Make Your Dog Happy: How to Choose a Puppy Class (Guide)

Why you should go to puppy class, what to look for in a class, and why it could be the best investment you make in your dog.

A St. Bernard puppy in the snow... why puppies should go to puppy class
Photo: Grigorita Ko/Shutterstock


By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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.

Puppy Class and  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 RSPCA Queensland 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.  

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 practice their doggy social skills and learn bite inhibition.

Up to a third of puppies do not get enough socialization opportunities, but people who attend puppy class expose their dog to more people, other dogs, and stimuli (such as children and sirens) than those who don't.


A malamute puppy. "Puppy class is the single most important thing you'll do in your puppy's lifetime"--Jody Karow, Go Anywhere Dog
Image: SunSpace/Shutterstock (photo) and Zazie Todd


The Importance of Positive Experiences

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. Puppies should always have a choice of whether to approach or retreat from new people, things, etc., and this is something a good dog trainer will model in puppy class.

Similarly, any play opportunities must also be positive for all the puppies involved. If you're not sure, the trainer should do a consent test and separate the puppies; if a puppy that appeared to be being victimized runs back to play, you know it was okay. But if they don't, keep them separate. A good trainer will ensure none of the puppies get bullied, and will use barriers or x-pens as needed.


"Puppy class is the single most important thing you'll do in your puppy's lifetime"
 - Jody Karow CTC


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

Signs of fear, anxiety and stress include hiding, trembling, seeking out people, a low body posture, a tucked tail, and urinating. (For more on these signs, including some body language practice, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?).

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

What to Look For in a Puppy Class

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. 

Jody Karow, founder of Go Anywhere Dog, says 
Puppy class is the single most important thing you'll do in your puppy's lifetime and is loads of fun for all. 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 and pick a trainer who only uses reward-based methods. 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.

Safety and Puppy Class

Puppy class takes place before your pup has had their full set of vaccinations. At this time, they shouldn't be mixing with unknown adult dogs or walking down the street (put them in a stroller or carry them in your arms instead). But puppy class takes precautions to keep everyone as safe as possible because socialization is important.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior says in their position statement on puppy socialization,
"The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated."
You can start puppy class when your pup is 7-8 weeks old; most classes have a cut-off around 15-16 weeks of age (some at around 20 weeks). It's best to start while your puppy is less than 3 months old so that they are still in the socialization window.

Puppies should have had at least one set of vaccines at least 7 days before the first class, and stick to the vet's guidelines for further vaccinations during the class period (typically every 3-4 weeks). As well, they should have been de-wormed prior to the first class.

It goes without saying that the location where the puppy class is held should be clean and sanitized.

You can read more about the balancing act of protecting your puppy from disease and protecting them from behaviour issues due to lack of socialization in this article by veterinarian Dr. Rachel Szumel

The Benefits of Puppy Class

Puppy class can be a great way to provide socialization opportunities in a safe environment.

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. That makes them more likely to grow up to be a friendly, confident dog.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy which is full of tips for puppies and right through a dog's life. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What do you most enjoy about puppy class?


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:


References
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 and Zazie Todd


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