10 Things Every First-Time Pet Parent Should Know Before They Start Puppy Kindergarten
Training experts and pet parents who’ve been-there-done-that share their candid thoughts on how you can make the most of this precious time with your new furry pal.
Raising a puppy is a joy, but it's also a big responsibility. Growing a confident, friendly dog with good manners takes work. The good news: Puppy kindergarten is an easy way to get your pooch off to a great start.
Typically, pups enroll in this series of classes between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks. It seems young, but that's the point. During the first three months of their lives, puppies are learning at a rapid clip about the world around them. This socialization period is the perfect time to introduce your puppy to other people, pets, and environments. Puppy kindergarten is an opportunity for your dog to have positive interactions outside the home and to develop basic behaviors like responding to his name and learning to sit on cue.
But trainers and seasoned pet parents alike say it's important to know a few things before you sign up for a class so you and your pup can have the best experience.
1. Choose your trainer wisely.
Dog trainers teach in a variety of ways, some more gentle than others. It's important to find out the teacher's style before registering for class. April Saylor, dog mom to two rescue coonhounds in Des Moines, Iowa and Daily Paws' deputy editor, echoes that sentiment. "I wish I'd done a little more research about the obedience school's training methods before I signed up my new pupper. I was a little uncomfortable with some of their advice when it came to teaching 'good' behavior."
Anyone can put up their shingle and call themselves a dog trainer or dog behaviorist, says Lisa Radosta, DVM, veterinary behaviorist and co-author of From Fearful to Fear Free: The Ultimate Guide for Fearful Dogs. She recommends looking for instructors who teach positive reinforcement training. "It's been shown scientifically to be the most effective, quickest way to teach your puppy new behaviors," Radosta says.
2. Do some prep work.
There's no need to wait until class begins to start introducing your puppy to new things. In fact, it's better if you do some activities before kindergarten begins, like taking your puppy out for car rides or short walks. "Socialization begins the moment you bring them home," says Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, pet health and behavior editor for Daily Paws. But she cautions that interactions should be enjoyable for your dog. "That doesn't mean you have to force your puppy to interact with every dog they meet or go everywhere with you. Let interactions be positive and quick."
3. Puppy kindergarten isn't just for the puppies.
Going to puppy kindergarten is an excellent way to get to know your dog better, says Jessa Paschke, pet behavior and training specialist for Mars Petcare. You'll gain an understanding of doggy body language, training techniques and puppy care needs.
Debbie Martin, LVT and veterinary technician specialist in behavior and co-author of Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog, also says puppy training classes create an opportunity for pet parents to see more of their pupper's personality come out. "There was a corgi puppy in one of my classes along with three golden retrievers. During the short play session at the start of class, the corgi would round-up the goldens in a corner. It was funny, but also revealed his strong herding instinct."
4. Bring extra-yummy treats to class.
Your puppy's kibble might be enticing at home, but you'll need higher-value treats for class because there are so many distractions. "We quickly found out at our pupper's first class that he is not treat motivated," says Melissa P., dog mom to two rescue pups in Nashville, Tenn. "We spent the first class not really doing anything because we didn't have a treat that he wanted. Our trainer suggested high value treats for his next class, and that worked wonders!"
5. Cut back on your puppy's food before class.
While many people recommend not feeding your puppy before an evening class, Bergeland says that might not be the best route. "A 'hangry' pup will be hyper-focused on getting food rather than the world around them, not to mention your puppy will be uncomfortable," she says. Instead, Bergeland recommends feeding your pup a quarter portion of their dinner about an hour before class and then the rest of it afterward.
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6. Potty accidents are inevitable.
It's normal to feel embarrassed when your puppy does their business while out and about, especially if it's a messy one. Abbie Harrison, dog mom to a rescue hound in Ankeny, Iowa and Daily Paws' senior editor, can relate. "My dog poops when she feels uneasy, and new experiences and new people make her nervous. So you can imagine what happened when I took her for a meet-and-greet with the trainer. I was so flustered and embarrassed I couldn't even get the poop bag open."
But potty accidents are no big deal in puppy kindergarten, Paschke says. Most puppy classes are done on hard surfaces that are easy to sanitize because trainers know that when puppies need to go, they need to go right now. Usually, clean-up materials are always within reach so that pet parents can quickly clean up the mess and get back to the task at hand.
7. Don't stress about your puppy's behavior.
It's OK for your puppy to be really excited, nervous, or shy during class, says Paschke. That's exactly why puppy kindergarten is good for them—they get used to being in new places, meeting new friends, and learning how to calm down. Class usually starts with playtime so the pups can play with one another and release some of their energy.
8. Do the homework.
Be prepared to do a bit of homework in puppy kindergarten to reinforce what you've learned in class and to address questions that come up as you implement the training at home. "I wish I would've known how much you have to do outside of class," says Laura S., a dog mom to two huge golden retriever boys in Antioch, Tenn. "Our trainer wanted us to log at least an hour a day (not all at once) of practice at home. It takes repetition and consistency for the training to be beneficial to your puppy."
9. Ask before you pet other pups.
Being around a bunch of adorable furballs is one of the bonuses of puppy kindergarten. It's hard to resist reaching out to touch them as they tumble around your feet. But Paschke advises that participants always check with pet parents before saying hello to other pups. That way they can let you know if their dog is OK with strangers or if their pup needs a special kind of approach.
10. A calm teacher is a better teacher.
It's natural to want your puppy (or yourself!) to do everything just right. But the reality is that neither of you will be perfect from the get-go. Radosta suggests that pet parents should level-set their expectations, and to avoid putting pressure on the dog. "Stay calm and focused on the learning process," she says. "Remember, the less stressed you are, the better teacher you'll be for your pup."