class are a huge bonus—puppies also need to learn how to act around adults. Another big benefit of puppy school is that it provides a new group of people of varying size, shape, race and age to interact with, which is very important for a developing puppy. Puppies should meet and have positive experiences with many types of people so they learn to accept all sorts of people as routine and normal.
Although socializing with other puppies and people are seen as main reasons for puppy school, they aren’t the only reasons. There are many other aspects of training and socialization that puppy school should be addressing. Puppies should enjoy learning foundation skills like name recognition, sit, target, trading items, and impulse control. As with all training, puppy school should focus on teaching puppies by using treats, toys, or play to reward behavior. The best puppy classes will attend to these training needs while expanding the realm of socialization.
Instructors may bring in inflatable holiday decorations, novel items from the world (vacuum, balloons, walkers, wheelchairs, etc), use tunnels and create obstacles to gain confidence on uneven footing, play CDs of various life sounds, and use tarps, gates, or bubble wrap for strange flooring. Instructors (and students) may wear wild hats, uniforms or costumes and they introduce a wide range of handling exercises. These exercises help create positive associations with necessary procedures like nail trimming and vet visits. These may seem silly, but socializing to the world and what the puppy will experience as an adult, can prevent future behavior problems.
Unfortunately, not all puppy classes are created equally and not all puppy classes are good. Puppy school can either be a breeding ground for fear, bad habits, and bullying or it can be a place of learning good life skills and socialization skills. Doing your homework to find a positive puppy class is important.
Asking to observe a class before signing up can give you a feel for the class and the training instructor before committing, which can help you make a good choice in puppy school. Here are some things to look for or to avoid in a puppy class.
Puppy Class Green Lights
* New novel objects presented each week for puppies to explore instead of a blank space where puppies get involved in high arousal and often inappropriate play
* Off-leash sessions are short and well moderated—pauses and breaks in the play, and timeouts for over arousal. Bonus if there are stable adult dogs teaching puppies mature behavior
* If the class is large, puppies are grouped by play style/confidence level during off-leash time to allow shy dogs to gain confidence
* Positive reinforcement training techniques (treats, toys, play) are used to teach new skills
* Emphasis is on overall socialization to people, dogs (of all ages not just puppies), objects, flooring, sounds, handling, etc.
Puppy Class Red Lights
* Off-leash session is chaotic with little moderation from the instructor
* Puppies practicing inappropriate play or bullying are allowed to continue to bully
* Puppies wearing any type of correction collar (choke, prong, or shock collars) or being pulled/pushed into positions during training
* Trainer promotes dominance, the use of alpha rolls, corrections, or force in training puppies
* No modifications made for shy puppies to help build confidence
It’s important to remember that it is absolutely okay to remove yourself and your puppy from a class that makes you feel uncomfortable or encourages you do things to your puppy that makes you feel uncomfortable. Be your puppy’s advocate!
Article by Tena Parker CDBC, CPDT-KA
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