In early June I had the pleasure of attending a puppy training workshop with world renowned dog trainer and behaviour specialist Chirag Patel. This totally makes me a next level dog nerd. And you know what? It was as amazing as any fellow dog nerd could imagine! Ever since, I’ve been thinking of a few things that will certainly inform my approach to working with puppies going forward. I’m excited to share three key golden nugget take-home points from the workshop that will be of interest to puppy guardians, pet professionals and anyone who loves puppies.
1 : Give the puppy a home base
To begin the workshop, we met the puppies and their guardians at their car and showed them how to help their puppy become comfortable on a mat or inside their crate. This is an unconventional way to begin a puppy class, which typically begins in a classroom, but it was so helpful for the puppies and as much as possible I’d like to begin any future puppy classes this way.
With a young puppy, it’s necessary to take them to a variety of places for socialization. It’s easy to lose sight of how overwhelming it can be for a puppy to be shuttled to new a environment, unloaded, walked or carried through chaotic situations into another new environment and so on. The car ride can be stressful in itself due to confinement-related stress or motion sickness. To set the scene for a successful socialization outing, it’s important to begin with confinement training at home since confinement will be necessary during transportation. And once you arrive at your destination, begin socialization starting in the car or carrier with the puppy looking out the door or window before venturing out.
When bringing a puppy on a socialization outing or to socialization class, plan to arrive early so that you’re not rushed. Let the puppy sink into the new environment by simply looking around or help ease the transition with basic focus games using treats. With a little groundwork, a puppy’s mat or crate can be a touchstone for the puppy to explore from and retreat back to whenever they need a break. Without somewhere for the puppy to retreat to, it can be difficult to tell when the puppy needs a rest or give the puppy a meaningful break that allows them to process new information and regulate their emotions. Working on confinement training and mat training at home will give your puppy a comfortable place to work from across new situations and environments. Aim to make alone time and confinement as relaxing and stress-free as possible from the start by incorporating them into socialization activities using reward-based training exercises. As a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) I couldn’t be more on board with this!
2 : Let puppies say “no” or “not yet” (and don’t pass the puppy)
Chirag and I share a mentor, Jean Donaldson, who famously advises us to allow dogs to “vote with their feet,” physically opting in or out of activities and experiences. Puppies will give us a clear “yes” “not yet” or “no” with their body language and willingness to participate. There’s no better way to install a sense of security and confidence in puppies than empowering them to exercise their ability to choose and by giving them continual opportunities to confirm their enjoyment. Consent tests for petting and consent tests for dog-dog play are excellent examples of this!
Not so long ago, a game called “pass the puppy” was commonly played in puppy classes. It’s exactly as it sounds where puppies are picked up and passed around, and if a puppy squirms or fusses the puppy is only released to the ground when the squirming or fussing stops. Sounds okay, right? Chirag played an older video of himself playing pass the puppy and every trainer in the room was cringing (big kudos to Chirag for the brave self-criticism). The puppy in the video looked really stressed despite simply being held in Chirag’s arms. You might say the puppy was learning to tolerate being handled— but was he?
Chirag went on to analyze the learning that was happening in the video:
The puppy fusses and squirms and continues to be restrained
The puppy squirms harder and fusses more, restraint increases
The puppy has a frustrated outburst and then deflates, then gets released
The puppy learns that squirming and fussing doesn’t work to say no to being picked up and held, and can result in more restraint. Therefore the puppy learns to escalate in his response to get his point across since subtler requests go unanswered or result in more discomfort. The puppy was released when he stopped squirming and fussing but he also intensified a lot in his response to being held and leading up to being released. Based on this learning, what is this puppy likely to feel and do next time someone approaches to pick him up and hold him?
It’s necessary to train dogs to accept certain types of handling, especially for welfare-based needs such as vet care and grooming, getting walking equipment on and off and collar grabs for safety. But as much as possible, a dog who’s provided the ability to choose to opt in or out of activities such as petting, play and training is a dog who will enjoy these activities with us for life. We now know the fallout associated with coercion and it can be avoided from the start. Incremental, reward-based training is the way to go for teaching puppies and dogs to enjoy things we must do for them.
Here’s a phenomenal example from Chirag where he teaches a puppy to enjoy wearing her collar: “This video shows some training I did with a young puppy as she would back away and show behaviours associated with feeling uncomfortable around her collar. In a short training period you will see how giving her choice, control and predicability builds and empowered learner who is a willing participant.”
3 : Take an individual approach but don’t skip class!
For most guardians, it’s not going to be possible to socialize their pup to everything on a full socialization checklist within the first 12 weeks. Trying to cram in a lot of activities and excursions to tick off all boxes can potentially do more harm than good if things become rushed and the puppy has bad experiences. For this reason, Chirag stressed that it’s important to look at what each individual puppy will need to be successful in their environment and prioritize critical aspects of the puppy’s socialization based on that environment. For example, rural puppies will need to become comfortable with unfamiliar people appearing on a quiet scene, noisy farm machinery and animals of many varieties. Puppies living the city will need to be able to confidently navigate crowds, a wide variety of dogs and people and sharing the sidewalk with skateboarders.
A well-facilitated puppy socialization class is so important to help cover all the positive experiences puppies need at this critical time in order to grow into friendly, well-adjusted adult dogs. At its core, socialization is the ongoing process of learning how to effectively participate in society and interact with other individuals. Without adequate or successful socialization, we may end up with an adult dog who can’t participate in our society or can’t interact with members of their own species. The most important focus of any puppy class should be the comfort of the puppy, since polite behaviour, sociability, focus and fun will flow from a situation where the puppy is enabled to feel comfortable and at ease.
Basic life skills, such as loose leash walking and other manners, are taught in well-facilitated puppy socialization classes with a primary focus on facilitating enjoyable and appropriate interactions in the interest of socialization. Mat training, name recognition, and recall will no doubt prove useful later but they also have an important place in helping puppies feel safe by ensuring smooth interactions with others and the environment. Many guardians skip over puppy socialization class, preferring a more structured manners class instead. What gets missed is the delicate interplay between manners and socialization, and how much socialization can be enhanced and made positive with basic life skills. Manners can be taught at any point, whereas puppy socialization is time-sensitive and of utmost importance.