Puppy Training: Tips from the Trenches

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This article originally appeared in the newsletter for the APDT Australia. G’day Australian dog trainers.  I bet it comes as a surprise to hear that I owe the start of my dog training career to your fine country! Let me explain. Back in the summer of ‘89 I fell in love with a handsome young Aussie, Simon, who I met overseas, in London, England.  Come fall, when he was due to return home, I did what seemed the obvious choice at the time… followed him back to Australia like a lost puppy.  Of course, I had NO idea that surfers almost always love their surfboards more than their girlfriends.  So after a summer of being abandoned on your beaches in favor of good waves, I headed home with a bruised heart, but a newfound love – the Staffie.

Simon had the most wonderful pet Staffie, Whisky (aptly named given Simon’s appreciation of the beverage) who I spent oodles of time with.  So upon return to Canada I declared the Staffie as my breed, and promptly got my very first dog, Monte. What better a breed to lure an unsuspecting owner into the world of dog training than a scrappy Staffie bitch!  Before Monte reached her first birthday she was unceremoniously banned from the dog parks of Montreal, and I was on the phone in desperation, seeking the help of a qualified behaviorist.  By pure luck I landed in the hands of Jean Donaldson, who later introduced me to Ian Dunbar, and, well, the rest is history.  Despite great advice and diligent efforts on my part, Monte’s park-bans were never lifted – but I sure learned a lot training her, and Jean and Ian became my dear friends and superb training mentors.  Their wisdom, philosophies, and expertise are what sparked my interest and shaped my approach to puppy training.

Puppy training is, to me, the most exciting and rewarding area of dog training because of the potential for making such a huge impact on the pup and guardian(s) with relatively minimal effort.  Once a dog’s genetics are determined at conception, there is really no better opportunity to affect the behaviour of the dog than in early puppyhood. When else in the dog’s life do we get so much bang for our training buck? I’d argue never.

This is not to say that other areas of training are not important – they most certainly are!  Adult obedience, behaviour modification for any age dog with a real or perceived problem, dog sport instruction, etc. are all very important.  But in terms of return on investment of training effort towards enabling the development of safe and enjoyable companion dogs, I’m convinced that puppy training is second to none. After teaching a few rounds of puppy class I got so hooked on the malleability of young pups, and the opportunity for prevention of the common behaviour problems and causes of relinquishment, that puppy class curriculum became my passion and focus.  Tinkering with class plans and formats was a virtual obsession for well over a decade – and I am delighted to have the opportunity to share with you some of what I’ve learned about running classes successfully.

How Puppy Class Differs from Regular Obedience Classes

Unlike adult obedience classes where improving the dogs’ and owners’ basic obedience skills is the primary course mandate, in puppy class obedience training is but one part of a well-rounded curriculum.  The primary goal of any puppy course should be to help the pups develop into safe, enjoyable companions.  This cannot be accomplished by obedience training alone.  Achieving this goal requires the delivery of a program that combines: screening for identifiable behaviour problems, owner education, preventive exercises for common behaviour problems, and the provision of an environment conducive to the dog’s normal social development.  

While the screening of pups for behaviour problems like resource guarding, or sound sensitivity is a great way to get a head start on “red flag” behaviour, we cannot rely on early detection and intervention alone, as many of the common behaviour problems in pet dogs will only surface during adolescence or social maturity – sometime between about 6 months and 3 years old.  This delay in the appearance of some behaviour is one of the reasons that puppy temperament testing is so controversial.  In light of this, and given that the pups in class are at an age when both apparent and potential behaviour problems are still, at the very least, modifiable, if not completely preventable with early intervention, we need to take full advantage of this precious and short-lived opportunity to exert an influence on the young pup’s development!

Class Content Checklist - 5 Key Elements
There are heaps of formats for puppy class – and in terms of length of session and course I don’t think there is any one magic formula.  I’ve seen both awesome and not so hot courses at each end of the spectrum, from 4 weeks of half-hour sessions to 8 weeks of 90-minute sessions.  I do think that the shorter the course the more critical it becomes to prioritize goals well – simply because you have less time to work with.  But length alone will not determine overall quality – how good your course is will depend on what you do with the contact time you have, and how well you guide your clients on what to do with their pups between classes.

Regardless of your course format, here is a hit list of what must be included, and why:

Socialization to other dogs and people
is probably the most important part of any puppy course.  For some puppies, your supervised play sessions are just about their only opportunity to develop their doggie-dog social skills and get appropriate feedback about jaw pressure – as their guardians may not expose them to other dogs between classes or provide useful feedback for puppy biting.  While people generally find the play sessions and handling exercises to be entertaining and enjoyable, there is almost always someone in class who will think the pups should be in more of a “boot camp” setting – that there is too much time goofing around and not enough time working on “real obedience” skills – if you fail to point out specifically what the pups are learning during socialization activities: social skills with people, with each other, and developing safe mouths.  The golden triad for any pet dog!  One great trick for squeezing in socialization activities without getting any grief about not doing enough obedience work in class is to disguise some social activities as obedience exercises. Now isn’t that sneaky! Recall races where the handler has to put a t-shirt on their pup upon arrival is one good example – the humans are happy to work on an obedience task, and the trainer is happy knowing that the exercise is really a twofer… covering both an obedience skill AND some socialization!

Acquired Bite Inhibition (ABI)
  – the dog’s ability to bite another dog or person in a safe, ritualized, inhibited manner – is essential for any pet dog to be safe with other dogs and people.  Ensuring that puppies have the opportunity to learn to bite safely can make the difference between inflicting little to no injury versus causing damage to another dog or person worthy of evening news coverage and a visit to the emergency clinic!  The good news about ABI is that it is quite easy to enable: well-adjusted adults and puppies will provide appropriate feedback to piranha-like puppy bites on their own, and humans can be taught how to safely tell the pup about the force of his bite: screeching “yikes” to the hardest bites and then giving the pup a swift time-out.  By simply providing play sessions, encouraging clients to allow their pup to socialize with safe, well-adjusted adults, and giving them simple instructions on how to respond to puppy biting you can tick this one off your checklist!

Demonstrate the use of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment
but don’t get too enthusiastic about sharing your theoretical knowledge and the terminology!  By simply modeling the use of positive reinforcement (reward for good behaviour i.e. treat) and negative punishment (loss of something valuable for bad behaviour i.e. time-out) in class during demonstrations and activities, and providing applications for every day life in easy to follow homework instructions, almost everyone will catch on. Most folks coming into class think there are two options for responding to behaviour, rewards and punishments.  Typically, the people that sign up for puppy class want to use rewards, and think punishments are bad – so they will benefit from learning that negative punishment is safe, humane, and quite essential for raising a well-mannered dog.  The occasional client who enters class eager to use positive punishers will quickly see that they are neither necessary nor benign. Most people don’t really want to scare or hurt their dogs, they only do so because they think they have to, so they are often delighted and relieved to learn otherwise, and switching them over is generally not a hard sell.  I have a sneaking suspicion that a lack of instruction on how to apply negative punishment is one of the main reasons that some people give up on “gentle training” and turn to harsher methods.  Don’t let that happen to your clients and pups – make sure they know what a time-out is!

Behaviour problem prevention is as much about good management as it is about training
. A puppy that gets enough exercise, attention, alone time, socialization, well selected toys, and supervision is not nearly as likely to destroy the house, mature into a social moron, or develop separation anxiety as one who is ill-managed.   Educating owners on good puppy management with guidelines on how much time they can be expected to spend alone, hold their bladder, and what toys are safe and interesting enough to keep them busy and out of trouble will go a long way towards preventing common behaviour problems.  Other behaviour problems, such as jumping on people, guarding resources, and pulling on leash require some specific training instructions to resolve or prevent.  This can be accomplished through in-class activities to demonstrate and practice the learning task, followed up by specific homework exercises.  General information handouts with suggestions can also be provided at the beginning of the course, for clients who want to get started on a behaviour problem of concern before it is addressed in class.  How much time you allot to each of the behaviour problems is to some degree a matter of personal preference.  I tend to spend very little contact time on leash walking because it is so well managed with modern anti-pull devices such as head halters and body harnesses.  I teach “loose-leash walking” rather than “heeling” because, frankly, pet dogs don’t need to walk at heel and their owners are usually unable to effectively teach the skill.  Heeling is a very high-investment low-return skill in terms of training time needed to get results, and I think there are other more important and less frustrating ways to spend precious contact time.  I spend a fair amount of time on screening for behaviour problems that are not easily managed, and not readily noticed by owners. Owners know if the dog is jumping up and pulling on leash – but they are often quite unaware when the pup is exhibiting low grade resource guarding, or is worried about stimuli such as certain types of dogs, people, or sounds.  Since these very behaviour problems that owners aren’t great at noticing can pop up during development, repeated screening throughout puppy class is very beneficial.  This is why I often play sound desensitization tracks during play sessions throughout the course – to informally screen for dogs that are reactive / noise sensitive, and point out the behaviour I see to the pup’s owner, who is often oblivious of the problem.

Some Basic Obedience Training is important for two reasons: safety and communication.  Every dog should learn an approach command (“Come”, or “Here”), a body position command that keeps them in place (“Sit-Stay” or “Down-Stay”), and a contact inhibition command such as “Off” or “Leave it”.   Beyond those 3, what to teach is very much a matter of personal preference and available time. I like to include some fun commands that are also useful, like the placement command “Go to your mat / bed”, and an activity regulating command like “Settle”.  If there is time in the course, teaching tug, a variation of “Off” and “Take it” with a few additional safety rules, is a great investment because the activity is so bond enhancing and energy draining. Tricks are really just optional jazzy obedience commands – and are a great way of getting people hooked on reward-based training because no one can get angry with a dog who won’t shake a paw!  Trick training helps owners realized that there are lots of reasons besides “stubbornness” for why a pup might not comply with a command.  Also, helping the pups learn a trick or two is good PR for the breeds with a bad rap (Pits, Rotties, Dobies) – dogs who can shake a paw, bow, or play dead are much less intimidating!

The Big Picture
All the puppies that attend your classes come with genetic packages that will affect the extent to which you can help them develop into fun, safe adult dogs.  Some will be predisposed towards fearful or aggressive behaviour, others will come wired with a hard mouth.  You can’t change their genes, but you sure can do your level best to maximize their positive genetic potential.  No matter what their genetic predispositions are, the dogs’ environment will affect the way the genes play out – especially the learning that takes place during early developmental stages like the socialization period.  Any behaviour is a combination of genes and environment – “nature” and “nurture” – and the beauty of puppy class is that it is the prime time for helping the pups and their guardians get the best they can out of the genetic package their dogs were born with.  
So, don’t lose sight of the big picture: whatever genetic package the puppies come to class with, your goal is to help them develop into the safest, most enjoyable companions that you can.  To do this the puppies need the opportunity to socialize, develop a safe bite, and go through proactive resource guarding prevention. Owners need to be aware of the most common behaviour problems and how to manage the puppy’s environment to prevent them, and puppies and owners need to develop a common lexicon for some basic obedience commands that allow for efficient communication, cooperative and enjoyable cohabitation, and effective human leadership.

Implementing Key Components in Class

Implementing the important elements of puppy class through a course is no small feat.  Certainly, throwing 12 pups ranging from 7 to 18 weeks old in a room together to socialize willy-nilly under the supervision of one instructor would be a recipe for disaster!  Careful class designations based on age, size and breed, attention to instructor-dog ratios, and ensuring a safe environment for the people and puppies is essential.  Once those basics are sorted out, developing a teaching style and class ambiance that is relaxed, inviting, and learner-centered so that the humans and dogs stay engaged and motivated are what set apart the average course from the extraordinary.  As Ian Dunbar rightly advised me years ago – you know you have your recipe right when puppy class is the family’s favorite evening of the week!  

Early Socialization – Groundbreaking New Position Statement by USA Veterinary Behaviourists!

For decades now, puppy trainers have been witness to the lifesaving positive impact of puppy classes.  The bummer has always been that the veterinary community, albeit with good intentions, scared the bejebes out of dog trainers and guardians over the potential infectious disease risks of letting pups mingle with each other before they were fully vaccinated.  

In the early days they recommended waiting until 6 months before enrolling a dog in school  – probably in part because training norms back then bordered on the abusive, and pups were best kept away at any age, and in part because the vaccines for certain diseases, like parvovirus, were not terribly effective. With the advent of modern, dog-friendly training methods, and the increased popularity and accessibility of puppy classes, there was no longer the risk of pups being ruined by heavy-handed training.  And with the development in the mid 90s of more effective vaccines against infectious disease, the risk of allowing otherwise healthy pups to mingle in a safe classroom setting, before the completion of their puppy vaccination series, was greatly reduced.  However, despite these changes, the veterinary community has remained very wary of encouraging group class for pups early in their vaccine schedules for fear of infectious disease transmission.  

A few lone veterinary crusaders did stick their necks out on the line over the past decade, arguing that the benefits of puppy class outweigh the risks so greatly that it is a travesty to discourage attendance.  In North America it was Dr. R. K. Anderson, a board certified specialist in both preventive medicine AND in behaviour, who led the way with an open letter to his colleagues.  In this letter he urged fellow veterinarians to encourage puppy class for pups as young as 8 weeks old, after only their first vaccination, because the risk of infection is so much less than the risk of euthanasia due to behavior problems.  The puppy class program that Dr. Anderson spearheaded at the University of Minnesota Veterinary College ran safely and successfully, as have other programs being run over the past decade that allow puppy attendance after a single vaccination, such as those at Purdue University, Ohio State University, your own Murdoch University Veterinary School, and likely many other institutions that I am unaware of. 

It has been difficult for veterinarians to recommend classes for young pups when doing so carries some degree of risk – especially when the veterinary community as a whole had not come to any sort of collective agreement on whether the benefits outweigh the potential for harm.  But the progressive realization that by keeping pups out of class until they are fully vaccinated we were winning the battle only to lose the war, has finally culminated in the superb groundbreaking position statement issued by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour :

“In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.”

“…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”

The time is ripe for offering puppy classes!  With newfound veterinary support of early enrollment, now is the time to start running these classes if you aren’t doing so already, and to think about how you might upgrade your curriculum if it isn’t quite “all it can be”.  To hear more about making your puppy classes your client’s favorite night of the week, along with the scoop on puppy vaccination considerations, and puppy temperament testing, you’ll have to come out and join your colleagues and me at the APDT conference in November… now how’s that for a lure!