Sloppy puppy class: doing more harm than good?

Dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele lists do’s and don’ts of puppy class design. Written in August 2016.
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Early puppy classes: good or bad?

I was talking to Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy – Vet Behaviourist at Animalytics and Wagenrenk – about what she thought of our stance on early puppy classes at OhMyDog‘s (my dog training school in The Hague). Our position had always been to take on very young pups whilst tightly managing the risk of disease (see Hard choices section below).

I’d had the occasional push back from first line vets but had assumed it was because they had a purely medical, not medical-behavioural perspective. The medical-behavioural perspective gives you a more complicated risk picture. Solid epidemiological research like this one, and position statements by well-established institutions like the American Association of Veterinary Behaviourists inspired our guidelines so we felt we were on solid grounds.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are an orthodoxy among modern dog trainers.

Given that Valerie was also a behaviourist, I didn’t think for one second that she would take a medical stance yet she exclaimed: “That is FAR too young.” Not only was it too risky in terms of disease risk, but many puppy classes did more harm than good on the behaviour front.

This was earth-shattering for me. Early puppy classes are orthodoxy among modern dog trainers. Had I fallen for bandwagon thinking? The school’s evidence-based vision was being put to the test. We now had to cast aside the popularity, economics, tradition, and comfort of that idea and examine our policy critically. We had to do the right thing.

I made a list of her concerns and asked more colleagues (vets, behaviourists, trainers) to chip in. We ended up with a list of do’s and don’ts against which to check our current standards. The following post shows you the results.

Puppies socialisation traumatisation classes

Don’ts: Many dog training schools pressure owners to push the pup in at the deep end. “Bring them to kids’ birthday parties,” they say, or “Take him to the shopping mall on a Saturday.” One of the worst ones is: “Let every passerby pet him.” All fine in theory but horrendous in practice: more pups than not come out of this deep end approach with solid aversions, and some with a downright phobia.

There's a fine-line between constructive exposure and trauma

There’s a fine-line between educational exposure and trauma

We brain-wash our students with our socialisation mantra: ‘the pup notices but does not mind’

Do’s: We ourselves noticed that our students also confused socialisation/habituation (i.e. gradual and positive introduction) with flooding (i.e. deep end stuff). We changed our program to make this point central: we have tattooed the socialisation mantra tattooed in their heart: ‘the pup notices but (altogether now) Does – Not – Mind‘ (thank you for the great one-liner, Temple Grandin). We show our students the signs that it’s time to take a break long before the pup has had enough, and we break it all down into small steps. So it’s a firm No Flooding approach for OhMyDoggers.

Puppy classes are faaaaaaaar too long

Don’ts: Many puppy classes last an hour and ask the pup to stay perfectly still throughout. They expect the dogs to patiently wait their turn and to rise up to the occasion the second it’s time their turn to perform. To make matters worse, many schools host ten to twelve pups per class, leaving them over-stimulated and frustrated out of their furry little minds.

tantrum

Tantrums are a sign the class is far too long for the pup

Do’s: We too were running into over-stimulation and under-stimulation problems at the beginning, so we adjusted our policies to pro-actively manage the pups between turns:

  • Our classes have a maximum six pups per member of staff.
  • Our puppy classes last forty minutes.
  • We have behaviour coaches – whom I trained in behavioural first aid – who try to swoop in as soon as a pup shows a subtle sign of stress. The coach then increases distance, demonstrates a focus game, or adds a visual barrier.
  • We have a mountain of brain toys and games to keep the high-drive pups happily focused between turns.
  • We explicitly instruct our students that their pups do NOT have to sit between turns and won’t start the central explanation until every pup is happily settled on their mat with a chew toy.
  • We enforce a mandatory distance between pups so that they do not feel threatened by the proximity of other pups whilst waiting for their turn.
  • We ask each handler to bring a familiar, comfortable blanket and to let the pup take a nap at any point in class.
  • We alternate between intense and calm exercises.

Puppy fight club

Many students contact us hoping the puppy class will be a giant puppy playground, and hoping this will force the shyness out of their dog. We have to rain on their parade because we take a very serious approach to puppy play.

bully

Kids aren’t exactly the best social skills teachers. Pups aren’t either.

Don’ts: Many schools allow all the pups in class to play together with barely any supervision or intervention. “Let them sort it out,” they say. This is a disaster waiting to happen: you wouldn’t rely on boisterous two-year-old boys to teach your toddler social skills, right? Leave the little Hooligans to their own devices and it will end in tears. They’ll get more and more excited and the whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy.

When it comes to teaching pups social skills, the Puppy Fight Club approach will only teach the boisterous ones to perfect their bullying, and the shy ones to perfect their fear.

fight club

First rule of puppy club: no fight

Do’s: Teaching the pups social skills is absolutely part of our program, but it is not a free-for-all. It takes controlled exposure and careful re-direction to teach the young ‘uns decent social skills. So we do have puppy play sessions, but it is a structured and closely supervised exercise:

  • We match the pups by size and play style.
  • We don’t let the whole class play at once and only allow a few pups ‘in the arena’ at a time.
  • We sprinkle the field with visual barriers and interesting objects to break the focus on the other pups.
  • We alternate the attention and recall exercise with the play exercise, so the pup keeps their guardian on their mind throughout the session.
  • We keep the play sessions extremely short and get a ‘fresh’ pup after a couple of minutes.
  • We show the students when to intervene – again, long before things get out of hand.
  • We transition to and from play mode smoothly.

The whole thing will turn into a pushing, shoving, biting, snatching, and growling frenzy

In short, these sessions have an explicit educational objective and they are not organised as a wild romp for their own sake.

Hard choices: Medical versus mental health

The reasoning behind opening our doors to very young (therefore not fully vaccinated) pups lies on two main arguments:

  1. Euthanasia for behavioural reasons is the number one cause of death in otherwise healthy dogs.
  2. Failing to appropriately habituate/socialise pups to city dog situations at this sensitive age predisposes them to develop behaviour problems.

Don’ts:

  • Some puppy schools have no vaccination policy in place, or do not follow up on them. A piece of advice here: if a school lets you join without showing proof of vaccination, move on. If they have such a cavalier attitude to their students’ health, where else are they cutting corners?
  • Some puppy schools overfill their classes with ten to twelve pups, and place them extremely close to each other
  • Some puppy schools give their puppy classes in public areas which are visited by many non-school dogs, so they can’t make sure that all dogs treading the grounds are vaccinated.

Do’s:

At OhMyDog, conscious of the fact that we opened our doors to very young pups, we had already managed the risks quite pro-actively:

  • All the school’s dogs have to be on schedule for their vaccinations (including kennel cough).
  • Only our students’ dogs step foot on the field, no outside dog.
  • I get up-to-date disease and vaccination information from the veterinary clinic where I give my behaviour consults, and I train the staff accordingly.
  • We do not accept pups who are sick on our grounds (e.g. diarrhoea, etc.)
  • We operate a stringent hygiene policy: no dog is allowed to relieve themselves on the field and if they do, it gets immediately cleaned up.
  • The pups do not interact physically with each other outside of one short segment of one lesson every eight weeks.

Given that pathogens can stay active on the ground for weeks, we know our policies are not perfect, particularly after speaking to European veterinarians who made it clear that the American Veterinary Association’s policies were not a perfect match for us. So we also upped the recommended age of joining from eight to ten weeks.

When handlers who prefer waiting get in touch, we give them a thorough guide with socialisation/habituation milestones and methods so they can start BEFORE they physically bring the pup to classes. After all it is important to start puppy socialisation early, not necessarily puppy class.

Puppy class 2.0

Phew. After giving our classes this health check, we only needed to change one policy: we moved our recommended starting age from eight to ten weeks.

If you thought designing a responsible puppy class was just about having fun with cute fur balls, think again!

Illustration credits

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