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The Right Choice

This article discusses learning environments for puppies, explaining why classes may not be the best option for all puppies and why one-to-one training can be far more beneficial – depending on the dog.

In this article I’m going to talk about learning environments. I’ll start by asking some of the basic questions I would advise puppy owners to consider.

For example, are your learning choices the right ones for your dog? Should you automatically assume a class is the best fit for your pup? Are you being led into believing that a puppy socialization party at the local vet’s office is a great start? Are you thinking about the individual needs of your puppy? Are you being coerced into making choices or blindfolded by expectations of what you’ve ‘always done’ with your previous dogs?

These are the types of questions that have cropped up among my clients over the years. Thankfully, owners these days have become more mindful of their dogs’ individual needs and often now ask for advice as to what would be the best fit for their puppy when it comes to early skills training.

Sometimes though I’ve cringed at the stories I’ve heard. Some of these dogs have had terrible early experiences that have undoubtedly impacted on them later in life due to negative (and completely unnecessary) experiences during those impressionable early weeks when social learning is so shaped.

Distraction in Dog Training

Why is early training so important? This is certainly a valid question and a lot of my clients will very capably train their pups themselves and are experienced in meeting those animals’ needs.

But an excellent learning environment isn’t simply about whatever you and your puppy will actually learn in terms of a skill set. It’s about far more, such as interacting with other people (and possibly children) and other dogs, being handled, experiencing different noises, smells, textures, surfaces, and car journeys, and experiencing lots of different novel things.

It frustrates me a little when I hear (as I frequently do) that a puppy aged anywhere between 12-20 weeks say is ‘far too distracted’ by her environment. If she wasn’t actively interested and explorative I’d be concerned! Of course, there is a fine line between manipulating that experience so learning can take place but it is inevitable that young dogs will be distracted.

Having the building blocks in place by instilling manners early on, just as you would a child, makes life so much easier later on. Unruly, wayward dogs that display wild and inappropriate behavior (that they may be constantly chastised for) are not necessarily always happy dogs.

Puppy Classes

Personally, I’ve never taken my own puppies to an organized puppy party prior to attending a puppy class. I’m not saying puppy parties are bad. In fact, when they’re well run, they can be extremely helpful. But that’s the thing – they must be well run.

As I touched on earlier, over the years I have encountered some unfortunate tales of puppy parties – at veterinary practices, pet stores, pet creches or otherwise – which have not been well run and have ended up as something of a free-for-all with 10 puppies or more crushed into a small space being passed around like a parcel from owner to owner as an attempt at socialization.

A puppy is not going to have a good experience if she gets hounded by another and ends up squashed or terrified in a corner. Such events must be organized so that there is plenty of space. Every puppy’s character should be assessed and considered, specialized advice given to owners where warranted, and there is no competition over resources.

Some puppies may be anxious about specific lighting, slippery surfaces, external stimuli, or noise and these must be kept to a minimum. Everything must be a positive an experience as possible.

Socializing Puppies

Let’s now think about meeting and greeting other dogs in the park when a dog is old enough to socialize post vaccinations. Owners are probably excited to get their pup outdoors and show her off, but the dog may not be as keen.

I recommend that owners choose a time of day when it’s not too busy in the park, when there’s less hustle and bustle, fewer dogs, fewer people and less likelihood of novel events (e.g. football games, barbecues, exuberant children etc.) going on.

Outings should be short to begin with. And don’t plan on a huge doggy get-together either. This will likely stress the dog out completely. If your dog is a little more reserved, you want to aim for a short, positive introduction and build confidence slowly. Not all of us are social butterflies and it’s the same for dogs, so don’t force interactions.

Not all dogs are comfortable with others and if yours isn’t happy saying hello, that’s fine for now. Don’t push what she’s not happy with, even if your last puppy was extra outgoing. All dogs are different.

Training Classes

That time will come when you consider a formal training route. Should you opt for a class environment? Maybe you’ve enrolled in classes with your previous dog(s), so why not your current one? Take time to carefully consider this as classes don’t suit all dogs. You need to be thinking about your puppy’s personality.

Will he cope with other puppies around him at his stage of his development? Is he excessively anxious or fearful of other dogs, or environmental stimuli? Is there something you particularly struggle with?

At a young age, it is completely normal for a dog to be distracted, and this is another reason why the dog comes to class: to practice various skills with natural distractions around him.

Building Social Confidence

Class courses, when run professionally, can be great for building social confidence in a structured way, increasing social skills, teaching dogs how to appropriately greet each other and other people, how to react and interact properly and politely – within the household and outdoors – and improve those socialization skills.

Of course, owners should also be learning a basic skill set and receiving plenty of hands-on advice about all those puppy issues that inevitably crop up.

Some dogs may become completely overwhelmed by the competing environment, and despite every strategy the trainer puts in place, both dog and handler may find it very stressful.

Similarly, even though a trainer may have a small class in terms of numbers, particular care should be taken to space dogs out, pair dogs carefully, and adjust the lesson plan accordingly.

No matter what, some dogs may still find the environment anxiety provoking. This could be because they are uncomfortable in the presence of unfamiliar dogs or people, or perhaps there is something about the space the classes are held in that is unpleasant for that animal (e.g., the space echoes, the floor is slippery, it is cold/too hot, there is no water, it is too cramped etc.).

In these situations, I would certainly advocate that that individual does not attend a class course; to do so could be deeply detrimental. It is also incredibly important that the class course is run correctly.

If older dogs are allowed to bombard younger or more nervous dogs, or if fearful dogs are not allowed the time to develop confidence, they may regress behaviorally – even if the dog displayed no behavior issues prior to attending a class.

One-to-One Training

Private or one-to-one training may be a much better route for certain dogs. Although it can be considerably more expensive, it can work out much better in the long run.

I always advise one-to-one training if dogs are excessively nervous or reactive in any way, including being excessively vocal – because a noisy dog just doesn’t make for a great class experience for anyone. Generally, I find dogs do progress faster via a one-to-one route. Obviously clients have exclusive time with their trainer and can tackle issues head on, and they should also have feedback each session that they can work on between lessons.

Sometimes, if there’s something the dog or owner is really not succeeding at, e.g. recall, they can get a little lost with this in class. But via one-to-one sessions, the issue can be quickly addressed.

As a happy medium for puppies, I would advise owners to ask for a one-to-one course to be conducted in a local park. That way they can still have the benefits of socialization but can have the integration carefully monitored by the trainer, especially if the dog is more anxious.

They can also obtain specific advice regarding how to act when their puppy meets and greet other dogs and devise a strategy together regarding appropriate meet and greet behavior. For nervous and more reactive dogs, one-to-one really is the better first step, in my opinion.

Class environments can be claustrophobic and exacerbate issues. Many of my clients assume that lots of socialization at a class may act as a ‘cure all,’ but in effect it can simply become implosion therapy which makes issues a whole lot worse.

So think carefully about early school choices for your young puppy and don’t blindly follow the crowd. The option you choose can have huge and long-lasting positive or negative effects on a puppy’s emotional well-being, so careful deliberation and planning are well worth the time and effort.

Anna Francesca Bradley MSc BSc (Hons) is a United Kingdom-ebased provisional clinical, certified IAABC animal behavior consultant and ABTC accredited behavior consultant. She owns Perfect Pawz! Training and Behavior Practice in Hexham, Northumberland, where the aim is always to create and restore happy relationships between dog and guardian in a relaxed way, using methods based on sound scientific principles, which are both force-free and fun.

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