Send Your Puppy to School

Your puppy will learn a lifetime of skills at puppy kindergarten.

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Davies recommends that owners not feed their puppies within two hours of class, or at least serve a reduced portion, so that the puppy arrives a little hungry and wanting to learn in order to earn the food treats.

Allow for ample time before class starts to give your puppy a final bathroom break before walking into the classroom. Puppies have tiny bladders. Even if the class is only 20 minutes from your home, your puppy may still need to urinate once you arrive in the parking lot.

Bring a regular, flat collar and a 6-foot nylon or leather leash. "Retractable leashes are too hard to manage and chain leashes clank and make noise," says Davies. "Please, no slip chains or pinch collars. We want puppies wearing buckle collars so that the learning is fun, not negative."

In Dubuque, Iowa, dog behavioral counselor Michelle Polly volunteers at the local humane society shelter by answering calls on its help line from worried owners and evaluating the temperaments of puppies and dogs at the shelter. She also teaches puppy classes and with her husband, Jack, operates a dog boarding facility, affectionately called the Bowser B and B, in rural Elizabeth, Illinois.

"Puppy kindergarten programs are invaluable," says Polly. "Puppies not only learn from trainers, but they also learn from other puppies what is acceptable behavior and what is not. But the puppy interaction in class should be closely supervised by trainers who can distinguish between normal puppy play and aggressiveness." Polly says the best classes maintain a ratio of one trainer to six dogs so that each puppy receives adequate attention.

The first command Polly teaches puppies is the look at me command. "We teach owners to say their puppies' name and say, 'Look at me,' " says Polly. "Often, I get a puppy's attention by making a clunking noise or squeezing a squeaky toy behind my head so the puppy looks at my face. Then I praise it and give it a small treat. The first step in successful puppy training is communication."

Polly requires that puppies be at least 16 weeks old but less than 6 months old to attend her puppy classes. The 16-week minimum ensures a puppy's immune system is fully activated and the puppy is up-to-date on all its required vaccinations. "Puppies beyond 6 months old are entering adolescence, and the approach is a little different," says Polly. "You don't want these older dogs intimidating the younger puppies."

In class, Polly often brings props, such as hats, sunglasses, raincoats and umbrellas, to introduce puppies to different looking people. They play pass-the-puppy games to accustom puppies to being handled by many people, and owners get used to handling other types of dogs. 

Once your puppy earns its diploma, celebrate by hosting a puppy party to reinforce the socialization it experienced in class. Try to organize an ongoing neighborhood play group that meets at least weekly for well-behaved puppies and dogs, suggests Polly. "Try to have the party or play group in a confined outdoor area, such as a fenced backyard," says Polly. "Practice leash walking and allow time for the puppies to play and learn how to inhibit their bites. Your puppy will learn which puppy is the strongest, which one is top dog, and how to read doggy body language."

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