Picking a Puppy Pre-School

Like I mentioned yesterday, I already have foster puppy signed up for a training class. He will not be here in time for the first class but he will start on week two. I am a firm believer in the importance of puppy class. For me, the value of the puppy class is not in the training but in the continued socialization. When I got Rio he was already 15 or 16 weeks old and was too old for a basic puppy class by the time I found a training center that was based in positive reinforcement training. It really bothered me the number of puppy classes I found that showed pictures of puppies wearing prong or choke chains starting around 4 months old!

Although I’m a strong supporter of puppy classes, not just any puppy class is a good puppy class. I have seen some pretty poorly run puppy classes in my experiences. I quite honestly think the most expert trainers should be the people teaching puppy classes because they are so impressionable at the young ages. When inexperienced trainers lead puppy classes they can easily miss potential problems, not police the play very well, or push puppies over threshold when trying to ‘socialize’ them to potentially scary things.

So when I look for a puppy class for my puppies/fosters there are certain criteria that I find important.

Focus on puppy play–I really think the biggest value in a puppy class is the ability for puppies to continue to socialize with other puppies. There is so much learning happening in these interactions that is critical for puppies learning manners. They learn bite inhibition, learn how to appropriately play, learn how to negotiate social situations, self regulate when playing with smaller puppies, and build confidence in their social skills. These are things that are best taught by other dogs/puppies which is why puppy classes that I choose focus mainly on this type of learning.

Experienced trainer(s) instructing–Like I mentioned before, I think it’s really important that puppy class trainers are very experienced and have a wealth knowledge about canine body language. I want an instructor who knows how to balance exposing puppies to novel stimulus with keeping puppies under threshold and confident about the experiences. This really is a delicate balance–not enough exposures and the puppy may develop fears/issues about certain things because they were never exposed to them (like kids or bikes) but too much exposure by a trainer not paying attention to body language can lead to a dog who becomes afraid of something (kids or bikes) because the socialization was not positive.

Socialization to novel stimulus–I want a puppy class that will be exposing my puppy to a range of novel stimuli. Although I can, and will, do my own series of exposure to various stimuli, I like having a puppy class that will help me expose my puppy to things that I personally don’t have like walkers, crutches, wheelchairs, and small children in wigs. They also will desensitize to different sounds and weird environmental changes like a box falling or a chair tipping. Plus puppies may learn to walk on different surfaces like rubber matting, through a tunnel, on a textured agility table or a flat A-frame.

Kids Allowed*–I really like puppy classes that allow well-behaved children in class–particularly now that it is winter. I do not have access to many kids–especially since it’s cold out and my neighbors aren’t out as often–so having a class that allows kids in it can be a great opportunity for socializing around kids. Now, I would change my tone if the kids were being disruptive but I’ve had good luck.

Positive Training Methods–although training is not the primary reason for me taking a puppy to puppy class, going to a class that has a positive approach to many of the common puppy training troubles is important to me. I would be rather upset if I heard a trainer suggesting to “grab the puppy’s jaw and squeeze until they yelp” as a solution for nipping so I want to make sure the class would be based in positive reinforcement.

I feel like I’m missing something but I can’t quite put my finger on it. So, for those of you who’ve taken puppy classes, what do YOU look for in a trainer/training facility/puppy class?

  1. I love puppy classes. From the trainer’s point of view I work really hard to help the new owners understand the need to get the puppy out and meet a variety of people and have lots of new experiences. Always making sure that those new things are introduced in a fun (from the dogs point of view) way. There are just so many things we can introduce in a six week hour long class. Having new owners make a list of 100 new things in 100 days is a way help keep them motivated. This is a great blog. Keep posting.

    • I think I’d love to be in one your puppy classes! Although I love puppies, I haven’t really wanted to teach a puppy class. I think it definitely stems from the fact that I don’t feel I’ve “logged” enough hours observing groups of puppies playing to be the type of “experienced” trainer I look for in a puppy class. Maybe one day I’ll be able to run a puppy class…but until then, give me the reactive dogs 🙂

  2. You are spot on as to what I’d recommend and what our puppy classes offer. As a trainer I also try to offer information about interactive toys, what is appropriate play, how to deal with basic puppy challenges (biting, chewing, potty). It’s one of my most favorite things to teach because it’s so important to get them started on the path to success.

    • The puppy class trainers who I would take my pups to do a lot of people education–canine seat belts, first aid, nail clipping (and how to acclimate dogs to nail clipping), kongs, treat toys, etc. It’s such important information, especially for new dog owners or first time puppy owners.

      It IS so important to make sure they get off on the right foot! It’s funny I’d rather teach a class full of reactive dogs to fix problems rather than teach a puppy class LOL!

  3. Great article! I agree with all of this.

    One thing I would add is that puppies who are being inappropriate to the point of creating a negative atmosphere for the other puppies need to be removed from class. I’ve seen entire classes not play and retreat because one puppy (usually an older one that was beyond 16 weeks and had acquired issues) was allowed to be there with the really little ones. I think older puppies should work one-on-one with the trainer first and be socialized around adults.

    • It’s definitely important to have a trainer who knows enough about puppy play to be able to regulate it and recognize any inappropriate play. I’m not sure I would remove them from the class as a first step but they may not be able to participate in the large group play, I would first try to find one dog in the class the puppy DOES play nicely with OR see if having smaller play groups (2 or 4 dogs) keeps the puppy from getting overly aroused. But a trainer needs to be able to keep the safety and socialization of all the puppies in mind and advocate for them by keeping the bully out of the play sessions.

  4. Who puts a prong collar on a puppy? How is that going to teach them anything except trauma and fear. I just don’t get it.

    I’ve never been to a puppy class as I have never had a puppy. My brother in law did take his puppy as it was mandatory for adoption. But he complained that the dogs just played around and he never really learned anything. At the time I knew very little but I tried to tell him that they are supposed to just play. That it was like pre-school for dogs and that they are too young to learn anything concrete. But I don’t think he got it and he didn’t take his dog to any more classes after that. Which is too bad.

    • Kristine it was SO bothersome seeing 4-6 month old puppies on prong collars… I mean.. really does that 6 month old beagle puppy REALLY need a prong?

      I think novice/green handlers often don’t find the value in puppy class right away though I think most people do start understanding the value in it the more an instructor goes into what the class is all about and can point out all the bits the pups are learning.

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