Are we training in the dark?
Puppy classes have been all the rage amongst trainers for at least three decades. Most of us offer them as a matter of course — but are puppy classes a good idea? What are we really teaching puppies and clients?
I am delighted to see the article, “Training Bite Inhibition in the Dark,” by Kama Brown, in the latest edition of the IAABC Journal (Spring 2017). In her review of research on puppy learning, Brown asks important questions about what dog trainers believe we’re teaching puppies.
Notably, Brown questions the idea that we can teach bite inhibition to young puppies, to prevent them from hurting people with their bites later. She also asks whether puppy playtime in a class setting provides any real benefits to pups.
I am in favor of both teaching bite inhibition and using puppy playtime in class. Yet, I agree with Brown that we are on thin ice as behavior experts if we insist these activities are requirements for puppies, and that bite inhibition can be taught.
Why puppy class?
Dog trainers often recommend puppy classes to clients who have puppies 8-20 weeks old. Puppy classes became popular with trainers and clients after Dr. Ian Dunbar developed them in the early 1980s. Dr. Dunbar’s SIRIUS Puppy Training video is the penultimate demonstration of puppy class, featuring lure-reward training in an off-leash environment. In addition, Dr. Dunbar popularized many of the techniques we use to train puppies, including the concepts of bite inhibition and puppy playtime that Brown addresses in her article.
I think the benefits of a well-run puppy class (socialization and training) outweigh the drawbacks (disease exposure, for example). I agree with Brown, though: We must mind what we’re teaching.
Why do we teach what we teach about puppies?
Teaching bite inhibition to puppies to prevent harder bites later, is a great example of a “sticky” story. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” they discuss how ideas that appeal to us emotionally become mainstream over time.
People tend to overuse any idea or concept that delivers an emotional kick.”
The idea that you can prevent a damaging bite by your adult dog after teaching him bite inhibition as a puppy is an emotionally appealing one, for sure.
As Brown points out in her IAABC Journal article, this idea is not rooted in any scientific research, but instead is an extrapolation from observations that all animals with teeth inhibit their bites. (That is, a species could destroy itself without ritualized aggression.)
The question here is not whether bite inhibition is real. The question — yet to be answered — is whether teaching bite inhibition to young puppies prevents damaging bites to people and other dogs, later. And to Brown’s point, perhaps what we’re teaching is “bite modification,” not “bite inhibition.” Is “bite inhibition” even something that can be taught to dogs, by people? Her examination of the evidence is thought-provoking.
Does this mean we shouldn’t teach bite inhibition?
I teach all of my puppies bite inhibition, and I teach all of my clients’ puppies bite inhibition. When teaching, I describe the procedure without naming it, as an operant conditioning procedure. Although the phrase “bite inhibition” is not used in my puppy classes, I do use it on my website. I find teaching the steps of bite inhibition, as described by Dunbar, is a wonderful opportunity to talk to clients about how to change their puppies’ nipping and mouthing behavior.
In my experience, puppies taught bite inhibition (or should we say, “bite modification”?) are more pleasant to hand-feed and play with as adults. This is because, as Brown points out, we can control aspects of biting behavior, such as latency, magnitude, and timing, under certain environmental conditions.
Yet, I do not promise clients, nor do I assume, that a puppy who is taught bite inhibition is going to automatically inhibit a bite if he is in pain, or while behaving aggressively. And here Brown makes an important point:
Owners should be taught that all dogs can bite with the full force of their physical ability and that nothing we know can fully predict that they never will, which is why lowering fear and stress, and respecting lower-level aggressive behavior such as growling is vital to reducing the numbers of dog bites.”
You can teach a puppy to use its mouth appropriately around people, without neglecting other important aspects of dog behavior. Make sure you’re addressing topics such as body handling, appropriate socialization practices, and object exchanges in your puppy classes.
What about puppy playtime?
I encourage trainers to include at least two short, managed puppy playtimes during each class. I do not encourage long, free-for-all puppy play sessions.
A well-run, short, puppy play session can accomplish the following:
- Provides an opportunity to educate clients about normal dog-dog interactions, dog body language and safe play;
- Gives clients a chance to practice recalls with distractions;
- Offers puppies reinforcement for attending to their handlers;
- Helps puppies shift from an aroused state to a calmer one, a skill we want them to practice often as adults;
- Teaches clients to use management (antecedent control);
- Teaches clients how to redirect their puppies’ behavior, and to provide reinforcement for alternative behavior.
Patricia McConnell discusses dog play at length on her blog (and has a seminar on the topic on DVD). The question of when to interrupt play between two dogs is a great one for trainers who run puppy classes. I use the following rules, based on McConnell’s suggestions, and the helpful illustrated guide, “Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun,” by Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs:
- Both puppies must enjoy the interaction. If a puppy leaves and does not return to play, briefly restrain the “bully” puppy, or give the worried puppy a break.
- Take frequent breaks in play. Handlers should call puppies and feed them treats no fewer than two times per play session.
- Keep play sessions short, no more than 3-5 minutes (even shorter is better)!
- Interrupt if one puppy pins another (climbs on top of another puppy, so that puppy can’t get up).
- Interrupt and separate puppies if you think there is any chance of one puppy hurting another, or the chance of one puppy causing another puppy trauma.
Respect puppies’ wishes — if they don’t want to play with another puppy, or interact with a person, let it go for that class. Work on reinforcing behavior the client needs, such as recall, instead.
Are puppy classes necessary?
Confession: My last two puppies didn’t attend puppy class. Each stayed with their littermates past 8 weeks (the first, 9 weeks; the second, until 20 weeks!). Each had extensive, appropriate socialization to people and other adult dogs. Their breeders worked with each of them on crate training, body handling and basic manners. And of course, I knew how to continue the puppies’ education after they came to live with me.
If clients can tick those boxes without attending a well-run puppy class, so be it.
Are puppy classes worth it?
For trainers, holding puppy classes is a wonderful way to introduce your services to the public. You can help clients prevent puppy problems and address typical issues, such as biting and house training. You can encourage clients to take the next step in the training process (with you!), and contribute to a dog’s lifelong success in the home.
For clients who haven’t had a puppy since their older dog passed, or who have never had a puppy, attending puppy classes can be a lifesaver. Clients can get training help right away, rather than waiting until the puppy has destroyed the house or developed bad habits. People with large breed puppies can learn how to manage their dogs’ unruly behavior, before the dog grows large enough to hurt someone.
How to start a puppy class
Safety is always the first priority when hosting puppy classes. Speak with your veterinarian about which vaccines should be required for puppies attending your class. Be sure to use a veterinarian-approved disinfectant on the floor before and between classes.
Check the space for places where puppies might get stuck, or escape. Pick up all trash, inside and out, and look for loose items on the floor or furniture before class begins. If you allow puppies to play off-leash, use rugs or mats to cover slippery surfaces. Take note of any poles, support beams, corners or edges where a puppy could be hurt, and don’t allow puppies to run or chase in these areas.
Before you decide to welcome a group of puppies for a class, decide on your course objectives. What do your clients need to know about puppies? What do the puppies need to learn to stay in their homes as adult dogs?
Your class topics should include:
- Dog-dog interaction;
- Bullying prevention and redirection;
- Mouthing and bite inhibition;
- Appropriate play with handler;
- Body handling;
- Acceptance of restraint;
- Attention to handler;
- Resource guarding prevention;
- Sit, down and recall;
- Real-life leash walking;
- Time for common questions on topics such as house training, jumping, etc.
If you don’t already have one, here’s a four-week puppy class curriculum that covers these topics, and more. It’s fully scripted and ready to use, and it’s free.
How much should puppy classes cost?
Like all sales, prices vary depending on your market, supply and advertising costs, and the like. A good rule of thumb to attract clients is to price your puppy class 10 percent or so below your other class prices. For example, if your basic class is $95, your puppy class would be in the $85 range.
In the past 15 years, I’ve attended puppy classes priced between $65 and $110 — costs vary in each region.
Should you offer puppy classes?
Are puppy classes a good idea? I believe puppy classes, properly managed, are a good thing. It’s also good to think critically about why trainers do the things we do. Is what we’re doing — in this case, teaching puppy classes — best for puppies and clients?
The basics of training during the 8-16 week period should expose the puppy to the set of expectations that will rule the adult dog’s life. Whatever the owner is going to ask for in the adult dog is what the puppy should be practicing during the critical time period.”
Use a puppy class curriculum that teaches desirable behavior. Observe what goes on in your puppy classes, and listen to the questions clients are asking. If you’re unsure about an aspect of your class, consult a mentor experienced in behavior analysis, or your network of behavior experts. If puppies aren’t learning skills they’ll need as adults, or if clients are uncomfortable, change what you do.
And, don’t be afraid to question conventional wisdom, particularly when the scientific evidence is scant or points elsewhere. When we train puppies, the clock is ticking.