When people decide to add a puppy to their family one of most common pieces of advice they hear is ‘take it to puppy school!’ Unfortunately, not all puppy schools are created equal, and many people don’t realise that a badly run puppy school can do their puppy a lot of harm and potentially long term damage.
Puppy owners are always keen to do the right thing by their puppies so many people take this advice and sign up to a puppy pre-school class at their local vet, club or training school. Most puppy schools take pups between the ages of 8-16 weeks, which can mean that the older pups in the group may be entering a puppy’s most critical development fear period (you can read more about how puppies develop by reading our puppy development calendar). The other problem is that many times some classes lack structure which means the class is a play session. There may be problems with this too especially if you have any competition aspirations with your pup.
I’m planning to add a puppy to my pack later this year so I know how new puppy owners feel when they are bringing a new pup home. It’s exciting but can be terrifying at the same time when you want to do the right thing by your puppy but aren’t sure what that is. A good puppy school can really benefit new puppy owners, and when Steve and I were recently talking about the good, bad and ugly of puppy schools we thought writing a blog post about it would help owners choose a puppy school that will teach them how to get the best out of their puppy.
What is puppy school?
Puppy school (or puppy pre-school or kindergarten) is a class that is often run by vet nurses, volunteer club instructors, trainers and sometimes, qualified behaviourists. They are usually run for puppies between the ages of 8-16 weeks over the course of 4-8 weeks. While the content varies from place to place, they are generally designed to educate puppy owners on training, health and nutrition, grooming, and socialisation.
What is a ‘bad’ puppy school?
There are a number of ‘styles’ of puppy schools we warn owners against attending.
1) Puppy schools run by vets or vet nurses
Without question there are some great vet nurses out there who are knowledgeable about canine behaviour, but there is very little in the vet nurse courses or vet courses on dog training and or behaviour, so be cautious about attending puppy schools run by vet nurses if your choosing this class based on the fact that the vet nurses are qualified in some way. They are but not in dog training and behaviour so you may not get the best result.
There are companies around the world that have sold the puppy school franchise to vets as a supplementary income, meaning they sold the format and process and the vets bought it as a business venture.
If you are attending a puppy school run at a vet surgery, make sure you ask who the instructor will be and what their experience is when it comes to training dogs.
2) ‘Free for all’ puppy schools
One of the most common reasons people take their puppy to puppy school is for ‘socialisation’. What socialisation means can differ at every puppy school, but any puppy school that allows free for all play amongst puppies should be avoided.
I have seen far too many puppy classes where large breed pups are let loose with tiny toy breed puppies, where bossy pups are allowed to terrorize softer puppies who are already frightened and cowering behind their owners or under a chair. Do not believe an instructor who tells you that the way to fix timid or fearful puppies is by forcing them to run with larger and more confident puppies. This can do irreparable psychological damage to a puppy that already has a negative association with other dogs.
Teaching your puppy that other dogs are of a high value and are extremely rewarding is only going to lead to obedience issues down the track. Puppies need to learn how to focus on you around other dogs. A puppy school that instead focuses on letting your pup play with others is not setting you or your puppy up for success.
One of the most common reasons people come to see us for behavioural consults is because of issues that have arisen from their dog having problems that have been developed in puppy class such as having too high a value for other dogs, or their dog becoming too reactive and excitable as soon as it sees another dog, not being able to walk on a loose leash or recall around other dogs, valuing play with other dogs more than any rewards the owner has to offer etc – more often than not, these owners took their puppy to a puppy school that allowed free for all play which is when their puppy started developing too high a value for other dogs.
It is all too easy for owners to think doing the wrong thing is right at a bad puppy school.
3) Puppy schools that use guilt to train owners
Regardless of the methods used an instructor that guilt trips or forces puppy owners into using certain methods should be avoided at all costs. Good trainers will never force you to use methods you aren’t comfortable with, and no one should ever handle your puppy for you without explaining to you first what they are planning to do and making sure you are comfortable and happy for them to do it.
It is not necessary to use excessive force or heavy physical corrections with puppies, and I would steer clear of any puppy school that requires owners to fit tools like head collars or check chains before training can commence. These kinds of tools aren’t necessary to train a puppy and often result in conflict between the owner and the dog.
Most importantly remember that you are your puppy’s guardian, if you are ever in class where the instructor or trainer does something that you are not comfortable with, don’t let them! Don’t feel you need to continue with a puppy school that you aren’t comfortable with or isn’t working for you or your puppy.
4) Puppy schools that are run by inexperienced trainers
Often, especially at training clubs, puppy school is assigned to new instructors or trainers to teach them how to run a class. This is a big mistake as puppy school is one of the most important classes you could attend and one of the hardest ones to get right as you are working with puppies in their most critical development phase.
I’ve taken a puppy to puppy school run by a trainer who was completely out of their depth and as the owner of a harder, quite challenging puppy it was incredibly disheartening to find the trainer was so out of their depth that they didn’t have a clue how to handle my puppy or how to teach me how to get the best out of her. It meant we were relegated to the ‘back’ of the class and ignored for the rest of the course.
Every puppy and owner are different and this is why it is really important to make sure you go to a puppy class run by someone who has experience and knowledge working with lots of different breeds and owners. Any time you sign up to a puppy school make sure you talk to the person running to ascertain their level of experience, and to ask them what the classes will cover. Tell them about your puppy and any problems you may already be having so you have a good understanding of how they will help you overcome these problems in class. The trainer should be more than happy to talk to you about their methods, experience and how they will run the class.
What is a ‘good’ puppy school?
1) Classes run by experienced and qualified trainers or behaviourists who have raised pups and advised people on raising pups that have met the goals you are looking for.
Always look for a trainer that not only has experience but whose training style and class structure suits your needs and goals. You are more likely to be happy with the results if the trainer shares and understands your goals and aspirations for your puppy.
2) Classes that focus on behaviour not just teaching ‘sit’ and teach you how to train your pup, not just set you up for more classes later on.
Almost all of the dogs that come to see us for behaviour therapy were taught how to sit, drop and shake paw as puppies. A good puppy class should focus on teaching owners about behaviour, not just how to teach the puppy basic obedience commands.
Your trainer should also help you with your current problems without trying to up sell you to more classes. Some trainers will only cover set topics in their classes and will encourage you to pay for more lessons if you want to understand how to tackle a problem you are having (such as loose leash walking) obviously trainers want to keep their clients training with them, but they shouldn’t do this by deliberately setting owners up to fail so they have to come back for more classes later.
3) Classes that inspire confidence in puppy owners and help them drive the pups training to achieve their goals.
A good puppy class wont guilt trip you or make you feel like you are failing if you and your puppy learn at a different pace to other owners and puppies in the class. A good trainer will give you the tools you need to feel confident about training your puppy, and will teach you how to enjoy it! Every puppy and owner is different and a good trainer will have many tools in their bag to help inspire confidence in each handler.
Steve’s Thoughts on Puppy School
While we were discussing this topic I asked Steve some questions over email and I have added them here for you to benefit from.
Bec: Do you ever see problems in adult dogs that were caused by puppy school?
Steve: The puppy school course structure was designed years ago on a one size fits all basis, and has not evolved since it was written. There is no proofing of the adult dogs raised outside of this school so there is no way or desire to research and develop the program to remain valid and cause no harm.
With this problem in place, puppy school is often play school and this causes a multitude of problems with development, problems that can see the dogs needing behaviour therapy later or the dog being euthanized.
Bec: How do you know this Steve?
Steve: I get to see many dogs with issues seeing that a large part of my work is behaviour therapy, many times the owners can describe events that occurred in puppy school that developed the issue in their dog.
I design my puppy training courses around the goals of the pups owner, not a standard format.
Bec: How do you pick a good puppy class?
Steve: It can be tricky, people are going to tell you what you want to hear, I guess don’t make a nuisance of yourself but do ask questions and don’t just swallow what you are told.
Convenience can be a dangerous word, don’t go to a class purely because it is local, this really won’t be convenient later on if the class is badly run.
Bec: Do you think there is one key component missing from puppy class?
Steve: I think there are way more than one in some classes, the better ones though might really benefit from reading my articles on socialisation and neutralisation. See this article.
I think it is also very important to run a question and answer section in which specific questions can be asked by the pups owners to address problems they are having and also some of the class should be dedicated to helping owners shape behaviours at home so the puppy is well managed and trained to live in harmony with the family.
I really think this would help avoid so many pups hitting 6 months of age and being dumped at the pound for bad behaviours.
Bec: Great points, anything else you could add?
Steve: One piece of advice I can think of is, training your pup or dog isn’t to fix problems, training is prevention, behaviour therapy is to fix problems.
Prevent problems by training the correct behaviours rather than training to try and fix problems.
What do you think? Have you had a bad experience with a puppy school? Do you run a puppy school yourself? Tell us about your experiences below!