Puppy Kindergarten Vs. Obedience Class: What’s The Difference?

Puppy Kindergarten Vs. Obedience Class: What’s The Difference?

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.

8 thoughts on “Puppy Kindergarten Vs. Obedience Class: What’s The Difference?

  1. Hi, I made a mistake in sending my 10 week old pup to obedience classes (boarding) 🙁 I was recommended a trainer by a close friend and the trainer said that she wasn’t too young to be trained. The type of training was through leash corrections. Now I find myself in constant struggles thinking that I broke her puppy spirit. I was told that she had to obey the commands and at any disobedience, she should be corrected with a leash jerk. Leash kept on at all times. Staying in a designated place for as long as she’s in the house. No play time since she wasn’t following the commands. No treats. No toys. I feel terrible. I consulted another trainer and they told me that she was too young and that they don’t take pups in before 5 months because the first months of having her should be for bonding. Now, it’s been about 3 weeks since I got her back from boarding and she doesn’t follow verbal commands. After 2 weeks I came to my senses and realized that she was a pup and needed to be cut some slack. Now she doesn’t follow me around or cuddle with me like she used to (12 weeks now). She won’t come to me. She wants to be away – I don’t blame her. My gut instinct is telling me that this isn’t right. How do I get her to trust me again?! How do I get her puppy spirit back?! I feel so terrible – to the point that I’m in tears and feel so guilty. So you have any tips? She’s a Great Dane.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear your story – what a sad experience for both you and your puppy! Based on your description, I would agree that this type of training was grossly inappropriate, especially for such a young pup. But, I can also tell you this – everyone who’s ever owned a dog has made mistakes, and done things that they wished they hadn’t. Myself included! So try not to beat yourself up for sending her to this trainer. All you can do is your best, based on what you know at the time. When you know better, then do better 🙂

      I absolutely think that you and your pup can rebuild your relationship – dogs are very forgiving, and you can change her life going forward. I would recommend finding a good reward-based trainer in your area who can help you begin working with her again – I would start with easy, simple things like hand-touch with her nose or even a sit, and teach them with lots of treats and praise. No corrections, lots of encouragement. I would also work on finding out how she likes to play, and spend some time doing this with her each day.

      1. For the past 3 days she bites my hands if they are around her – not even if I’m petting her. I can be sitting and the first thing she goes for is my hand. I have a lot of scratches and bruises on my right hand now. When I brought her home, I would redirect her mouthing by putting a chew toy in her mouth and it worked. Now, I don’t know if it’s her teething or if she’s acting out. She also bites my legs and feet now and tugs at my clothes. And there’s toys around for her. Can the hand-touch method work even if she’s biting at my hands?

        1. Biting and mouthing is actually very normal behavior for puppies – I can’t say for sure without seeing her, but from what you describe it sounds like play behavior. Normally, the best way to handle this is to redirect to a toy if you can (which you have been doing – great job!), or if not, just fold your arms and stand still until she stops, then get a toy or do something else to “change the subject.” Once you’ve done a bit of positive training with her, you could ask for a sit or a hand touch and then reward with a treat. Then go and get her busy with something else before she starts mouthing again 🙂

      2. And thank you so much for responding! I am pretty shattered at this point, so talking to someone helps tremendously. I plan to sign her up for puppy classes at Petsmart and start the earliest classes I can!

        1. I know I’m not who you wanted a response from but I hope this helps you feel better… my friend messed up a lot worse with her dog Roxy when she was a puppy and it went on for a lot longer than yours did.. she just kept following horrible advice from shitty trainers before finally finding a positive based trainer who helped change their lives completely. Find a good positive dog trainer to help you out, keep reading Dr. Jens blog, and take her to that puppy class and you two will be ok in time. Don’t lose hope. I promise, everyone makes some mistakes. I’ve made them myself and feel awful. And my friend made mistakes and felt horrible but her dog is ok now too. And think of the rescue dogs who have been through so much but can still forgive, love, and learn and are ok now! This might not be true but maybe part of her behaviour is that she’s sensing that you’re upset and is confused by it? I’m sorry for inserting myself here and for rambling so much, I hope I made sense I didn’t have any coffee yet, but I just had to try to give you some hope. You obviously love your dog and care a lot and that combined with proper education and follow through is what’s most important and is what you’re doing. You were just doing what you thought was best with the information you had. <3 good luck!

  2. Hi Dr Jen,

    We just brought home our adorable 8 week golden retriever. She received her first round of vaccinations 5 days ago. We are eager to enroll her in puppy socialization classes-the facility that has been recommended to us claims that puppies can join with only one round of vaccinations. The facility asks for proof of the vaccinations and classes are sanitized and kept to a 5 puppy maximum. What are your thoughts on this, is this safe or am I putting our pup at risk??

    Thank you!

    1. I know I already replied to your private message, but wanted to go ahead and post my answer here as well in case anyone else has a similar question and was curious about the answer 🙂

      As long as Izzy has had her first set of shots and the class is well-managed (which it sounds like it is!), I would be fine with enrolling her now. Although there’s no such thing as zero risk no matter where you might take her, a good puppy class should be incredibly low-risk for exposure to any illnesses and her vaccination should do a good job of protecting her regardless – just make sure she stays current on her boosters. AVSAB (the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) recommends starting puppy class at 7-8 weeks of age if possible, so you’re right on schedule 🙂

      Congrats on your new baby, and kudos to you for being proactive about getting her socialized!

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