The aim of a good puppy preschool program is to encourage your puppy to become a well-socialised, relaxed member of your family and to provide you with all the information required to raise a happy, healthy dog.
The critical learning and socialisation period for puppies is approximately 4 to 17 weeks of age, due to the plasticity of your dog’s brain (i.e. learning ability). Puppy preschool is designed for puppies 8-17 weeks of age. The only pre-requisite to successfully enrol is that all puppies must have had their first vaccination in order to attend.
Studies have shown that puppies who are not exposed to other dogs and people during the critical learning and socialisation period may develop fearful and/or aggressive responses to making new acquaintances later in life. If you miss the 17-week mark, it is not detrimental, but it can be more challenging to train and socialise your dog with unfamiliar people and animals if it has not been socialised during this period.
Pike the puppy! Image by: Walks N’ Wags
What are the benefits?
Puppy preschool should provide you with the tools required to start your pup off on the right track and add to your enjoyment as a pet owner. It can also be a great way to recognise the difference between normal puppy behaviour and actual behavioural problems and how to modify them or prevent them from accruing in the future.
The learning outcomes when enrolling into a puppy preschool program may include:
- General health care advice.
- Diet and exercise information.
- Environmental enrichment strategies.
- Basic training like sit, drop, the recall, mat training, stand and wait.
- Socialisation and interaction with people and dogs.
- How you can be a good leader.
- Puppy toilet training tips.
- How to read canine body language.
- Handling tips for grooming and health.
- Guidance around how children and puppies should interact.
- Addressing any problems like mouthing, barking and jumping up.
Pike, Peppa and Rocco. Image by: Walks N’ Wags
Socialisation offers your puppy the best start to life, allowing them to grow into a confident, trainable and manageable adult dog. Socialisation is about exposing puppies to unfamiliar dogs and unfamiliar people in a safe, positive, non-threatening and rewarding way. It exposes them to variety of new and different breeds (e.g. dogs with pointy or floppy ears, breeds that are a lot larger or smaller, etc.) It also teaches puppies to read other dogs’ body language, helping them to distinguish the difference between play and other communication.
A good puppy preschool class will make sure that the puppies engage in compatible play by pairing two or three dogs with a similar level of confidence and personality so the experience is positive for both dogs. Matching an energetic puppy with a timid peer is not an enjoyable (or beneficial) experience for the more passive puppy — and rough play can result in injury. The trainer should allow your puppy space to let new experiences soak in, especially if your puppy is timid or shy. In my classes, we make sure the puppies engage in short, positive interactions immediately followed by time to relax and settle.
Pike and Rocco playing. Image by: Walks N’ Wags
Choosing the right puppy class for you and your puppy
Look for a trainer who uses positive reinforcement (PDF) training methods. Positive reinforcement is teaching your dog to perform an action in order to get a reward (e.g. food, praise or toys, playing fetch, or whatever motivates your puppy).
By using positive reinforcement you can change behaviour by rewarding the behaviour that you want (e.g. sit), and ignoring (not rewarding or acknowledging) the behaviour you want to change (e.g. jumping up), this is called negative punishment.
Peppa the puppy! Image by: Walks N’ Wags
Why use Positive Reinforcement?
- It is based on being a positive and enjoyable experience rather than a negative and forcibly controlled unpleasant experience.
- This method of training will bring a much closer relationship between you and your puppy.
- It is gentle, humane and kind.
- It works! These methods are based on modern, scientifically proven methods of learning.
There is absolutely no need to use any aversive form of punishment when training a dog. Aversive forms of punishment include using a check chain when walking your dog, prong collars, citronella barking collars to stop barking, physically harming your puppy, including rubbing your puppy’s nose in its faeces or urine when it makes a mistake in the house.
Aversive forms of punishment are unnecessary and inhumane, and likely to create fearful or aggressive responses from your puppy. Focusing on punishing your puppy all the time and not teaching them a preferred behaviour will not get you anywhere with training your puppy. This is why the fine balance of positive reinforcement and negative punishment work so well together when training young dogs. Teach the preferred behaviour (e.g. sit) and ignore the behaviour that you are trying to change (e.g. jumping up).
So be sure to find an accredited positive reinforcement trainer to provide the best guidance necessary for you and your puppy during this critical period. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You can find a positive reinforcement trainer by contacting any of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers or Delta Canine Good Citizen trainer directories listed worldwide.
High fives and learning to sit. Left image by: Michelle O’Brien and right image by Walks N’ Wags
Australia and New Zealand
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia (APDTA)
- Delta Professional Dog Trainers Association (DPDTA)