Puppy class is probably the most popular class among instructors, particularly for the inexperienced enthusiasts.
We love puppy class, we love to watch them play, interact, and have fun and it is very reinforcing for those involved. For many owners it is their first access to our world of dogs, where they are introduced not only to the power of clicker training but all the tips and advice the experienced trainers can pass along. For some it can also provide a lifelong social network and much needed support for those trickier dogs.
Or, it can cause a lifelong problem for a dog exposed to the wrong type of experience. The experience of negative training methods is not an issue for clicker trainers, but that does not remove the negative associations the pup can have even in a positive class. I would like to examine exactly what a puppy class can provide to meet the main purpose of education (of the owners) and prevention (of behavioral issues).
From the breeder's perspective
As a breeder, I would prefer to see classes run by people who have reared at least one litter. You become bonded to the litter and see their day-by-day development from utterly dependant whelps to a gang of thugs demolishing your garden. Nature helps the separation by introducing the "thuggery" stage where the breeder is only too pleased to pass the pups along to the next parents in line. And continuation of the parenting is one of the key roles.
When a pup leaves at 8 or 9 weeks (I believe it needs a very experienced puppy parenter to have a pup earlier than 8 weeks), the new owner may not be aware that just a couple of weeks earlier this babe was learning to walk in a straight line. Their developmental rate is phenomenal, hence the many hours spent sleeping, but they are only a moment away from toddler stage. To thrust this pup into a class situation on the wrong day can spell a disaster that may take an experienced hand many months to guide the pup back from and in some cases the puppy may never recover. I changed veterinary practices when the senior partner roughly thrust my pup away when on the examining table. Life itself will give the pup enough negative learning; we don't need to seek it out. The breeder wants the pup to have suitable experiences for their needs, physical and mental protection from permanent damage, and a support network for the new owners.
I worry more that the pup will be exposed to semi-professionals who know only a little more than the average pet owner but do not know what they don't know! They lack sufficient knowledge about many different breeds, nutrition, exercise, anatomy, and developmental stages to offer the new owners the guidance they need. I have horror stories to fill a book of ignorant advice handed out to my Gordon pups.
If I had one gift to pass along it would be the ability to see the difference between a behavior that will fade away as the pup matures, and a behavior that needs attention right now, before it becomes a lifelong problem. I don't expect the new owners to have that experience but I do expect the professionals they seek advice from to have it. Puppy class requires people with a holistic background in the rearing, care, and development of dogs. Not just sit-reward-play training, but enough knowledge to realize that play with the wrong friends on the wrong floor can damage the growing skeleton of a pup and that a spectating collie pup can develop such bad habits in this environment that they will give the owners a problem for life.
This, of course, is the arrogance of breeders! We love and try to understand the special needs of "our" breed, we are involved in rescue, picking up the problems and advising folk who have our pups. The shortcomings in the education of dog professionals is far too large. More people who run classes for all types of dogs needs to learn much more about ALL types of dogs. I want an experienced teacher that is able to meet the needs of each individual puppy in the class and adjust the training to develop that pup for the best chance in the lifestyle of those owners.
From the pup's perspective
Class should be the perfect place to acquire knowledge and experience of other dogs. If a dog is home reared, they are unlikely to have been exposed to more than a couple of different body shapes than their own siblings and parent.
The pup's experience of dog communication is in the majority from its siblings, who have only the crudest of abilities to communicate. This is their learning environment—try a grump and a stomp and see if that pesky sister backs off or not—try a wriggle and a roll to get the big lump off your back. But learning must NEVER be confined to siblings or peers of a similar age; a pup needs to learn from appropriate adult dogs. Dogs are fabulous teachers and most enjoy pup interaction and seek out learning situations. The older collie that will settle near the Gordon pups with a toy he hasn't touched in years: he engages in a come-look-and-envy-me lesson, but don't be too cheeky. An adult that does not seek puppy interaction should not be left in this tutorial role. All my dogs are active in the puppy rearing, but they often prefer pups of certain ages, and will evade the very young, or perhaps the thug age or the crazy moments.
For the single pup in a family home it is vital they have access to adult dogs to continue the parenting role and develop good communication skills. More behavioral problems in adult dogs can be traced back to the absence of this lesson more than any other single factor. They simple do not know how to say "hello," or how to say "hi-but-not-today-thank-you."
A puppy's education should include the opportunity to meet all the different shape of dogs, the different smells of adults and elderly dogs, the different attitudes of dogs, what to keep out of the way of, how to get out of over-sexed dog approaches, to keep a toy, to lose a toy, to win a toy, to get another pup to play, to end play, to play fight, to play chase, to swim, to jump, to roll.
Lessons should be controlled experiences with appropriate dogs. Pups benefit from mimicking other dogs in new situations. The pups follow their dam across a small stream, if the pup was alone it is unlikely it would attempt the crossing. A single pup has no idea of how to respond to an 18-wheel truck going past, but if the accompanying adult just crunches their eyes shut to avoid the dust, then the pup will take the lack of fear from them. It is far easier to use an adult dog to teach a youngster, than try to teach the pup from an adult human. They cannot mimic us without a few weeks of learning the variations in our body language. As a person trying to communicate with dogs I often mimic the adults teaching puppies—we can learn from them too.
Most of my pups have learned their "country code" from the other dogs, how to swim, roll in fox poo, recall, jump in the car, come in from the woods, wait for the gate to be opened. I didn't teach them, the dogs did. Many hound packs are worked and exercised in groups of 50 or more. Each generation comes into the pack as young adults and is "coupled" (which is a short 12-inch chain linking two flat collars) to an older schooling dog. They learn to respond to the cues of the walkers, to sounds of the hunt, to wriggle through hedges, and keep out of the way of flying hooves. A pack could not possibly be trained as single individuals by people, but only by introduction of a limited number of green youngsters to be trained by the reliable pack members. If the pack contained too many green youngsters their inclination to respond without self-control would take over and everyone would go home hungry.
Similarly we cannot leave the canine education of pups in the world of pups; adult dogs must be involved. I would not advocate green youngsters teaching pups either, they can revert very quickly to pup behavior that as larger, swifter, and more agile than the pups can cause physical damage, and the hierarchy issues filling their heads in adolescence can be practiced on vulnerable youngster with evil consequences for both parties. The pup needs to continue its learning as a canine, it needs to learn to communicate, observe, analyze, listen, respond with the appropriate ritual, get the hell out of a dodgy situation, and respect its elders.
Secondly, whilst all this learning is happening it needs to learn how to live as a pup-child in human house. Where to pee, when to be stupid, when to demand attention, where to sleep. Learn to enjoy being handled, woken, groomed, and inspected by people big and small. The pup needs an advocate when owners have high expectations, in particular the owners with short memories and no recollection of their last dog as a puppy.
From the dog professional's perspective
Intrusive procedures are a normal occurrence in a dog's life. It may begin with the thermometer up the bottom on the first visit to the vet through to a shaving off of its whiskers at a groomers. Any young animal accustomed to trusting the human hand at a young age will be less traumatized by these interactions through life. We owe it to the pup to become familiar and confident with this, and we also owe it to the dog professionals to be able to handle our dogs safely and not repair negligent rearing.
Pups need to have positive experiences on a table, being handled in their most intimate parts, restrained and hurt, pulled around by scary machines running around their faces and usually by strangers. If a dog may be a regular kennel resident, being cared for by strangers needs to be included.
From society's perspective
Wherever you live, the people around you will have expectations of acceptable pet behavior. This can vary from nighttime barking being an offence to nighttime barking being welcomed. Society has every right to expect dog owners to take responsibility for their dogs and their behavior within the community, which involves clearing up anything that comes out of your dog, not causing harm or fear in other people, not causing undue disturbance to the lifestyle of other people, and having responsibility for the training, care, and welfare of your dog. Very often, if any of these areas goes wrong, it is the dog that receives the punishment. The owners may be forced to seek advice from dog professionals. As dog professionals, we have a responsibility to our societies to provide advice and preventative education, which is very often begun at puppy class.
From the trainer's perspective
Besides the reinforcing pleasure of being with pups, we invest our time and experience into the puppy class to prevent older dogs needing remedial class. Every puppy class is of vital importance to that owner and that puppy and can prevent one more dog needing re-homing or behavioral intervention as an adult. Puppy class deserves the best the dog professionals can give it, the experienced trainers, the most number of one-to-one class assistants, the best handouts, advice, equipment, and support for new owners. Puppy class should last through puberty to at least 12 months old.
For every enquiry I get at Learning About Dogs for people who want to become dog professionals, more than half want to become "solvers of problems," i.e., behaviorists, counselors, run aggression class, etc. Why are we not investing this desire to learn and teach into the preventative education? The balance should be the other way around: 90% of dog professionals should be in their communities educating all owners with 10% picking up those who slipped through the net. (I can but dream!)
From the owner's perspective
For 99% of the pups that are reared, if they were in experienced hands and enjoyed dog-empathic households, they would grow up to be perfectly normal, happy adults fulfilling their owner's expectations. There is the occasional dog that even the experienced rearer will be challenged with.
As experienced folk, we know the problem is rarely the dogs, but the owners. Problems have arisen because of their negligence at a particularly crucial stage, their misguided understanding of a what a canine is, an inappropriate lifestyle for a dog, or just their lack of canine education. Testament to that was the owner who believed her dog to be castrated by the local rescue group before she adopted it, and lived with this dog for 13 years before she discovered him entire (she'd just never "looked").
A dog professional must have an holistic education even if their expertise is confined to one area. You cannot be just a trainer, or just a breeder, or just a behaviorist, or just a vet. For many owners, the puppy class is their first introduction to our dog world. We can advise them about puppy crates, car cages, recycling toys, the best local walks, the most convenient supplier of dog foods. The general public is sold a phenomenal amount of hogwash from the commercial pet suppliers, where equipment, food, bedding, toys, etc., are usually advertised to meet the needs of their profit margins and not the needs of the owners or pups.
How many of you purchased a chain lead at one time in your life? And did your hands hurt when you wrapped it short? How many of you purchased the standard off-the-shelf dog guard for the back of the car? And how long did it take your dog to push the bars in and wriggle through to the front to demolish the interior? And how many of you buy your dog food at the local supermarket? And did you ever realize that is was cheaper and more variety offered at a professional outlet?
Fortunately, the commercial world listens to the professionals in some areas where they can see a profit and puppy crates are now widely available—just waiting for the car manufacturers to sharpen up! Who needs fabric interior in the back of the car, and have they ever tried to remove short hair from this? Why do we not have a ventilation system built into a car that still leaves the car secure?
The new owners are putting the development of their lifelong companion in your hands. A problem dog can become sheer misery for the whole household and coming to puppy class for many folk is a desire to get it right and prevent future hiccups. The class needs to provide a complete curriculum for both their education and the pup's learning. The environment and the experiences should be safe and enriching and the owners should be motivated and supported. They need to learn how to continue the parenting role, how to teach as an adult dog, how to recognize youthful behavior as opposed to thug apprenticeship. They will meet friends who can join them for walks and even offer overnight stays for their pup for absences or emergencies. They need to feel they can ask silly questions: they don't know that a dog coughing sounds like it may be vomiting, they don't know that a bitch may mate the cat when she's in season, they don't know how to hold a pup to calm it, reward it, soothe it, reduce fear, give a tablet, cut a nail, finish the barking, inspect a tooth, clean an ear, stop playing kangaroo when on a lead, stop playing I-have-no-legs-I'm-only-jelly when it's time for bed.
Their lives and their pup's growing can be made so much easier with your advice and intervention. They don't realize Mothercare sell the best range of puppy gates in the world and this would make their house safe and blissful. They don't know the value of relaxing to the sound of a pup with a monster meaty bone to contend with.
I want to see puppy classes provide a complete education for owners, not just the new keen owners who want to learn, but as a learning ground for all dog professionals. You can develop a complete system around the education of youngsters. Look for classes held in their everyday lives, not in the local hall. Meet at a shopping centre, or busy train station, or outside a school at pick up time. The teaching and skills may be acquired in a classroom but their application is out there in the real world. Involve the local community in this education process, they have as much to benefit from educated dog owners as we do.
Trainers should invest in your own education and go out to the breeders, ask to visit litters and generations of the same breed, expand your knowledge. Litter parties on a regular basis are vital to prevent future problems. The breeder can offer their experience and perhaps you can offer professional training; the owners can share their good and bad moments and be reassured that everyone is experiencing the same joys and horrors.
Schedule evening classes that run the whole evening which is a mixture of puppy play, puppy training, adult training for pups, observation and owner education. Invite dog sport enthusiasts to come along and give demonstrations.
Organize mixed puppy and adult walks, in different places, where the group can learn from new experiences and get confidence from numbers. Sign up your new owners for the first year of their dog's life. Fun time is the puppy time, but they are more likely to need your help and experience when puberty begins. This level of commitment is motivating for both sides and worth every ounce of investment.