What Makes A Good Puppy Class? By Dr. Ian Dunbar

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Your puppy can learn so much from puppy class! Your puppy can learn good bite inhibition (gentle jaws), confidence and social savvy for interacting with other dogs and people, to enjoy being handled by strangers (including vets and groomers), and to respond quickly and reliably to verbal cues to come, sit, lie down, stand and stay in the midst of heavy distractions and without the reliance of training aids.

Alternatively, a six-week puppy class can teach your puppy not much at all. And yet again, an improperly run off-leash puppy class can teach your puppy to be fearful and afraid of other dogs, or to be a hyperactive social loon who ignores all your requests when distracted by other dogs.

It all depends on how carefully you select your puppy class.

When I developed and taught the world’s very first off-leash puppy socialization and training classes in 1982, it caused quite a stir in the dog training community. Until that time, you had to wait until your dog was six-months- to a year- old before attending class, wherein only one handler per dog would practice repetitive on-leash obedience drills.

Instead, my puppy classes were fun for the whole family and the SIRIUS® syllabus encompassed all aspects of behavior modification and temperament training as well as teaching basic off-leash manners. The SIRIUS® Puppy Training video changed dog training. All around the world, many dog trainers adopted and adapted the new puppy training format, thus creating a long-needed new field of family pet dog training.

To make the video though, we changed the class format to facilitate filming — owners were seated in chairs with their puppies on-leash to provide an attractive backdrop as I worked with one owner and puppy at a time. The SIRIUS® video was a “how to train your puppy” video for pet owners in the home, it was not intended as a “how to teach puppy classes” video for dog trainers. Unfortunately, many trainers religiously copied our filming-format and are still teaching classes in that limited on-leash fashion today.

Of course, puppy classes should not be taught that way. (*Recently, we filmed SIRIUS® Puppy Training Redux — so that dog trainers may see how to teach off-leash puppy socialization and training classes, and so that puppy owners may see how classes should be taught.)

The three most important reasons for puppy classes are:

1. Teaching bite inhibition, or gentle jaws - hence the puppy play sessions and dog-dog socialization;
2. Teaching puppies to enjoy interacting with and being handled by people, especially children, men and strangers, and therefore safe - hence the people-dog socialization; and
3. To teach reliable off-leash obedience, so that the puppies promptly and willing respond to verbal commands even when distracted  -hence the many training interludes integrated into puppy play sessions.

Classes Entirely Off-leash
Puppy classes should be taught off-leash for the entire session, (except, of course, when pups are learning to walk on leash). Puppies are off-leash at home and at the park, so you need to learn how to control your puppy off-leash, which obviously you cannot do if the pups are on-leash in class.

Also, puppies need as much time as possible to play with other dogs (and so acquire solid bite inhibition and develop soft mouths) and to interact with every person in the room, especially men, children and strangers. They cannot do this if they are on-leash. Anytime spent sitting with your puppy on-leash and listening to a trainer talk is wasting precious socialization and training time. All the information that you need to train your puppy is available for free from the Digital Dog Training Textbook on this site. You may learn how to train a puppy at your leisure. Puppy class should be the time for actually doing it!

Numerous Short Training Interludes
The ongoing 55-minute play session should frequently be interrupted (every minute or so) by numerous short training interludes, so that the puppy learns to respond quickly, reliably and happily to their owners’ requests. Every time the play session is interrupted, e.g., by a Sit-Down-Sit sequence, or a ten-second Down-Stay, the puppy may be told “Go Play” again as a reward. Thus, playing-with-other-dogs may be used over and over as a reward for training, rather than becoming a distraction that works against training.

If, on the other hand, play sessions are uninterrupted and separate from the training session, the puppy will soon learn that training and playing are mutually exclusive and to prefer play to training.

Puppies will learn to ignore owners’ requests, the play session will become out of control, some pups will become too pushy and others will become fearful. Having a short play session (at the beginning, end, or during the middle of class) that is distinct and separate from a training session can be extremely detrimental for puppy obedience. Your pup will never learn to listen and respond to you when distracted and your pup will become out of control before he reaches adolescence. It is essential that the play session lasts for the entire class and is frequently interrupted with numerous short training interludes.

Controlling Crazy Canines
Integrating frequent short training interludes into the play session is essential for owners to learn how to calm down, control and get their puppies to pay attention at times when they are distracted and excited.

Learning how to calm and re-focus out-of-control puppies is a major reason why owners attend puppy classes. Calming and controlling energized puppies cannot be taught if training is restricted to a calm and controlled training session. Training must always be integrated into dog-dog play and all other enjoyable doggy activities, for example when playing fetch, or when walking your dog.

Fearfulness & Bullying
Any signs of fearfulness or “bullying” must be resolved during the very first session, otherwise the problems will quickly become worse as each week goes by. Fearfulness may be resolved during a handling session, by leaving only the fearful dog and just one other slow-moving (non-threatening) dog to find and play with each other. Bullies require a non-stop running commentary of differential praise and reprimand (feedback every second), indicating the levels of appropriateness or inappropriateness of each and every behavior. Bullying cannot be resolved by ill-timed and lengthy time-outs — an absolute waste of precious training time.

Pups of All Sizes, Including Small Breeds
Classes should include puppies of all sizes and all play-styles. Small dogs need to develop confidence and learn how to act around larger and more active dogs, and larger, more active dogs must learn to be gentle around smaller and less active dogs. Sessions with only large and active dogs produce over-the-top play styles and dogs that are likely to annoy or bully other dogs in the real world.

Sessions limited to small dogs only are a potential disaster. Certainly, they may quickly gain confidence around other small dogs, but some small dogs quickly become too big for their boots and none of them are given the opportunity to develop confidence around larger dogs. In the real world, small bossy dogs may get into trouble and small fearful dogs are attack-bait for other marginally-socialized dogs.

©2008 Ian Dunbar