I would happily spend all day watching puppies play, but that is not what I do for a living. It is my job to ensure that the puppies leaving my class are well adjusted and have an understanding of social etiquette. “But wait, I thought puppies need to play with other puppies to learn how to be social, isn’t that what socialization is?” Puppy play is only a small part of a much bigger equation that is dog socialization. Let’s compare to human children- you wouldn’t send your 5-year-old child to kindergarten and expect that they will learn manners from their friends do you? No, there are teachers and staff there to ensure your child is practicing good behavior while interacting with others its own age. Kindergarten is not a free for all endless recess session and puppy class shouldn’t be either.
I’m not saying that puppies shouldn’t spend time off leash in puppy class but there is a purpose for it and it is not to sit back and watch them play. When we unclip the leash and send our puppies out to play they are still learning whether we are actively teaching them or not. Just like us, puppies learn by association and the associations they are making when we say “go play” and take a step back are detrimental to their social skills. Let’s take a look at some problem’s that can arise from an inefficient puppy class:
First, let’s discuss personality types as that plays a major role in how they handle being off leash together. Some puppies may feel anxious and overwhelmed with the sudden flood of puppies around them while others can easily brush it off. People are the same way, some can handle standing in a long line with the people around them bumping into them and others may have an outburst or leave the line altogether.
Puppies in every class land somewhere on the spectrum between shy and bully, the goal is to get them centered between the two quickly. With shy puppies that want to run away, hide or be held the trainer’s advice is often “put the puppy down and walk away” or “it needs to learn to fend for itself.” But what does this really teach the puppy? Putting it down and walking away when it is afraid tells the puppy “when you are scared I do not have your back”, personally I want my dogs to seek me out if they are ever afraid. And what does “fend for itself” really mean? I define it as needing to learn to tell off another puppy when it is uncomfortable. Wait so you want them to be defensive? I want my puppy to learn how to communicate confidently with its own species and to do so it should learn how to diffuse a confrontational situation, not start one.
Before we get into how to solve the shy puppy problems we first need to look at the bully side of the spectrum. Bully puppies often come across as confident and outgoing or even ‘dominant’, they rush around, pop the other puppies’ bubbles, and pancake them to the ground- and they enjoy it. These puppies become overstimulated quickly which leads to bad decision making and often scuffles. They are unable to inhibit themselves in any way and cannot take breaks on their own. Some trainers may advise putting them up against other puppies of their nature or size so that they can “work it out”. But tell me, have you ever seen 2 kindergartners work out an argument on their own? Deem it nap time and tuck themselves in? No? I didn’t think so.
Second, humans must actively participate in off leash time. Lack of participation can be very debilitating to how future off-leash ventures will go. Puppies are learning that as soon as the leash is off they are free to do as they please. Pair that with how much fun playing with other puppies can be and you’ve just greatly devalued yourself. These are two very big lessons that will only be problematic as they continue to grow. Another association puppies are making is when the leash comes back out playtime is over, it only takes 1-2 repetitions before they start to avoid you and the leash.
And third, let’s talk numbers. The number of puppies in attendance is another important factor. There should ideally only be 6 puppies per trainer. Why only 6? Because the trainer is not only watching and observing the 6 puppies but also teaching and assisting each puppy’s parents, often there are 2 humans to every puppy. That can be up to 18 beings –and 2 different species- for that 1 Trainer to manage and can be equally overwhelming for the puppy’s and their parents! With a room full of people and puppies it can be easy for a trainer to miss need-to-know situations like when a puppy is hiding from other puppies or people, when another is being a bully, or if they are becoming defensive towards each other or people by growling or snapping. If you are attending a class with more than 6 puppies or that advertises no-limit for class size be sure to ask how many trainers are in the room.
When left to their own devices shy puppies learn to remain shy or become more fearful and defensive and bully puppies continue to find reward in being a bully. So how do we help them? That’s just it, we need to help them. If puppies were in a group with well-adjusted and socialized adult dogs these adults would step in to help teach puppies manners. As there are no adult dogs in puppy class that is when the humans need to step in and be an active participant during off leash time in class.
Off leash time in class is first and foremost to teach your puppy to focus on you while facing the biggest distraction of their lives: other puppies. Second, it is to socialize and interact with humans other than its puppy parents (stay tuned for our upcoming blog on “pass the puppy”). Lastly, it is to assess puppy to puppy interactions so that we can act quickly should there be any concerns.
Teaching your puppy to focus on you should be your main goal of puppy playtime, this means every 10-15 seconds you are approaching your puppy, collar-grabbing and practicing skills before sending them out go play again. Breaking up the play this often also helps puppies learn to take breaks and keeps the play from getting too amped up. Randomly leashing up during this activity will also prevent your puppy from seeing the leash as the end of playtime. While your puppy is out exploring the room they will come into contact with other puppy parents and be able to practice positive interactions with strangers.
If a situation should arise where one puppy appears to be bullying another we want to support the shyer puppy by removing the bully for a brief time out. You can then pet and reassure the shyer puppy and help each puppy find a more suitable playmate. It is very important for the bully puppies to learn calmer requests for interactions to stop, like turning away, tucking tail, and crouching. It is equally important for the shyer puppy to learn that its requests were heard. This is how we help our puppies to be better-rounded, clear and respectful communicators and less like Tarzan.
Amber Todd, CPDT-KA, Owner/Trainer of Embarking the Pet Dog
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