Puppy Class Is in Session
A dog behaviorist schools us on why puppy classes are more about socializing than getting straight As.
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Adopting a puppy is often the first taste many people get of what it feels like to become a legit parent. You may experience a sharp, sudden urge to set your pup up for a lifetime of excellence — spending untold hours scouring pages of chew toy and dog walker reviews, and (heaven help us all) puppy Reddit. But there’s one thing you can do for your puppy that will truly influence the kind of dog they become: puppy classes.
You might be under the impression that puppy classes are about teaching your pup basic commands, but their goals are actually simpler — and arguably more important. “A puppy class is mainly for socialization,” says Lauren Novack, a dog behavior consultant at Behavior Vets in NYC. Not to stress you out, but “dogs have a very short socialization period and what happens during this time will set the tone for how they see and interact with the world around them. That window usually closes for puppies at around 12 to 14 weeks of age.” It starts much earlier than that…
How important is puppy socialization?
“All of the experiences puppies have within their first 14 weeks of life make a permanent imprint on their brain about what’s safe and unsafe in the world,” explains Novack. “It’s critical that during this period the new experiences your puppy has are positive — you don’t just want them to tough it out on a noisy city street; you want them to be curious about all the elements of it and confident about making good decisions.” That’s what a good puppy class can help with. It sets up a careful rubric of experiences for your pet and teaches you how to read their body language so that you don’t overwhelm them. There may also be a brief — emphasis on brief! — time for puppies to play together under supervision.
What you should look for in a puppy class.
This part is really important. “It would be better not to go to puppy class than to go to a bad one,” says Novack. “In that critical developmental period, it’s just as important to avoid bad experiences as it is to provide positive experiences. If you buy a puppy rather than adopting one, look for a reputable breeder who actively socializes their puppies until they pass them off to you. If you adopt a puppy from a shelter rather than a foster home, get them into a puppy class right away.” Trainers should be certified and have experience in puppy socialization,” Novack adds. One major red flag is if the trainers use any kind of punishment or aversion techniques. “That’s something you should run far, far away from.”
Schedules for puppy classes can vary. Some are once a week, others are multiple times a week. And don’t be surprised to not see any puppies at your first class — a humans-only introduction gives the trainer a chance to train you on things like when to reinforce your puppy’s behavior and how to understand their body language. Don’t expect to learn many obedience tricks in class. “Your pet can always learn skills,” she says, “but the opportunity for puppies to learn how to socialize without fear is brief — and it’s not a time you can get back.”
How to socialize a puppy.
It’s helpful to get the guidance of a certified trainer if this is your first time socializing a puppy, or even if it’s just your first time socializing a puppy with a unique temperament — like if they’re shyer or mouthier than your previous pets. But if an in-person puppy class isn’t in the cards, Novack recommends finding an online training course to give you a solid foundation. (Behavior Vets has a free webinar available on their site.)
A few guiding principles can help you at home. First, think about all of the things your dog will encounter over their lifetime. Hair dryers! Nail clippings! Screeching tires! Little kids! Tall people! And so many other dogs… You want to expose your puppy to as many things that will be part of their regular lives as possible. But not all at once. Aim for “small introductions, one at a time, making sure that your puppy feels calm and safe and happy,” says Novack. One other thing: don’t forget about your puppy’s feet. Give them the opportunity to walk on as many different surfaces as possible — tarmac, astroturf, grass, sand, sidewalk grates, and so on.
But also, don’t force puppy socialization.
Not all puppies are going to approach every exposure with enthusiasm. That’s okay — and it’s important that you don’t force your dog into an experience they’re not ready for. “What you want to make sure of is that they’re willing to go outside, their body language is loose, and they’re doing it on their own,” says Novack. “If your dog is hesitant, break the task into smaller pieces.” For instance, if your puppy is nervous about going outside, see if they’re curious about just leaving your apartment’s front door. Once they’re comfortable with that, see if exploring the hallways interests them. If their body language is relaxed there, see if they’re curious about going in and out of the elevator. Baby steps.
“Letting your puppy participate in the decision-making is key,” Novack explains. So is understanding that socialization continues even after your formal sessions are over. The skills you learn in puppy class should be applied to every interaction your pup has with new stimuli. “Socialization is happening 24/7.”
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Colleen Stinchcombe lives near Seattle, WA, where she works as a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her two rescue pups wish she were a professional ball-thrower.