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How to find a good puppy training class!

Choosing a puppy training class is one of the most important things you will do when you first bring your brand new puppy home. Puppy classes are ideal for the vast majority of puppies; a good puppy training class will introduce you to the training basics, expose your puppy to a new place, new people, and other puppies, and will teach you how to safely socialize your pu p!

An australian shepherd puppy and a black Labrador retriever puppy in a puppy class
Jax and Winnie getting to know each other!

It’s critically important that you bring your puppy to a WELL RUN puppy class. In all honestly, puppy classes are a dime a dozen, but a well run puppy class is worth it’s weight in gold! Some folks think that puppy classes are the easy “first step” for a trainer and any class will do, but truthfully whether a puppy class is good or bad can make or break your puppy’s confidence and effect them for the rest of their lives! So, how can you find a well run puppy class that will give you and your puppy the best start possible? The following list features some of the most important factors to consider when you’re looking for your puppy’s class!

1) Training methods:

This is the one that needs to be absolutely, without question nonnegotiable.

All puppy training classes should exclusively use training methods based in positive reinforcement (the addition of something the puppy likes, like treats, toys, praise, and attention) and OCCASIONAL mild negative punishment (aka time outs, the removal of something the puppy likes to decrease the problem behavior i.e. removing attention, removing yourself from the room, etc). Please note the word occasional, if a trainer makes heavy use of negative punishment and “time outs” that’s also something to be avoided as it can lead to increasing frustration and be very unpleasant for the puppy. While negative punishment is sometimes appropriate to use, it must be used in conjunction with a very clear plan for what you want the puppy TO do, and lots and lots of rewarding and reinforcement when they make the right choice!

Puppy classes should never recommend the use of: squirt bottles, yelling, physical punishment like “spanking” or rolling your puppy, rubbing a puppy’s nose in their waste, scary noises like shaker cans or airhorns, collar corrections, aversive equipment like a choke chain, prong collar, or shock collar, electric equipment like “scat mats”, or anything else that can potentially hurt or scare your puppy.

Puppies are BABIES. It is entirely inappropriate, unethical, and unfair to recommend harsh training methods for young puppies, and while there are still trainers out there who recommend these things for dogs, any trainer worth their salt will NOT.

A bergamasco romesco puppy sitting in a box at puppy training classes
Gryphon learned how to confidently step into a weird new object!

2) Age requirement:

Puppy classes should really be for puppies 16 weeks and under. I have sometimes allowed puppies up to 20 weeks of age to join my puppy training classes (especially if they are not a giant breed) but young baby puppies shouldn’t be playing with unknown adolescent and adult dogs, so any puppy class that’s allowing teen dogs older than 20 weeks to class should be avoided (unless the teen or adult dog is well known, like the trainer’s personal dog that does a fabulous job with puppies).

3) Focus on socialization and play skills over obedience:

Puppies have what we call a critical window of socialization that lasts from about 3 weeks of age to about 16 weeks of age (possibly longer, possibly shorter, and the length of the critical window may also vary based on your dog’s breed make up!). To read more about this critical window and socialization, see this link.

During this critical window of socialization, your puppy is the most open to experiencing novel situations. They will approach new situations, new people, and other puppies and animals with a little more confidence and a little less apprehension than they will as teens and adults. If you miss this critical window and don’t expose your puppy to lots of novelty, the critical window will close and your puppy’s confidence level when facing a novel environment or situation will not be as great as it could have been had they been properly socialized.

That’s why any well run puppy training class should be more concerned with having your puppy meet new people and puppies, experience new equipment and situations like going on obstacle courses or wearing different gear, and teaching your puppy that being handled and restrained makes good things happen for them. Your puppy has their entire life ahead of them to learn sit, stay, and heel, but they only have the first four months of their life to learn that the world is a safe, fun place no matter what it throws at them!

A black Labrador retriever puppy and a mixed breed puppy play together at puppy class
Winnie and Kiva play bitey face together!

4) Opportunity to allow for off leash play:

There’s recently been a surge of trainers offering puppy classes who do not allow for off leash play in their classes, and it’s really driving me batty.

One of THE most important pieces of a well run puppy class is allowing the puppy to practice normal puppy behaviors with their own kind. Puppies who are kept away from other puppies struggle to learn how to inhibit their bite (how hard they bite both in play and defensively), and have a hard time navigating the social waters that most pet owners need their dogs to feel confident in.

Unless the puppy class has grossly mismatched players (like a 15 week old great dane puppy who already weighs 50 lbs and a 9 week old timid Yorkshire terrier who only weighs 3 lbs, or something like that!) the class should include the opportunity for off leash play for any puppies who will enjoy it!

5) Separate areas for shy/more reserved players and bolder, more confident pups:

This goes along with the above information about off leash play. While off leash play should be included in every puppy class, the play should NOT be an absolute free for all where all puppies are released regardless of size or temperament. Instead, the trainer should have the option to split the room and separate the group by temperament and size.

Sometimes the group may surprise you (I once had a 5 lb Boston terrier become fast friends with an already 50 lb French mastiff puppy, I never would have seen that one coming!) and separating by size may not be necessary, or the entire class may be full of bold, confident players who don’t need the separation. But having the option there is critically important! A shy, timid puppy can quickly become overwhelmed in a group of rough and rowdy players, and it's the trainer's job to make accommodations so that your puppy can interact with other puppies but still feel safe!

A doberman pinscher puppy and a border terrier puppy learn how to play together at puppy classes
Echo and Ernie started off in separate areas due to their size difference, but once Ernie was feeling confident they could play more freely!

6) Enough trainers/assistants per class:

This goes for any group class, but doubly so for puppy classes so that the puppy playtime has enough “referees” to keep everyone safe and happy.

Classes where one person is in charge of 9 or 10 puppies, or MORE, should absolutely be avoided. As someone who has been teaching at least 6 group classes a week for almost a decade, there is simply no way to stretch one instructor’s attention efficiently across 10+ students.

There you have it, those are the most important things to look for in a puppy class! If you can find a class that has all of these features sign your puppy up as soon as you can, and your puppy will be well on their way to becoming a confident, self assured adult dog!

And if you’re local to us, join our classes! We hold puppy classes every Wednesday evening at 5:30 PM and every Thursday evening at 5:00 PM. We specialize in puppy classes that last your puppy’s entire first year with a focus on proper socialization and confidence building! For more information about our puppy classes, see this link!

Happy training!


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