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Puppies! Development, Fear Periods, and Training.

One of my favorite classes to teach is puppy class, also called puppy kindergarten. My class is open to any dog under 4 months of age. If the dog is older than 16 weeks, I don’t usually let them in to puppy class – I’ll explain why in a second.

You’d think this is my favorite class to teach because puppies are so cute and fun to play with. While this may be true, puppies are actually a huge pain in the ass. Being surrounded by a group of untrained puppies and new dog owners can become chaotic quickly. It is the most challenging class I run.

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The reason puppy class is my favorite to teach is because it’s the best chance a family has at preventing problem behaviors in the future. It’s well known in the dog world that puppies go through a critical period of development before 16 weeks of age. Research by J.P Scott and J.L. Fuller actually showed that socialization begins at 3 weeks (Lindsay, 2000, p. 33). This means that where you source your dog from is also extremely important, but that’s a topic for another post. After 16 weeks, that socialization period closes and there’s no going back.

Puppy class is specifically for dogs aged 8-16 weeks so that dog trainers can take advantage of this critical period of development, as the dog’s brain finishes organizing itself. It is during this time in life that the lessons the dog learns will dictate what it is and isn’t prepared to deal with later in life. Behavior in young puppies is much more malleable than it is in adult dogs, so problems can be modified easily with the right instruction. Puppy class provides a safe environment for families to learn what exercises are most important to focus on with their puppies. And it gives puppies a safe environment to experience new things, meet new people, and meet other puppies under the guidance of an experienced professional.

During this critical period of development, puppies go through several fear periods around 8-10 weeks and again around 12 weeks (Lindsay, 2000, p. 46). My puppy class focuses extensively on how to identify fear and what to do about it so the dog learns to cope with. Any good puppy class will show you how to expose your puppy to new experiences in a way that will build their resilience to novelty.

The most important thing you can do with a dog under 16 weeks of age is to teach them what behaviors you like, and how to live in the human world. “8-week-old puppies function at nearly an adult level in terms of learning ability. Apparently, however, as puppies mature, the ease with which they learn noticeably begins to decline by about 16 weeks of age” (Lindsay, p. 63). Introducing some simple, fun, training games early in life can make for an adult dog who works with you much easier when it comes to obedience training. Check out this YouTube video for some ideas on what you can do with your puppy.

Puppy class is the most important class you will take with your new dog. The lessons you and

your dog will learn last a lifetime.

Lindsay, S. R. (2000). Development of Behavior. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training volume 1 adaptation and learning. (pp.31-68). Ames: Iowa State University Press.

About the Author: Jen Banks has been training dogs professionally since 2008. She started her own pet dog training company in 2014. Owner and trainer at Banks K9 Solutions in Fitchburg MA, she provides group classes, board and train, and in home training for families and their dogs.

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