Puppies are the future of your practice (OK, kittens and adult pets, too). Starting them off on the right paw can be key to success not only with their behavior, but with client retention.
There are many ways of offering these classes to your clients, whether it be a one-time social class or a full 6-week curriculum. It shouldn’t stop there, however, but instead should spill over into offering other types of behavior services, ranging from the minimum of having all staff on board to use low-stress handling to offering full-service behavior appointments.
Canine behavioral development
Neonatal period- 0 – 13 days (eyes open)
Behaviors centered around maternal care and feeding, basic reflexes, no new behaviors develop.
Transitional period- 13 – 20 days (to startle response to sounds)
New visual and auditory capacities develop, puppies begin to lap and chew food, eliminate without stimulation, stand, walk, wag tails.
Socialization period- 20 – 84 days (to first long excursion from the den)
Rapid behavioral, especially social, development. Weaning begins 5weeks ends 7-10 weeks. By 8-9 weeks attracted by odors of urine and feces as areas for elimination. Investigation of novel objects. Social play, social following, form strong attachments to others.
Juvenile period- 12 weeks – 6 months (to sexual maturity)
Behavioral skills refined, adult level of learning capability, but short attention span. With sexual maturity begin to see sexually dimorphic behaviors- urine marking, aggression, roaming, mounting. Other adult behaviors – territorial, protective, owner-directed aggression.
Socialization is an active process, not passive. Each thing that a puppy is exposed to serves as one more learning opportunity, whether it be pleasurable, or fear-inducing. These exposures should be enjoyable experiences. Bring treats and toys to make the experiences more fun.
Not every location, person, animal, etc. is appropriate for the puppy to experience. Owners must shield their puppies from potentially negative experiences (e.g. not the fireworks show). Owners also must be taught to watch the puppy for signs of anxiety (e.g. lip licking, yawning, tail tucked, ears back, shaking, etc.). Puppies can get overwhelmed by too many people, too much novelty. If the puppy appears anxious, she should be removed from the situation.
Veterinarians and owners are often concerned about taking puppies who are not fully vaccinated to public places, especially where there may be other dogs. You should be aware of the prevalence of diseases like parvo, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, etc. in your community. Most puppies who have come from adequately vaccinated dams and received at least one vaccination can be safely taken to most locations. Owners should avoid dog parks, but walking on the street usually is not a concern. Studies have shown that dogs that have attended a puppy socialization class are significantly less likely to be relinquished. Behavior problems lead to more euthanasia and relinquishment than do the diseases we routinely vaccinate against. Puppies should NOT WAIT until they are 4-6 months old to begin classes.
Training a puppy – basics
Owners must decide how they will want her to behave when she is a full-grown dog. The rules must be clear in the minds of everyone in the house and must be taught to the puppy.
Rules need to be enforced every time by every member of the household in the same manner.
Puppies are constantly learning new behaviors. You should help shape the owners' expectations and beliefs about good behavior (teaching dogs not to jump on people, teaching owners not to encourage aggression, teaching owners not to reinforce fearful behavior).
Reward good behavior
It is bad training to try to teach a puppy what not to do without first teaching her what to do. Training should focus on giving the puppy as many opportunities to earn rewards, such as praise, petting, play and treats. Don't wait for training sessions or for her to obey a command to reward her. For example, if she is lying quietly, chewing on her own toy, someone should walk over and reward her. If the owner comes home and the puppy runs over and sits, instead of jumping up, reward this. Dogs should not be trained with coercive techniques (e.g. training collars, setting puppy up to get punished).
Avoid bad behavior
The puppy does not know good from bad. Many of the things that owners consider “bad”, puppies consider “enjoyable”. They should not be given the opportunity to explore and investigate locations, objects, situations that may lead to enjoyable, but bad behavior.
Basic commands (sit, down, stay, come)
Sit and down should become “default” behaviors. Teach these commands using a food-lure.
Before he gets things he likes, such as food, doors opened for him (only exception is during housetraining), toys, petting, leash put on for a fun walk, etc., he should “sit” or “down”. Tell owners that this is the puppy's version of “Please”. After time, owners will start to notice that the puppy automatically “sits” when waiting for things.
The basic concept behind teaching a reliable recall command (“Come”) is that every time the dog comes when called, something good happens. Start teaching the puppy when he is young and naturally follows and stays close to his “leaders”. Play games that involve the dog coming to or finding the owners, like hide and seek. Even if the puppy was called away from doing something “bad”, if he came when called then his most recent behavior was “good” and he should be rewarded. Never call a dog to you and then punish it.
Running a puppy class
A well run puppy socialization class at the veterinary hospital can provide a good introduction to teaching manners in the veterinary hospital. To achieve the desirable outcome of having well mannered puppies in the veterinary hospital the classes need to be run by experienced staff who know when to intervene and not push puppies into situations that are potentially frightening. Thus the classes allow the puppy and the owner to become familiar with the veterinary hospital in a non-threatening manner and associate it as a "friendly" place to visit.
Dealing with difficult pets can be made easier by seeing the surroundings and circumstances from the pet's perspective, i.e., "Walk in their paws!"
Topics for a puppy class
Recommend that puppies be exposed to all ages, genders, races and types of people. Even exposure to things like hats, beards, and wheelchairs can be critical to socialization. Inform clients that attending training classes and exposing the puppy to fully vaccinated dogs is okay prior to finishing their vaccinations. The critical socialization period occurs between approximately 4-14 weeks of age. Although most vaccination series are not complete until 16 weeks, puppies can attend properly run socialization classes once they receive their first set of vaccines.
Encourage owners and staff to use a lot of treats. Suggest to owners to withhold their dog’s food before the visit so that the puppy responds more positively. If any fearful trends are noticed, advise clients to come in occasionally and work on desensitization and counterconditioning with fun veterinary visits without doing any medical procedures. If a puppy is not food-motivated, suggest bringing in a favorite toy as a reward. However, keep in mind that a dog that is not ‘food-motivated’ may instead be displaying signs of stress.
Advise clients to begin handling puppy’s paws with positive reinforcement early and often in a low stress environment. Make sure to avoid cutting the quick or using excessive restraint. Treats, treats, treats!
Inform clients that a variety of training methods are available, but that positive reinforcement training is most effective for working on obedience with their puppy. Puppy classes and training sessions can be a great foundation for at-home training. Discuss being consistent with their puppy in the house, and remind owners that attention and playtime should be on their own terms, not the puppy’s. Have a PRE-SCREENED list of trainers to give your clients options when seeking out a trainer for their puppy.
The best kind of toys or games to teach a puppy should suit the puppy’s play style and allow the owner to control the situation. Examples of this would be teaching a “drop it” command or waiting for a sit in order for the toy to be thrown again. Inform clients to always avoid allowing the puppy to bite hands or body during play. Having toys that the puppy is allowed to chew on or bite is very important in order to redirect this natural behavior. Give owners a list of good chew toys, food dispensing toys, and other appropriate playing tips to set them up for success.
Collars and tools
Introducing appropriate humane tools early in life is beneficial, especially once the puppy is larger and can pull more forcefully. Head collars and front-attach harnesses are two tools that help owners more efficiently and humanely teach a dog to walk nicely on leash. Veterinary staff can help fit these tools during the first visit to ensure proper use. Harnesses for smaller, and especially brachycephalic, dogs are options to avoid medical problems.
Advise owners to give plenty of praise, petting and treats when the puppy is walking along on a loose leash. When the puppy strains on the leash, they should stop immediately. Discourage owners from yanking the puppy towards them with the leash, and instead calling the puppy back and praising him when he comes. Owners should not keep walking when the puppy is pulling on the leash, as this only rewards the behavior and reinforces the habit. A head collar or front-attach harness can also help prevent pulling.
Living with kids
Stress the importance of socializing the puppy with children in and outside the home. If children in the household are old enough, educate them on proper handling and interaction with the puppy. In households with very young children, it is important to monitor interactions with the puppy at all times to ensure safety. Parents should never leave a dog and a young child unsupervised, ever.
The crate is a great tool, especially for housetraining. The client should obtain a crate that the dog can stand up and turn around in - it may be useful to get one large enough to account for growth. Access to water should always be provided. The crate should NOT be a place of punishment. Teaching a command such as “go to your crate” is useful.
Advise clients to start with the crate and gradually increase access to more of the house as the puppy matures. An exercise-pen and other tools may be useful for this too. Remind clients that puppies need to go outside frequently (more often than they may think) and should be rewarded while they eliminate, not after they come back inside. They should NOT be punished for accidents inside the house.