I am completely baffled. I have wracked my brain trying to figure out why the dog training profession can’t make more progress with the one thing that would completely change the world of dog training and pet homelessness. We have the key to stopping the inflow of unwanted dogs into shelters, preventing aggression, and creating long, happy partnerships between dogs and owners. For some reason, we just can’t get it to click with the general public.
The answer is not spaying and neutering, even though that’s a good idea for most family pets. The answer is puppy class. Even as I type that, I know that some people will be thinking, “Oh, yah. Puppy classes. Don’t you have something more dramatic?”
I would respond by saying there is nothing more dramatic, more powerful or more life-altering than a well-run puppy class. Sure it seems like nothing but fluff and fun, but it is extremely serious business and it absolutely saves lives.
What puppy classes do
All aggression is based in fear. Fear comes from a lack of positive experience. A well-run puppy class provides positive exposure to the most common doggy fears at a time when a dog is most open to those new experiences.
There are thousands of adult dogs who are totally panicked by fireworks, Halloween costumes, children, other dogs, tall men, and certain types of floor surfaces. When these things are introduced in puppyhood and paired with positive things such as food, praise, and play, the resulting comfort with these things can last a lifetime.
Add to that the all-important bite inhibition training, resource guarding prevention, and basic manners, and you’ve got a dog with a frame of reference that makes everything after puppy class much easier.
Do you see the power in that? That means that even if a puppy eventually ends up in a shelter or needs to be rehomed, that dog is easy to place and will have an easier time adjusting. Such dogs can be around kids, men, and other dogs. They will have learned to bite softly in puppy class, so that even if they find themselves in a situation where they feel the need to bite, they will not do any damage. That skill alone could save a dog’s life. They will be house trained and know some basic manners. Even if they’re now 1.5 years old and have forgotten some of their manners, the important foundations will be in place and their retraining will be quick and easy.
Besides, thanks to the education of their owners and the bonding that naturally happens through training, they are far less likely to be relinquished when that more difficult adolescent period comes along.
Where the problems are
I believe that one of the biggest misconceptions is the time-frame of puppyhood. A dog is a puppy only until the age of 4.5 months. Please, read that again. There is no such thing as a 6-month-old, 10-month-old or year-old puppy.
By the age of 5 months, you have an adolescent dog that absolutely has missed the opportunity for early education. It is gone, and you simply cannot get it back. There are many who want to sugar-coat this a bit so that you don’t give up on your dog if you have missed puppyhood, and I’m certainly not suggesting that they are lost causes at this point. However, they will not be what they could have been, and you might be faced with a tougher training challenge because of it.
I find it disheartening to hear shelters, rescues, and even dog trainers talk about adolescent dogs as if they’re puppies. If our job is to educate, then we need to educate! Those who purchase a puppy who’s 8 weeks old should be enrolling that puppy in a quality class at no later than 12 weeks of age. It is just as important as providing food, water, shelter, and veterinary care.
Likewise, no shelter should keep puppies (under the age of 5 months) in a shelter facility. Puppies need to be in foster homes and attending puppy classes until or before they are adopted. We would be appalled if a shelter didn’t provide veterinary care to a puppy, but we don’t seem to see the cruelty of withholding life-saving behavioral therapy.
Pretending that puppyhood extends far past the actual cut-off age disguises the behavioral emergency that is puppyhood.
A false sense of security
Also problematic is that we can be easily lulled into a false sense of security with a puppy. Humans tend to focus more on putting out fires than preventing them. It’s common to hear puppy owners express how great their puppies are, how easy, how free from problems they are as the reason they don’t need to go to puppy class.
They’re not being told that this will all change when the puppy becomes a teenager at 5 months of age. Suddenly, as with human children, the rest of the world will become far more interesting to that puppy. Paying attention to owners will be less important than barking at the neighbor. New smells, sights, and sounds will be suspicious and scary instead of something to be explored. Basically, a puppy will go from being like a 5-year-old child to being like a 15-year-old kid in a matter of weeks. Can you imagine a 15-year-old kid who had not been to school, had never met any friends, and had no manners being expected to navigate the world?
Prevention, planning and setting a dog up for success is always easier than trying to fix a problem that has already occurred. It’s easier for the dog and for the dog owner.
With a recent study showing that only 20 percent of all puppies are attending puppy classes, even after 25 years of trying to educate the public, it’s obvious that dog trainers are failing at public education. We need your help. We need those in the general public to spread the word.
I know that dog owners talk about training methods, dog sports, where the best dog parks are, and which veterinarian they visit. If we can get more dog owners talking about the importance of puppy classes, where to go for quality puppy classes, and using the correct terminology for puppies and adolescent dogs, we might make some progress.
It could be as easy as admitting to other dog owners that the issue you’re working on with your adult dog could have been prevented with puppy training, but because it wasn’t, you’re having to work harder on it now. It would include making the effort to talk to any puppy owners you see and mention how little time they have to get the puppy into class.
Until the general public sees clearly that most dogs without homes wouldn’t be homeless had they received the proper early education, and that most behavioral problems could have been prevented if addressed during that very short puppyhood time-frame, we will continue to be working on the crisis end of the situation.
Let me make a confession. I have a dog who came to me as a shelter puppy foster. I adopted him. With my busy schedule, I failed him. He slipped into adolescence before I was able to get him used to car rides and walking in crowded public places. I now have extra work to do that will be harder for him and me.
When he barks at strangers in public, I tell them that I missed some of his puppy training and am now making up for it. I want them to learn from my mistake and understand that his current behavior was preventable.
What ideas do you have for spreading the word on the importance of preventative puppy training?
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