You want your puppy classes to be the best ever - fun, interactive, all the puppies and people learning lots and having a good time. In fact, that's really important, because if the puppies are having a bad experience it can cause a lot of problems down the track with anxiety and reactivity.
Our aim is to have well-balanced, confident, well-socialised, emotionally healthy puppies. Puppies who are going to have an optimistic outlook, because when they have experienced uncertainty, they have been allowed the space and time to explore at their own pace, or retreat if needed. We want to have human caregivers who can read their dog’s body language and know when they need to look out for them. And who know how to teach their puppy the life skills it needs to survive in a domestic environment.
So, how can you set things up so that you build confidence for the more anxious pups, and you minimise frustration for the boisterous, confident pups? And so the owner can listen to you and not be embarrassed, or frustrated or overwhelmed? How can you manage arousal levels so the puppies are in a positive emotional state, but at a steady trickle of interest – not overexcited or withdrawn? Well, let's start with the key ingredients you'll need for running the best puppy classes....
OK - so this seems pretty obvious. But it's not just any puppies you need at a puppy school. As these classes are designed to make the most of the puppy's socialisation period, it is essential that puppies are aged between 8 and 12 weeks at their first session that they attend puppy school (note that this may actually be the second session of your course). The puppy socialisation period is a sensitive period of development that finishes somewhere between 12 and 16 weeks, depending on the individual puppy. If a puppy's socialisation period has already finished, it is likely to find puppy classes too overwhelming, and be frightened and/or reactive. It doesn't mean that this puppy can never be socialised, it is just going to take much more space, time and patience, and puppy school is not the right forum.
Like any ingredient, you don't want to add too much! The right number of puppies will vary depending on your level of experience, the number of instructors and the venue size - anywhere from 3 - 6 puppies. If you are a qualified Delta trainer with a good assistant and lots of room in your class, then you can probably manage six pups. Reduce the number of pups for any criteria not met.
When you run puppy classes, you are actually teaching people to teach puppies. And let's face it - the puppies are unlikely to turn up by themselves! The puppy's family are the ones who are actually in charge of training and socialisation, so these are the people you need to teach. There needs to be at least one adult present per puppy, and additional adults present if their children are also going to be attending.
Having kids in class can be a great benefit, especially for puppies who wouldn't get to see them otherwise. However, you do need to make sure you clearly set out the rules for kids. These might include:
- Bottoms on seats during puppy play time
- Quiet while the instructor is talking
- Adults teach the puppy first, then teach the kids
- Grown-ups always need to be holding the puppy's leads
Providing appropriate activities (like colouring pages, or puppy-related word puzzles) can also help to keep children entertained during class.
Puppy class is a tricky class to run. You need the most experienced instructor available to run the class. If you haven't got the experience yet, then seeking out further qualifications in force-free training is a great idea. Volunteer as an assistant with a qualified instructor and consider taking the Delta Institute's trainer course. You can also do courses through Karen Pryor Academy, or Living and Learning with Animals to upskill. If you are already qualified, keep on learning! The APDT and PPGA run regular conferences which are well worth attending.
You also need a sidekick! Having two instructors makes all the difference in providing a learning environment that suits every puppy. One person can run the class, while the other can be on the lookout for any 'orange zone' signs - behaviours we see when puppies are feeling anxious, uncertain or conflicted. They can help arrange people and puppies in the class to make sure everyone is comfortable. They can work with the people or puppies who are struggling with a particular exercise. While the main instructor supervises puppy play time, the second instructor can ensure the other puppies are not becoming frustrated or overwhelmed.
4. Safe areas
Puppy class can be an overwhelming experience for puppies. There are new smells, noises, lots of unfamiliar people and puppies. However, training and socialisation is only going to occur if the puppy is relaxed and able to think clearly. One of the best ways to set puppies up for success is to create 'safe areas' that families can work from. This reduces anxiety for puppies who need more space, and reduces frustration for the puppies who just want to rush straight up and say hi to everyone!
Use visual barriers between each different family. These might be play pens with blankets over the sides, food stands, bookshelves, or portable self-standing creations.
Within each area, provide chairs so that the people can be comfortable.
Ask owners to bring a bed or mat that the puppy can rest on (have some spare towels in case they forget).
Owners can also bring chew toys and interactive food toys (e.g. stuffed Kongs or snuffle mats) for downtime.
Use Adaptil (a synthetic analogue of a pheromone released by mother dogs when puppies are suckling). Adaptil has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety for puppies in new environments. One study showed that puppies who wore an Adaptil collar for 8 weeks, during which time they attended puppy classes, were more sociable and less anxious. This effect was still evident 12 months later (Denenberg and Landsberg, J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008 Dec). Adaptil collars, plug-in diffusers and sprays are all available.
The best way to teach puppies is using positive reinforcement. And one of the best kinds of reinforcement to use is food - it's convenient, can be broken up nice and small to last longer, and is a primary reinforcer (dogs naturally like it). The treats you use at puppy classes need to be high value for the puppy. Think soft, small and smelly! Cheese, sausage or chicken, or commercially available treats like 'Chicken chunkers', all cut up to about 1cm diameter pieces.
TIP: If a puppy doesn't want to eat, or is snatching treats, it may be a bit overwhelmed. Give the puppy a little break in its safe area. And remember, there are other reinforcers out there, like play, attention, (or different food treats!).
You give people a lot of great information during your puppy classes. But most people don't remember everything they hear, especially when they are distracted by cute and adorable puppies (seriously, no-one can compete with that)!
Having a puppy-free first session where you cover all of the most important points (like understanding body language, how to socialise appropriately, using positive reinforcement to train, and setting up puppies for success in the home), can be really useful.
You should also make sure people can access comprehensive and up-to-date information about all the things you've covered in your course, when they go back home. Then they can share accurate information with their family and friends, and make sure their puppy is on the right track. Having a variety of formats can help - some people learn better by reading, others by watching videos.
If you don't have the time or energy to create your own written or video content, then check out the offerings available at Pet Perspective (my behaviour and information service). You'll find information on The Puppy Manual (a comprehensive guide to owning and training a new puppy), an online video course, PowerPoint options and more, all designed to complement your force-free puppy classes.
Putting it all together
Once you have the key ingredients sorted, alternate short periods of training and instruction (about 5 minutes at a time), with downtime and relaxation. Make it fun for people to engage with their puppies, and make it fun for the puppies to learn from their people. Review your classes afterwards and note what went well, and what needs improvement. Aim to run a class where every puppy benefits*, and every family starts off with their best paw forward!
*Note: Very occasionally, you will encounter a puppy who simply cannot cope with a puppy school environment, no matter how well it is set-up. For those puppies, allowing them to leave the class environment and offering private sessions or referral to an appropriate behaviour professional would be the most beneficial option. Part of your role as instructor is to be able to recognise these puppies and direct them to the best care possible.