Puppy Classes - Tips from Agria's Behaviour and Training Advisor

Written by: Carolyn Menteith, accredited behaviourist and trainer

As more and more owners begin to realise that their puppies need socialisation and habituation, the more puppy playgroups and early training classes are appearing up and down the country to give owners this help.

A good puppy playgroup will give your dog a perfect start in his new life, and more than that, it can give you support at what can often be a difficult time… Puppies can be exhausting! A good puppy class will not only help socialise you puppy but it will help you too and give you a forum to ask questions and get professional advice.

Benefits of puppy classes

  1. Socialisation with unknown dogs and people in a strange situation so puppies get to learn appropriate social skills. Often owners don’t know other people with dogs and so their puppies grow up without ever learning to be social. It is in the first 16 weeks (and in some breeds and types, much earlier) where puppies learn the soft skills – the skills of social contact, communication, conflict resolution, problem solving and behavioural competencies. Puppy parties are great for helping develop these skills.
  2. Practice your early training in a new place. Dogs don’t generalise… If you teach your puppy to sit in the kitchen, he thinks that sit just means ‘sit in the kitchen’ unless you get him out and teach it everywhere.
  3. Good socialisation will help prevent problems later – including aggression problems (which in the main have their roots in fear). Even puppies who have had excellent socialisation by the breeder before they go to their new homes may grow up frightened of men or frightened of children because they haven’t had the chance to get used to lots of different people in a variety of situations and at the crucial life stages.
  4. As well as socialisation, you will also learn how to continue to habituate your puppy to the sights, sounds and experiences that will form part of their day-to-day life with you. This has to be done properly and positively without scaring your puppy as that can create the very fears and phobias you are trying to prevent.
  5. A puppy playgroup will give you a forum to ask questions and get answers to your problems and worries. People always have problems when they are raising a puppy – and if they have nowhere to ask questions, they will go to unreliable sources (the internet or TV). Many problems can be solved with the smallest input at this stage before they become a huge problem later.
  6. Playgroups are not just a forum to raise and solve problems – but a chance for a professional to be able to watch your puppy to see any potential problems and prevent them growing.

In the same way as you would when you choose a nursery for your child, go along and watch without your puppy. Check that all the puppies look happy and that they are enjoying themselves, make sure there are enough staff to watch every puppy, and make sure off-lead time is well supervised and managed.

Most people think the main bit of a puppy playgroup is for the puppies to get a chance to play together but this is where many badly run puppy classes go disastrously wrong. Puppy parties should not be free for all off-lead mayhem.

Far too many puppy classes have unstructured playtime where all the puppies are allowed off the lead to charge around together. The ‘trainers’ have little understanding of behaviour, canine body language, and breed types, and they just leave everyone to sort it out for themselves!

This teaches the stronger pushy puppies how to be bullies, and the nervous puppies that it is right to be fearful, as there are some real bullies out there. These are often the foundations of dog-to-dog aggression problems. And even the fairly well balanced puppies who think it’s loads of fun, just learn to ignore their owners, as other dogs are far more fun!

Not only do the confident dogs learn to ignore their owners, fearful dogs, who are often left to fend for themselves learn that they can’t rely on their owner, they have to make their own decisions, and they have to look after themselves. In other words, they lose the trust they should have in their owner.

Remember that these puppies are learning their soft skills – and what they learn now, in that first 14-16 weeks, will determine their future social interactions. They are learning how to interact with others, and what is dangerous as well as what is safe. Your aim, and the aim of a puppy class, is to teach them social skills – not teach them that other dogs can be dangerous. And you do not want to give the bolder stronger puppies a chance to practise being thugs at a time when they are learning these social skills.

So take time to find the perfect puppy play group or class – it really is a huge investment in your dog.