I remember watching my youngest dog, River, race around the room on long, clumsy legs with another, more graceful pup in her puppy training class.
River couldn’t catch the faster puppy, but she had a wonderful time trying.
The first week we attended one of these puppy training classes, River hid behind me while the other puppies played. It didn’t take her long, though, to discover that play time was her favorite part of the class.
There are so many important things that your puppy learns during their first year of life. If I had to choose only 3 things that I believe are vital for puppies to learn while young, those 3 things would be:
House-training is an obviously necessary skill because when it’s not present, everyone in the house knows it. However, when a puppy has not learned bite inhibition or been socialized, it’s not always obvious until behavior issues become full-blown as an adult.
Why Your Puppy’s Age Matters
Bite inhibition and socialization both need to be learned while your puppy is young.
A puppy has a key developmental period that typically ends around 12 weeks of age. These first 12 weeks are the most crucial weeks for socialization — during that time a puppy is very receptive to learning new things.
Bite inhibition needs to be taught before 6 months of age — when a puppy’s jaws develop and the puppy can do damage with their bites.
A good puppy training class helps your pup become socialized and develop bite inhibition, in addition to teaching other things like obedience commands and tolerance.
In this expert guide to starting puppy training classes, we will cover:
- When should you start puppy training classes?
- How to keep your young puppy safe
- What puppies learn in puppy class
When Should You Start Puppy Training Classes?
Are you wondering: “What age can you start puppy classes?”
The answer: 7–8 weeks old.
Most people think their puppy must be fully vaccinated to start training and socializing their pet. But because the distemper/parvovirus vaccine (DHPP) is a series of vaccines that are spaced out, you would end up taking your puppy to a class past their socialization period if you waited until they were 100% vaccinated.
Instead, begin puppy training classes right after they receive their first DHPP vaccine, which should be at about 6–8 weeks of age.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) believes that a puppy can be socialized as early as 7–8 weeks of age and after they receive their first distemper/parvo vaccine set. The group’s position is that the risk of behavior problems from not socializing a puppy outweighs any risk of disease exposure.
The AVSAB states: “Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond.… Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”
How to Keep Your Young Puppy Safe
Looking to start puppy training classes — but worried about safety? There are several things you can do to minimize your puppy’s risk of contracting diseases in public:
1. Look for Vaccine Requirements
When choosing a puppy class, look for a training location that requires all the canine participants to be up to-date-on shots.
Puppies receive antibodies from their mother’s milk that protects them against certain diseases, but this protection wears off sometime before 12–14 weeks of age.
Because you do not know exactly when that protection will wear off, it’s important that shots be given on time so your puppy doesn’t stay unprotected for long once the milk’s effects have worn off.
2. Clean Floors
Look for a training facility that cleans the floor with a cleaner that kills distemper and parvo right before the puppy training class begins.
Once the area is clean, the trainer should also prevent any dogs who are not participating in the class from entering that area.
3. Carry Your Puppy Into the Classroom
Because distemper and parvo are contracted through the saliva and feces of other animals, carry your puppy into the classroom. Do this to avoid contact with other dogs and with the ground where feces may have been tracked.
You can also request that the trainer have human class participants remove their shoes before entering the classroom.
4. Be Picky About Where Your Puppy Pees
When you take your puppy potty, choose an area where other dogs are not likely to have gone potty, even if that means walking far away before putting your puppy down.
Also, make sure you take your puppy out before you leave your home, to minimize the number of times they will need to go potty while out.
What Do Puppies Learn in Puppy Training Classes?
Puppies learn many important things in a puppy training class.
Not all puppy classes are created equal, though, so ask a lot of questions and look for a puppy class lesson plan that focuses on the following 5 things:
Puppies need to be exposed to a lot of different things while they are young. It’s important to take your pup places, expose them to men, women, children, other dogs, new environments, and different sights and sounds.
These interactions should be fun and not scary for your puppy. Using treats to reward your puppy for being brave or calm can help the socialization process go smoothly.
In a class, your puppy gets a chance to be around:
- New sights
- New smells
- New sounds
A great puppy training class will spend time introducing strange obstacles like ramps, tunnels, brooms, vacuum cleaners and other new things.
Some classes will even encourage pet parents to take turns training or handling one another’s puppies to get the puppies used to other people. Doing this has the added benefit of giving you a chance to improve your training skills, too.
Look for a class that sets aside some time for puppies to play together each week. This play helps puppies learn:
- How to control the pressure of their bites
- How to read dogs’ body language
- How to become more confident
- When to give another puppy a needed break
A trainer should also teach you how to socialize your puppy outside of class during the week.
This is important because the average puppy needs to be exposed to 100 or more different people, of various ages, races and sizes, as well as a variety of surfaces, environments and other animals.
Because most puppies attending class haven’t finished their vaccines, socializing can be accomplished by carrying the puppy places until your puppy has received their last set of shots.
2. Bite Inhibition
Bite inhibition is where a puppy learns how to control the pressure of their mouth. It is extremely important because if a dog ever bites for any reason, whether or not the dog has learned how to control the pressure of their bite will determine the severity of the bite.
Any dog can bite when put in the wrong situation. Your dog could become injured, sick or scared. Good bite inhibition ensures that that bite is not severe.
Bite inhibition is different from teaching a puppy not to bite at all. Teaching your puppy to stop biting entirely is only one part of teaching bite inhibition.
One of the ways puppies learn bite inhibition is through playing with one another:
- When one puppy bites down too hard, typically the other puppy will yelp and stop playing for a while.
- This teaches your puppy that they must be gentler.
A trainer should also teach you how to moderate the play and separate the puppies when one of them starts to get overwhelmed.
The trainer can also teach you how to continue the bite inhibition training at home by teaching you how to yelp and ignore your puppy when they bite you too hard.
Finally, a good puppy class should also teach puppies how to “leave it” so that puppies can be taught to stop all mouthing before they reach 6 months of age — when their jaws become strong.
Ideally, puppy class topics will include handing.
The point of handling is to teach puppies to like being touched and gently restrained. Tolerating being touched and restrained is important not only for grooming and visits to the vet, but it can also make daily interactions with your dog easier and can prevent bites.
Have you ever tried to brush a dog or cut their nails when the dog didn’t want to be groomed? Practicing handling can improve the outcome for many different situations.
Handling should be done in a way that’s fun for puppies. Puppies should be gently touched in an area, then given a treat. Each part of your puppy’s body should be touched — and your puppy rewarded for being tolerant of that touch each time.
Class participants can get their puppies used to being handled by passing the puppies around in a circle to let other families handle and reward their pups also.
When most people sign their puppy up for puppy kindergarten and wonder, “What do puppies learn in puppy school?” they are typically wondering what obedience commands will be taught in the class.
A great puppy class will teach:
- Your puppy to recognize their name
- A few basic obedience commands — such as “sit,” “down,” “stand,” “leave it,” “come” and “heel”
- The basic concepts of motivating your puppy to learn, being consistent and how to incorporate training sessions into your day
The first step in teaching obedience commands is teaching your pup their name. You can do this by saying your puppy’s name, making a noise to get their attention then praising them, and giving them a treat when they look toward you or walk over to you.
The specific commands taught in a puppy class can vary. The main goals of the class are to introduce your puppy to learning; improve your communication with your pup; and prevent future behavior issues like fear and aggression by socializing them, handling them and helping them develop bite inhibition.
Commands that may be taught in class include:
- Watch me
- Leave it
- Drop it
- OK or Free
Look for a class that at least teaches basic commands like “sit,” “down,” “come,” “leave it” and the beginnings of polite leash walking — even if a formal “heel” is not taught yet.
5. Q&A Time
Living with a puppy is a lot of fun!
But … it can also be difficult and time-consuming.
Because puppies tend to jump on us, mouth, bark, pee inside, chew on household items and do other unwanted behaviors, it’s important to have a few minutes in class each week dedicated to addressing issues pet parents are having at home.
You may have all kinds of questions — from how to handle crate training to how to handle bath time.
Some complex issues will need to be addressed through private training, but many problems can be navigated with a quick conversation and a bit of timely advice.
Here’s a video showing what your first puppy training class might look like:
Final Thoughts on Starting Puppy Training Classes
Puppy classes are extremely important.
Although many experienced pet parents can teach their puppy things like “sit” and “come” at home, puppy classes are about more than just obedience commands.
Puppy classes help puppies learn:
- Bite inhibition
- Handling tolerance
- Obedience around distractions
As a trainer who had experience teaching off leash obedience, when I brought River home, I immediately looked for a puppy class I could attend with her.
Although she already knew most of the commands taught in that class, she greatly benefited from the handling, socialization and bite inhibition practice she received in class.
Of course, it also was a lot of fun to attend a class full of puppies and watch her have such a wonderful time learning!
- “AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.” American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. 2008. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf.
- “Vaccinations.” American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/vaccinations.aspx.
- Denzer, Barbara. “The Importance of Socializing Puppies.” Animal Behavior College. http://www.animalbehaviorcollege.com/PawPrints/paw-prints.asp?ArticleID=178.
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Clarissa Farris, a canine behaviorist and trainer, contributed to this article.