Dogs Who Attended Puppy Class are More Trainable

Going to puppy class has benefits for later dog behaviour, study shows.

Going to puppy class has benefits for later dog behavior, study shows. Photo shows puppy chewing on rope
Photo: Asiya Yunossova/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD.

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Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization from 3 until about 12-14 weeks, during which it is especially important to have a wide range of positive experiences. Many people take their puppy to puppy class during this time, but some people wonder, “Is puppy class worth it?” A new study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour finds several advantages for dogs that attended puppy class when younger compared to those who didn’t.

The study, by Dr. Ángela González-Martínez (Santiago de Compostela University) et al., took place in Spain and compared dogs who had completed puppy class one year earlier to those of the same age who had not taken a puppy class. The dogs were assessed using a questionnaire called the C-BARQ which was completed by their owner.

The results showed that dogs who attended puppy class were more highly rated as trainable, and were less likely to have non-social fears (such as sound sensitivity), touch sensitivity (fear of being handled), or aggression towards familiar dogs.

The scientists conclude that, “Puppy class may help prevent canine behavioural problems.”

80 dogs took part in the study, of which 32 attended a puppy class (15 starting before the age of 3 months, and 17 starting after the age of 3 months). The regular-age and later-attending puppy class participants were grouped together for analysis.

Puppy class was run at the vet clinic by a veterinary behaviorist with assistants, and consisted of 6 one-hour classes. There was a maximum five puppies per class. Each class followed the same format:

  • Puppies arrived on leash and were allowed to meet each other
  • 15-minute supervised play time in which 2-4 puppies played together at once and were carefully monitored
  • During this time, the puppies’ owners were given education and advice on topics such as the use of reward-based training methods, to avoid the use of positive punishment and negative reinforcement, how to house train their puppy, dog behaviour, etc.
  • Positive reinforcement training using food lures to teach behaviours such as sit, down, stay, coming when called, and walking on leash.
  • Rest – a short break in which puppies could be taken outside for a toilet break
  • Graduated interactions with people, starting with rewarding the puppies for approaching people and building up to various handling procedures. Puppies were carefully monitored for any body language that might show discomfort.
  • A final 5-minute play session with all the puppies

The questionnaires were completed by owners a year after the last puppy class, or at the equivalent time for dogs who did not attend puppy class.

It’s interesting that the results were found for both dogs who attended puppy class during the regular time and those who attended later (between 3 and 9 months). Although there was no difference between groups for excitability, the data did suggest that attending the regular-age puppy class was associated with lower levels of excitability.

The differences between those who attended puppy class and those who did not seem important and may make a difference to the relationship between owner and dog, although this was not directly tested. It’s worth noting that on some variables there was no difference between the groups, including for separation-related problems, chasing, fear of strangers, fear of unfamiliar dogs, and aggression towards unfamiliar dogs.

The lower levels of aggression towards familiar dogs in the dogs who attended puppy class is likely due to them learning better social skills from the play sessions.

The scientists write,
“This outcome could be influenced by the acquisition of better social skills in the puppy class. The play between dogs may be helpful in the acquisition of such skills. Furthermore, the advice given to the owners about social behavior and avoidance of punishment could be useful to avoid aggression between dogs.”
Research shows that play is important to dogs as it serves several different functions, including promoting social cohesion.

The scientists suggest that the lack of a difference when it comes to aggression towards unfamiliar dogs could be because most puppies meet lots of unfamiliar dogs anyway, and so there was no additional benefit from puppy class. This would not necessarily generalize to other countries with different rules about dogs in public spaces.

It is surprising there was no effect for fear of strangers, and it does make me wonder if the later-age puppy class was already too late to make a difference on that, but again it could be the puppies were taken out and about a lot and already met a lot of strangers. This is a question for future research.
It is not clear the extent to which the differences are due to the puppies’ experiences during the class and/or to the owner’s better education through attending the class.

Earlier research has shown that people who attend puppy classes are more likely to reward good behaviour and to expose the puppy to more stimuli than those who don’t attend class  As well, another study found that attendance at a six-week puppy class has benefits that a one-off puppy party does not.

The current study adds to the research on the benefits of puppy class, and is one of few to use a standardized measure of dog behaviour traits. The finding that dogs who attended puppy class are considered more trainable and more handle-able is very positive, and also suggests these dogs will have an easier time at the vet. Less aggression to familiar dogs and fewer non-social fears are also very positive findings. The puppy class was taught in a particular way, and so the results may not generalize to other kinds of puppy class.

Because dog training is not regulated, it is important to choose a puppy class with care. This study suggests that it is important to find one that includes supervised play sessions during the class, and that uses reward-based methods. See my advice on how to choose a puppy class and how to choose a dog trainer

What do you like best about puppy class?

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.

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Reference
González-Martínez, A., Martínez, M. F., Rosado, B., Luño, I., Santamarina, G., Suárez, M. L., Carmino, F., de la Cruz, L.S., & Diéguez, F. J. (2019). Association between puppy classes and adulthood behavior of the dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 32: 36-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.04.011

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