Are puppy classes making it harder?

Dennis and His old buddy Beau

Recently I got a call from a potential client.  I had met him about a month ago when he came into observe our puppy class.  He has a 12 week old Yellow Labrador Retriever female.  I told him that our puppy classes are on Monday nights which at the time he said it might work for him.  I did not hear from him for a couple of weeks then got a call asking when the classes were again.  I told him that they are on Monday nights.  He said at this time he could not make our class and did I have a recommendation for another trainer in the area.  I told him that there was another person doing puppy classes and is a positive trainer.  I have never observed their puppy classes but I figured that at least it was something.  I got a call from him a couple of days ago and asked me if we could do some private sessions.  I asked him if he had gone to the other puppy class and he said yes he had gone two three classes and it was not working for his puppy and in fact his puppy was much better before he started the class.  I asked him what was going on?  He said that his 15 week old puppy is now barking and lunging at any dog she sees. Keep in mind that this is a 15 week old puppy that did not do this before the puppy class.  So do we know what might have caused this?

I have observed many puppy classes some better than others and some just plain bad.  Some of the worst ones I have seen is where puppies are just put in a cage with other puppies and are allowed what looks like a UFC (ultimate fighting match) for puppies.  Of course the puppies are not getting hurt intentionally but are learning lessons for other puppies that can affect them for the rest of their lives.  They are learning rough play with no influence from their owners.  You also know that there are puppies that are so afraid that they just want to leave the group and get as far away from the other puppies as they can.  What other lessons are they learning? I think they are learning  a lot about frustration and that all dogs are supposed to play like this so when they are out for their walks they see other dogs and what might look like and aggressive display is nothing more than frustration which has been learned in puppy class.  Now we are regularly seeing clients that are very frustrated that their dogs can’t even be walked around other dogs.  Their puppies see other dogs and are not capable of doing anything that the owner wants.  If you are going to teach a puppy class or are taking your puppy to class you need to find the most experienced person to teach this class because what happens in puppy class can affect your puppy for the rest of their lives.  Look for a puppy class that is not overwhelming for the puppy or client, get references from other people in the area how their puppies as adult dogs are around other dogs and where did they take their class.  Don’t rely on the certifications of the trainer to be a criteria for that trainer to be able to teach a puppy class. While one trainer can teach a manners class for adults dogs and do very well but that same trainer can do a lot of damage to your puppy if their class is not structured appropriately. It is very important that you understand that puppies learn a lot from how they play with other puppies and can affect their play styles with all of the other dogs that they play with in the future which can lead to real aggression. Just because a puppy class has 20 puppies in it does not make a great puppy class.  How can anything be taught in a class with 20 puppies, how can the trainer effectively manage 20 puppies or even be effective in their training methods.  Another tip is to observe the puppy class that you would like to attend before you get your puppy.  If the instructor does not allow you to observe the class then go somewhere else.  The instructor should have nothing to hide and will welcome any observers if what they are doing is good for the community of puppies and their people.  Make sure that the puppy class is based on positive reinforcement which does not just mean throwing food at the puppies to teach behaviors.  Ask the puppy class students if they are happy with the results they are getting and most important pay attention the puppies themselves.  Are they comfortable, are they able to do what the owner ask of them and do the puppies pay attention to the owners.  How can we expect to have a puppy we can enjoy if they can’t even do a sit with another puppy in the room or other people.

My new client with his puppy is very frustrated with what he got as far as training for his puppy.  He has had several dogs in the past and had pretty much done all of the training himself and said that all of his dogs were great family companions and were all well behaved when out in public.  If as trainers we are preaching that it is very important to socialize our puppies so they can be confident and well behaved adult dogs then this persons experience with the only puppy class he has ever attended has been a nightmare for him then how is that going to make puppy classes attractive for any client when after the puppy class their puppy is worse than when he started this is not good.  We as trainers have a duty to these puppies and our clients to make sure that the experience of a puppy class is not only socialization opportunity but a learning opportunity as well.  It makes no sense just for the sake of filling our classes as full as they can be to just make a few extra bucks if we are doing damage in the process to these puppies.  So the next time you are out for a walk and see someone with a very well behaved adult dog you might just ask this person who did the training and at the same time compliment them for having such a well mannered dog and watch them light up with pride.

Side note…… I was working with a very beautiful dog today who is both reactive to both people and other dogs.  We were working in a very calm park setting with a very calm neutral dog.  We were pretty close to a walking and bike trail when a guy rode his bike right past us.  He looked at this beautiful girl and said what a nice dog.  Even though she is not mine I was very proud to be handling her and said to him with great pride as she just watched him very calmly “thank you” and yes she is a very nice dog then we just calmly walked away.  My client and I looked at each other and said yes she is a very nice dog………


Dennis Fehling