A new puppy is an exciting addition to the family. Training your puppy is very important, because during the first four months of his life, he will go through a number of critical stages of development. This is where puppies learn what is “safe” and “dangerous” in the world. Anything a puppy learns is safe, he is likely to be comfortable with as an adult dog. Anything a puppy learns is dangerous during this time becomes a likely trigger for reactivity and aggression later in life. A puppy does not need to have a bad experience with a particular stimulus in puppyhood (toddlers, for instance), no experience at all will serve the same function.
After four months, most new things in the environment fall into the “dangerous” category. While many people say, “my dog is racist,” when he barks or growls at individuals with other skin colors, more than likely he just didn’t have any, or had negative exposure to, individuals with other skin colors.
Others say, “my dog must have been abused, she is afraid of men with beards and deep voices.” While she may very well have been abused, it is equally likely that she simply was never exposed to these types of men at all during her infancy. A puppy does not need to have a bad experience with a particular stimulus to develop reactivity, no experience at all will do just fine to create the same type of response.
Professionals given the opportunity to help pet parents raise their puppies well must understand that the focus of puppy class should be preventing behavior problems in the adult dog. Thorough and appropriate socialization will prevent reactivity and aggression problems in the adolescent and adult dog. For socialization ideas, check out 111 Socialization Opportunities for Puppies. A good puppy class will include the following:
- Resource guarding prevention exercises (“trade ups”) and teaching your dog to be comfortable being approached and touched while eating, and having hands in or around his food bowl.
- Management suggestions – your instructor should help give you ideas on how to manage your dog’s environment through use of crates, baby gates, and tethers to keep him safe and prevent him from rehearsing unwanted behaviors.
- Potty training suggestions – potty training a puppy can be a tedious and sometimes frustrating process. Pet parents should expect to receive support and advice on how to help the process along.
- Exercises which teach a puppy that human skin is delicate – nipping is a common problem for puppy parents. Puppies can be taught fairly easily to use their mouth politely through positive training.
- Polite greeting exercises – it is best to start training your dog to greet people politely when he is a puppy. It is easier to prevent inappropriate greeting behaviors like jumping than it is to fix them in the adult dog when they have been occurring for years. A good puppy class will teach your dog that the polite way to greet is by sitting, lying down, keeping “four on the floor” (all four paws on the floor), by waving hello or giving a high five.
- Socialization with men, women, and children of many ages and body types.
- Play with other puppies and healthy, vaccinated, and well-socialized adult dogs. During socialization interactions with other animals or humans, your instructor should be helping you understand canine body language and how to recognize signs of healthy play, fear, stress, and enthusiasm in your puppy.
- Walking on a variety of surfaces.
- Introduction to family life activities – sounds of vacuums, knocking, doorbells, sights of strollers, remote control cars, skateboards, bicycles, etc.
- Training a dog to accept various types of handling – your trainer should help you teach your dog to be calm and confident for veterinary or grooming procedures (nail clipping, brushing, tooth brushing, ears and eyes cleaned, etc.), as well as every day procedures like being picked up, having her leash put on.
- Tips on how to play with your puppy – this is a great age to teach your puppy how to play with a variety of toys, which will give you many powerful life rewards at your disposal for later training and fun as your dog matures.
I am not saying that puppies should not learn common manners like: sit, down, walk politely on a leash, come when you’re called, look at me when you hear your name, go settle on a mat, leave it, drop it, go to your crate on cue, etc. I will say that there is no deadline on training these behaviors – your dog can learn them at any stage in life and will indeed need refreshing on these behaviors throughout his life time.
There is, however, a deadline on socialization. Past these critical stages of development, you are crossing into the realm of desensitization and behavior modification. While these techniques are very effective, trust me, socializing your dog as a puppy is much easier than fixing behavior problems in your adolescent or adult dog.
Have you taken a puppy class with your dog? What were some of your favorite exercises? What do you wish your instructor covered in more depth? Please share in the comments.