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Does my dog need puppy school?

Are you thinking of enrolling your pup into puppy school? Puppy school, sometimes referred to as puppy pre-school, is becoming increasingly popular and, if well run, can offer pups and their owners a fun experience with lots of essential learning in a group setting. Before enrolling, it’s important to know what puppy school involves and whether it’s suitable for your pet. Here are some answers for some commonly asked questions to help you make the best choice for you and your pup.

The purpose of puppy school is two-fold: to help pups grow into confident, sociable and well-behaved dogs, and of equal importance, to help owners improve their relationship with their pups and give them the best possible start through learning to understand and responsibly manage their behaviour. Professional trainers can achieve this by holding a structured series of classes where puppies have the opportunity to socialise with other dogs and with new people in a safe, controlled environment. Owners also have the opportunity to learn about basic training, dog behaviour, handling and general care.

Puppy school is strongly recommended as it offers pups with early training and socialisation during the critical ‘socialisation period’ which is between three and 17 weeks of age. Experiences during this period strongly influence future behaviour, so when you bring home a new puppy, a great way to start socialising them to relate well to other animals and to people is by enrolling them in puppy school.

What will we learn at puppy school?

Different courses will vary slightly, but the basic format is 5 weekly one-hour sessions, often including an introductory session for owners without their puppies, such as those offered by the RSPCA in some locations. Classes may focus on the following:

  • basic training (teaching your pup to ‘sit’, ‘down’ or ‘drop’, ‘look’, ‘stay’, ‘come’, ‘wait’, ‘leave it’, ‘give’)
  • behaving calmly around others
  • teaching good manners and preventing unwanted behaviours (such as jumping up on people and biting)
  • toilet training
  • walking on a loose leash
  • being comfortable when handled
  • owner education about general care (including safety, diet and preventative treatments), dog behaviour and effective communication with dogs.

What kind of training is used?

Reputable puppy schools only use reward-based dog training. This means rewarding dogs for performing ‘good’ behaviours by giving them something positive such as food treats, verbal praise, pats or a favourite toy, and ignoring ‘unwanted’ behaviours, never punishing or asserting dominance over the dog. For example, if your pup jumps up for attention, you will be taught not to encourage this but instead, to ignore them, even giving no eye contact, and quickly offering a reward when they have all four paws on the ground. Veterinarians strongly encourage reward-based training. This training is not only fun and humane, but it has other major benefits such as strengthening the bond with your dog as well as being the most effective form of training. Watching instructors at puppy school practise reward-based training will set you up for home practice between classes, where most of the learning occurs. Keep the practice sessions short and end on a positive note. And remember that training your dog is an ongoing commitment, so you will need to continue beyond puppy school and seek the advice of a certified reward-based trainer if needed.

Is puppy school suitable for my pup?

Puppies should attend puppy school when they are aged between eight and 16 weeks, providing they are healthy, sufficiently vaccinated and the environment where the puppy school is held is thoroughly clean. This is to avoid the spread of potentially fatal infectious diseases such as parvovirus, distemper and canine hepatitis. Generally, you will be advised that your puppy can start classes when two weeks have passed since their first vaccination. Puppies do not need to have completed all their vaccinations before attending puppy school providing these precautions are taken, as this would remove the benefit of training during their most crucial developmental period. Other requirements for attendance are that your puppy must be accompanied by an adult handler, kept restrained on their leash and not show aggressive behaviour towards other dogs or people. If you have any concerns, speak with your veterinarian, who may advise that your puppy would benefit from individual training sessions before starting beginner training classes for pups over the age of 16 weeks.

Where do I find a suitable puppy school?

Puppy schools are offered by most veterinary clinics, veterinary teaching hospitals, your local RSPCA in some areas and their partner organisations. As this is an unregulated industry, your veterinarian is the best person to advise you about finding a school with qualified staff who use reward-based training and who are careful about the comfort and safety of everyone who attends.

What are the advantages of puppy school?

There are many advantages of taking your pup to puppy school. Importantly, your pup can socialise with pups of a similar age in a controlled setting, as opposed to being in an open environment such as a dog park, where negative interactions with other dogs can cause them to lose, rather than gain confidence. Attending puppy school at a veterinary clinic helps you get to know the staff and should make future visits to the veterinarian a positive experience for your dog. What you learn in class, along with your dog’s training to focus on you despite surrounding interruptions, will provide a sound foundation for future training. It could be more cost-effective than paying for individual sessions with a trainer. COVID-19 restrictions pending, generally the entire family is welcome, so children especially can learn about safe handling of their new pet, which is essential for preventing injuries. You will meet other owners to share tips with and may even make new doggie friends who can assist with dog minding and play dates.

Just as importantly, we know from research findings that puppy school is effective at preventing problem behaviours in dogs. A 2012 study reported that puppy training and socialisation classes at 16 weeks of age improve behaviour and prevent future problem behaviours such as fear of strangers. A 2021 study reported that dogs who attended puppy training before the age of six months were less likely to show aggression, compulsive behavior, destructive behavior, and excessive barking when compared to dogs who had not attended puppy training classes.

What can I do to make the most of puppy school?

Speak to your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your pup attending puppy school. One potential downside is attending a class that is poorly run or overcrowded, so ask your veterinarian about the best type of class for your puppy. Having too many dogs or a poor mix of dogs can create anxiety.

Some people worry about the focus on using food as rewards. Food is a highly effective reward, especially early in training, but good trainers will encourage other forms of reward and teach you to become less reliant on using treats.

While there are no guaranteed ways to make puppy school a success for your dog, you can help by ensuring they’re accustomed to being around other dogs or environments. Being in great health can also help your puppy remain focused and active during classes, so it’s a good idea to see your veterinarian beforehand. 

Bringing home a new pup is an exciting time for everyone in the family, but as this is a big change for your furry friend, it’s important to know as much as you can about how to settle them in and build a positive and trusting relationship. Puppy school is highly recommended for your pup’s socialisation and training and will offer you regular support as you learn to address their behavioural and other needs. Finding a good school is the key, so ask your veterinarian’s advice. Your veterinarian is also there if you have any concerns about your pet’s behaviour, and they may recommend an individual trainer or animal behaviourist.

Along with training, another important consideration for new puppies is pet insurance. If your pet becomes ill or is injured in an accident, pet insurance can help cover a portion of your pet’s eligible vet bills so you can give your furry friend the best care possible. And if you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums goes to help support the RSPCA.