Go to Class!

Updated: October 23, 2012
Published: August 22, 2012
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When I told my mother that Maverick was enrolled in a puppy class, she responded with, "Don’t you already know how to train a dog?" This reminds me of the time that she was at my house and asked, “Do you want me to pass the vacuum?” To which I responded, "YES!" As for the dog class question, of course I know how to train a dog.

However, there is value in hearing the way that others phrase ideas, even if the ideas are familiar to you. Also (GASP!), I may not know everything about training dogs. Hearing new ideas is beneficial. I think that the most valuable thing about classes is the exposure that your puppy gets to the sights and sounds outside of the home. How many of us complain that our dogs are perfect at home, but embarrass us outside of the home? If you only take your puppy out occasionally for training outside of the home, he will certainly not be able to behave outside of the home.

When I encounter clients whose puppies need basic training, I suggest that they go to a class taught by a positive reinforcement dog trainer instead of scheduling private lessons. Tips for finding a good trainer can be found in my post, How to Find the Right Trainer for Your Pup (and you can find a ready to print version here).

For puppies especially, it is incredibly important for them to attend classes because they need socialization and exposure. In addition, the puppy needs to learn to have impulse control and obedience in the presence of stimuli outside of his normal environment.

While the first puppy class is really important, it can’t stop there. You have to keep working with your puppy. I recommend that puppies continue in classes until they are 3 years old. This recommendation comes from the developmental stages that the puppy goes through from 4 months (when he generally graduates from puppy class) to 3 years. There is a second fear period at 6-8 months of age. It is imperative that the puppy continues his positive exposure during this period.

Beyond that there is social maturity which generally occurs between 1 and 3 years of age. Think of this as teenage years for dogs. Do you remember your teenage years? Now imagine if you had no guidance and didn’t go to school. Might you have been a little weird, fearful, or just plain trouble?

Social maturity is when we see many anxious dogs become more anxious and fearful dogs resort to aggression. To try to keep those changes at bay, keep your puppy in as many positive reinforcement classes as possible throughout this period. It doesn’t matter what he learns. He just has to get out and his experiences need to be structured and positive.

I am extremely busy, so I understand what I am asking of the average working family with kids, but if I can do it, you can too. Maverick has completed Focus Foundation and Nosework 1. He is now enrolled in Super Puppy and Puppy Play and Learn. When those classes end, we are enrolled for Nosework 2.

Just as at the training center where I take Maverick, there are lots of classes beyond puppy class near you. Here are some options: trick classes, advanced obedience, puppy agility, pilates for pooches, and nosework. If your dog training club or facility doesn’t offer these classes, ask them to do so. Trainers are always looking for new ideas.

Another reason to keep your puppy in a class as opposed to private lessons is that coming to class with your puppy results in peer pressure to work with him. It is one thing for your instructor to just look at you and tell you that you should have done your homework. It is a whole different feeling when you see that other puppies are better behaved than yours. Or maybe they are behaving badly and your dog is perfect because you did your homework! A class situation promotes this type of consistent interaction with your puppy, which will make the behaviors become habit. In addition, your puppy will continue to be exposed to different stimuli, including other puppies, older dogs, and people.

Now, if you are having trouble with a certain exercise or your puppy is completely stressed at class, certainly ask your trainer for a private lesson to supplement your class situation. The trainer may recommend that you sit out of that class if your pup is very stressed. That is fine, but make the goal, even if it is years down the road, to enter another class. There are classes and sports such as Nosework which are perfect for fearful or aggressive dogs. There is something for everyone. So get on your computer and find a class!!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Laurel by bullcitydogs / via Flickr