Puppy Series Part Five: Puppy Kindergarten

For the final installment of the puppy blog series I’m going to tell you all about puppy kindergarten.  Puppy kindergarten, or PK as I call it, is an umbrella term describing classes specifically designed for puppies only.  We’ll cover why it’s important, what kinds there are, and how to pick a good one. 

Jean Donaldson, with her trademark humor, likens attending puppy class to wearing a seatbelt or using a condom.  Once you’re done laughing about that metaphor, understand how true it is.  Puppy class is the best form of prevention for disaster!  It is optional, but why wouldn’t you utilize it, understanding all of the benefits it provides?  What exactly am I talking about? So glad you asked!  A good puppy class should prevent the following in the adult dog:

  • Injury-causing bites toward humans or dogs
  • Lack-of-socialization-induced stress
  • Grooming trouble
  • Veterinarian fear
  • Food stealing
  • Resource guarding
  • Jumping up
  • Excessive barking
  • Separation anxiety
  • Housesoiling
  • Leash pulling

Need I continue?

Seriously, though, a good puppy class will help you to prevent all of the most common behavior problems in dogs.  It is like insurance against relinquishment or euthanasia for your best friend.  Unfortunatly, not all puppy classes are created equal, so here is what I think they should minimally entail:

  • Supervised off-leash puppy play (with appropriate positive intervention for bullying or any other kind of naughtiness).
  • Human-socialization practice (where puppies meet all the humans in the classroom in a positive and beneficial way).
  • On-leash socialization practice (where puppies meet other puppies on leash and owners are instructed how to do this properly).
  • Handling/gentling exercises in which puppies learn how to accept gentle restraint and examination from humans.
  • Bite inhibition training demonstration and instruction (as described in yesteday’s post).
  • Housetraining advice and troubleshooting discussions.
  • Basic easy-to-follow training exercises and instruction for things like sit, down, stay, and loose leash walking.
  • Crate training advise and troubleshooting discussions.
  • Impulse control of all kinds including but not limited to doorway manners, food bowl manners, and sitting to greet.

To help you choose a class, here are the most common kinds of puppy classes and my opinions on them.  Of course, I hope it goes without saying, but the puppy class you choose should exclude any kind of corrective or harsh techniques.  Ask your prospective trainer to describe her training methods to you, and observe a class when possible before enrolling.   

  • Standard, fixed-length, catch-all classes will run for 6 or 8 weeks, meeting once a week, with puppies ranging anywhere from 8 to 20 weeks of age.  They typically utilize lure-reward obedience training and some discussion on solving issues at home.  The emphasis is usually on training, not socializing, though there are probably off-leash play groups.  This the “old school” way of doing things, and the only benefit that I see is that the trainer gets to know the puppies and owners quite well.  One of the downsides, however, is on the flipside of the same coin; the puppies get very comfortable with their group as well, minimizing the socialization benefit.  Another downside of having large classes with a wide range of puppies is that play group can get too out of hand.  Picture the 20 week old labrador splatting the 8 week old maltese and you get the picture.
  • Sirius Puppy Classes are a specific “brand” of puppy training class created by Ian Dunbar.  They are lure-reward and done 100% off-leash.  The instructors that go through the certification program for this are taught to remain very hands-off, the management of the puppies is done by the owners in the class.  I have seen video of these classes and it seems to work out well for people and dogs, but it is very different from the way that I personally train.  The benefit is that puppies are split appropriately by age and they get a lot of off-leash play in these classes.  Ian, as I’ve said before, is the puppy man, so if there is a Sirius class where you live I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up if I were you.
  • Open-enrollment puppy classes are the new wave of puppy training.  They involve a rotating group of puppies and humans, and you can attend as many as you want.  If you find an open-enrollment class that involves the criteria I listed above, sign up for it and attend as many sessions as possible. 

So now you know what’s out there, how do you pick the best class/trainer?  As far as picking your professional goes, check out my earlier blog on that topic.  Once you have picked a good trainer, you can just go with her puppy class, or you can observe it to get a feel for how it is.  If you haven’t yet worked with this trainer, that is what I recommend.  Watch several puppy classes in your area if you can and go with the one where the people are happy, the puppies are happy, and the instruction seems top-notch.  The facility should be clean and the training should be simple and well-explained.  Go with your gut, as always!  If you are lucky enough to find multiple awesome puppy classes in your area, go to as many of them as you can, your puppy will benefit from the added exposure.

There are a handful of old-school dog trainers out there that don’t “believe” in puppy class.  They will tell you they don’t have a puppy-specific class because it isn’t necessary and their basic training is suited for all dogs.  Puppy kindergarten is a specific, necessary kind of education for your dog.  The lessons puppies need are different from the kinds adolescent or adult dogs need, and a good trainer recognizes that.