16 December 2015

Make Your Dog Happy: Puppy Class!

Going to puppy class could be the best investment you make in your dog. 

A St. Bernard puppy in the snow... why puppies should go to puppy class

Puppy classes provide important socialization opportunities and early learning experiences for puppies up to 5 months old. Puppy class is not just about training, it’s also (even mostly) about socialization.

Socialization matters because dogs go through a developmental stage when happy, positive experiences with new people, dogs and things are important, and help to set them up to be happy, calm adult dogs. We know this because studies that kept puppies in isolation (e.g. Freedman, King and Elliot 1961) found they became very fearful.

Many dog trainers have socialization checklists, like this one from the late Dr. Sophia Yin that includes unfamiliar people and dogs, body handling, surfaces and sounds to which puppies should be socialized. We don’t know exactly when the sensitive period for socialization ends, and it may be different for different breeds (Morrow et al 2015), so we want to try and do as much socialization as possible before about 12 weeks.  

Chow Chow  puppy... why going to puppy class is a good idea

At puppy class, your pup gets to meet new people (including the other people at the class, the trainer and the assistant(s)). That’s a few people checked off your socialization list already! 

In addition, they meet the other puppies and get to play with them. As well as meeting unknown dogs, the play opportunities allow them to practise their doggy social skills and learn bite inhibition.

The important thing about socialization is that experiences should be positive ones. Sometimes people force their puppy into greetings even if they are shy and don’t want to meet; or complete strangers want to pet the cute puppy, and may not notice if the pup is scared. 

If there’s one rule about puppies, it’s that you should never terrify them. 

If your puppy is shy, that’s fine. Don’t force them into interactions they’re not comfortable with. 

A good puppy class will ensure that all the puppies are having a good time, by keeping shy puppies away from more boisterous ones, and letting puppies hide by their owners if they want to. As the weeks go by, your puppy will get more confident. 

"Puppy class is the single most important thing you'll do in your puppy's lifetime and is loads of fun for all,” says Jody Karow, founder of DogSense Online. “You'll want lots of off leash play opportunity during class with other young compatible puppies. We want everything about puppy class to be fun! Socialization is the top priority for your puppy’s first class. 

“Look for a class that focuses on puppies learning many new experiences are safe and fun. There will be plenty of time to teach proper manners and obedience behaviors. Puppy class is your opportunity to have a controlled environment for many first and early experiences. This allows us to ensure your puppy enjoys many things life in our modern world offers. 

“Think Kindergarten, it's all about the fun!"

In some places there’s a trend for puppy party, a one-off session at which your puppy plays with other puppies and meets the other people in the class. This sounds like a good alternative, but one study (Kutsumi et al 2013) found it does not offer the same benefits. Dogs who had attended a six-week puppy class not only performed better in response to commands, but were also friendlier to strangers compared to those who did not attend or who only attended a puppy party.

Because dog training is not licensed, choose your puppy class carefully. Remember the rule about not frightening puppies, and avoid anyone who uses aversives like leash corrections, choke or prong collars. See my article on how to choose a good dog trainer.

A good puppy class does not guarantee that your dog will never be fearful (e.g. genetics and early experiences before you bring them home also play a role) but it will go a long way to helping you meet your puppy’s socialization needs. 

What do you most enjoy about puppy class?

Freedman, D., King, J., & Elliot, O. (1961). Critical Period in the Social Development of Dogs Science, 133 (3457), 1016-1017 DOI: 10.1126/science.133.3457.1016  
KUTSUMI, A., NAGASAWA, M., OHTA, M., & OHTANI, N. (2013). Importance of Puppy Training for Future Behavior of the Dog Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 75 (2), 141-149 DOI: 10.1292/jvms.12-0008  
Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., & Pate, J. (2015). Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10 (4), 286-294 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002
Photo: Rita Kochmarjova (top) and Eric Isselee (Shutterstock.com)
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