Since its inception the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors has been a strong and active supporter of the concept of puppy training. This article will seek to explore some of the elements of Puppy Kindergarten by focusing on the need for puppy training, who benefits from it, when learning starts, the importance of socialization, the contents of a puppy class, and what its impact on the dog’s development can be expected to be.
What is Kindergarten Puppy Training? First of all it is, or should be the most important part of dog obedience training. The first few months of a puppy’s life sets the pattern for future development, just as the first several years are so significant in the future development of a child. Things learned by a puppy will never be forgotten although perhaps changed or hopefully improved upon by his human family.
By the time most dogs are enrolled in obedience school at what is considered the customary age, 6 months to a year, chances are they are there for a specific reason. This is usually some sort of behavior problem and the owner has been unable to cope with it and has come to the school for help. Quite often strong corrective measures must be taken to remedy the situation. Regardless of the type of problem involved we should ask ourselves: could it have been avoided altogether, and, if so, how? In many, if not most instances, the answer would be “yes, it could have been avoided with Puppy Kindergarten.”
A puppy starts learning at 3 weeks of age and continues learning every day of his life, but just what he learns is influenced by his environment – be it good or bad. So in puppy training it is up to the handler to guide him along the path of good behavior, hopefully eliminating situations that will cause bad habits, thus making training positive instead of negative. From ages 3-8 weeks, training is done at home. “Training” may seem like a strong word here so “guiding” or “conditioning” may be more appropriate at this age. Handle the puppy, acquaint him with a light collar and lead, and set up a housebreaking routine. No – I did not say you can housebreak a 3 week old puppy, but a pattern can be started now that will allow the puppy to follow his natural desire for cleanliness.
At 8 weeks of age he is old enough to enter a Kindergarten Puppy Training class for dogs from 2-5 months old.
Here the pups are trained and, more importantly, conditioned for further training at home and in the ring, be it breed or obedience. Space does not allow me to list all that is taught in this class, but the pups are exposed to the same work that is required in the obedience ring, only “geared down” to puppy level. Like any other beginner class, it is designed to teach the owner how to live more comfortably with his dog. It is principally geared to what the dog will eventually be expected to do – walk on leash without pulling, come when called, encounters with other dogs, playing with the children, not jumping up on people, etc. They are conditioned to respond to the commands but are certainly not forced to perform with the exactness that is expected of more mature dogs. If done properly, the pup will never resent this work, he will look forward to it and will simply consider it as a part of everyday living. Having started at an early age, he will have less corrections coming his way and fewer bad habits to break. For the new owner, the puppy class is a very easy way to find out the correct way to raise his puppy and how to avoid problems which, as the puppy grows older, become more difficult to remedy, sometimes reaching the incorrigible stage.
A very necessary part of KPT is introducing the puppy to all the sights and sounds he will be encountering as he grows up. Just to mention a few – whistles, stairs, bicycles, electric clippers, crates and of course other dogs and strange people. To see these little pups playing, retrieving, and racing to their handlers when called, is a beautiful sight. The “stays” can be taught, but only for seconds and not minutes.
KPT is the most important of all obedience training and just because the words “kindergarten” and “puppy” are used, there is nothing childish about it. Each owner is taught the importance of good grooming and is shown how to use the comb, brush and nail clippers. Educating the handler is certainly as important, if not more so, as the education of the dog.
Why? Why? Why? This is a word we hear most often in KPT. When the instructor notices that a pup has a certain reaction to a situation, it is a good time to stop and ask WHY? and often the handler himself finds that he is responsible for the pup’s response – be it favorable or unfavorable. The handler must know the reason for everything that he is told to do. The instructor explains why they are to handle a dog a certain way and very often demonstrates with one of the pups. If the owner does the exercises just because he is told, without really knowing why, he and his dog will never receive the full benefits of obedience training. Every dog speaks a language using not only his voice, but his tail, ears, eyes and facial expressions. Each handler must learn how to read his dog and thus set up a means of communication, since communication is really what it is all about.
An experienced handler must beware of pushing too fast with his puppy. Since he has trained before, he knows what is eventually to be accomplished and too often tries to find short cuts and expects too much of his dog. True, he has the benefit of previous experience and if he will take advantage of this and not misuse it, he will accomplish wonders.
Some trainers favor more disciplined obedience training right from the beginning and do away with the socializing part of it. The dictionary definition of socialize is “to render social: to bring about the mutual participation of teacher and pupil” – what more could we ask than this. Allowing pups to play together, be handled by strangers, and becoming accustomed to new sights and sounds will certainly help to “render them social” and also “brings about the mutual participation of teacher (handler) and pupil (dog).”
Does this all mean that every puppy needs puppy kindergarten to grow into a well- adjusted dog? Most people get along fine with their dogs without any benefit of formal training and are perfectly happy with them. There are those who own several dogs and perhaps have had previous experience in obedience, and their dogs are fortunate that they have other dogs to socialize with and an experienced owner to guide them from the very beginning. But in large part KPT is aimed at the person who has just brought home his first puppy and who has very little knowledge of how to cope with that cute little rascal. They have no other dogs at home and are completely in the dark as where to begin with feeding, housebreaking, grooming, lead-breaking and all the other things that so many people take for granted. The pup is often treated like a spoiled child and acts as one, even forgetting that he is a dog. In order to develop to his full potential, he must have a chance to play, argue and communicate with other canines.
The difficulty is that often we cannot tell until a dog is an adult, which ones should have gone to puppy class and which ones not, including of course those owned by the experienced person. Perhaps the optimum solution would be for all dogs, whether they seem to need it or not, to attend puppy class – it surely will not do them any harm, all will benefit, and for some of them it will be crucial.
©1974 J.J. Volhard