Today’s topic is one of the most common questions we get from new puppy owners at our training facility – what’s the point of puppy kindergarten? Can’t we just go ahead and put Buddy in obedience class, so he can start learning the important stuff?
I get it. I really do. Especially if Buddy is a large-breed dog, like a Labrador or a Great Dane, who will be capable of knocking over full-grown adults in a few short months without some training. It seems like a no-brainer that the earlier you start “real obedience,” the better off you’ll be… right?
Well. Like so many things in life, the answer is not that simple.
The truth is, I always cringe a little when I get these requests – I will allow owners to enroll in the class of their choice, but I feel strongly that it is not in Buddy’s best interest to skip ahead. Not because he isn’t smart enough to hang with the grown-ups, or because you aren’t committed enough to do “real” work with him, but for a much more important reason: developmentally, at this age, he has much bigger fish to fry.
Assuming that Buddy is less than 16 weeks old, he is still in his critical socialization period – learning about the world around him, what is normal and what isn’t. (See last week’s post on puppy socialization for more on this.) That means that his “to-do” list looks very different from a 6 or 12-month-old dog’s.
Here are some of the most important things we work on in puppy kindergarten, none of which are covered in our obedience classes for older dogs:
Playtime with other puppies
This is, without a doubt, most owners’ favorite part of puppy class! It’s difficult not to smile in a room full of puppies wrestling and chasing each other. But aside from being fun for everyone involved, off-leash interaction with other puppies is one of the most valuable educational aspects of a well-run puppy class.
At this age, puppies are still developing their canine social skills and learning how to interact appropriately with other dogs – including vital skills like polite dog-to-dog greeting behavior, being gentle with their teeth during play, and reading social cues to determine whether another puppy wants to play or be left alone. Without these skills, many pups grow up to be adults who have difficulty communicating normally with other dogs, putting them at high risk for anxiety or aggression in social situations.
Just as importantly, puppy playtime offers an unparalleled opportunity for owners to learn what appropriate play looks like. We discuss normal play vs. bullying, when and how to intervene if things become too rough, and how to identify good playmates for your puppy based on his/her play style.
One caveat – playtime should not be an unregulated free-for-all! A good puppy class instructor will monitor closely to make sure that puppies are well-matched during play, and separate the class into smaller play groups of 2-3 puppies each if needed. Healthy, appropriate play is very beneficial, but it is important to make sure that more energetic or assertive puppies are not allowed to harass others who may be more anxious or reserved. A cardinal rule of “good” play is that everyone should be having fun.
New objects and different surfaces
An often-overlooked aspect of socialization is exposure to physical things in the environment, not just people and other dogs. If you’ve ever had a dog who won’t walk on shiny floors, or who barks and growls at the neighbor’s garbage can, you’ll understand how important this is!
We make a special effort in our classes to let the pups see and interact with lots of funny objects – they learn to run through a crinkly plastic agility tunnel, hop on and off of a rubberized teeter board and other things that move, and practice getting onto a pretend “scale” to be weighed. By using lots of praise and treats, and allowing the pups to try things at their own pace, we can make these experiences fun and rewarding.
Handling and grooming
Ah… vet visits, grooming appointments, and nail trims. They’re not very flashy or exciting, but they will be a huge part of your dog’s life – so it pays to invest a little time and effort with young puppies to avoid problems down the line.
Sadly, I see dogs every day in the veterinary clinic who cower and shake (or become aggressive) over things as uneventful as having their ears looked at with an otoscope, or their paws handled for a nail trim. It breaks my heart, because no dog should experience so much stress and fear over a simple physical exam.
In class, we practice body handling and vet/grooming visits each week on a table. The puppies get treats for allowing us to open their mouth, touch their paws, lift their tails and palpate their bellies. Depending on each pup’s comfort level, we may progress to brushing teeth, cleaning ears, and trimming nails – all while the puppy munches happily on bits of chicken or cheese provided by a helper, relaxed and comfortable with the entire process.
Trust me when I say that more than almost anything else we teach, these skills are worth their weight in gold. Especially if your dog is a large breed, or one that requires a lot of grooming!
Ultimately, here is the bottom line: the single most vital lesson a puppy can learn is that the world is a safe place. That strangers mean him no harm, that other dogs are not scary, that grooming tools and exam tables are fun. It’s no exaggeration to say that this one lesson, if learned well, will make everything else you do with him for the rest of his life exponentially easier.
I see far more dogs who struggle, both in competition settings and in daily life, because of anxiety or reactivity issues than because they lack the obedience skills they need. If your adult dog is friendly, confident and well-adjusted, we can teach him obedience very easily. If, on the other hand, your dog is reactive towards strange people or other dogs, or so anxious about new environments that he can’t focus, learning anything new becomes dramatically more difficult.
So absolutely, train your dog. Manners are important! But first, let your puppy be a puppy – he has his whole life to learn how to heel, but only a few short weeks to figure out his place in a huge, confusing world.
Use those few weeks wisely.