E122: All About Puppies: Socialization, Foundations, Playtime & More

I'm joined by Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, Amanda Boyd, Casey Coughlin, and Sara Brueske — our Pet Professionals Program instructors — to talk about working with puppies!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

For this episode, I've got several awesome guests on, and we're talking about PUPPIES!! Here with me are Amanda Boyd, Casey Coughlin, Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, and Sara Brueske!

Hi ladies!! To start us all out, can you each just state your name, so folks can get a sense of whose voice is whose, and tell us a little bit about you, maybe starting with Amanda?

Amanda Boyd: Hi, this is Amanda, and I am based out of Washington State, a little bit southwest of Seattle. I teach private lessons and group classes for puppies and adult dogs, and will be teaching several Pet Professionals workshops. With my own dogs, I do agility and barn hunt, primarily.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Casey, do you want to go next?

Casey Coughlin: Sure. This is Casey Coughlin, and I am from central Connecticut. I own Inspiration Canine, which is serving pet dogs throughout the state, mostly focusing on in-home obedience and problem-solving for some behavior modification cases. With my own personal dogs, I have two Border Collies and we do agility.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Jen?

Jennifer Summerfield: My name is Jennifer Summerfield, and I'm a veterinarian and professional dog trainer based in Huntington, West Virginia. I have done a class and a few webinars for FDSA over the past couple of years, mostly about behavior problems in dogs, but also about medical issues from time to time. I have a workshop coming up through the Pet Professionals Program about how to teach a great puppy kindergarten class, which I'm really excited about.

As far as my own dogs go, I have three Shelties who do a variety of things, when they're not busy holding down the couch in my living room. I would say that agility is our main sport at the moment, but we have also done obedience and rally, and we dabble a little bit in herding and conformation. I was actually just at a conformation show with one of my boys this weekend, so he's extra-floofy and fancy-looking at the moment. And that's me.

Melissa Breau: All right. And last but definitely not least, Sara?

Sara Brueske: Hi, my name is Sara Brueske. I live just outside of St. Louis in Missouri. I work at Purina Farms, where I put on dog sport demonstrations for the general public every single day with my thirteen dogs. Yes, thirteen dogs. They all go to work with me every day. I have a huge variety, from a 6-and-a-half-pound Papillion all the way up to a couple of Belgian Malinois I do protection sports with.

I do compete in dock diving and agility, as well as Frisbee, and I dabble in a few other sports as well. But my biggest passion is puppies. I do a lot foster work, so I get a lot of sport-prospect puppies as well as pet puppies in through that, and I do breed Australian Koolies as well, so I've had a couple of litters of those.

Melissa Breau: Fun stuff. So that's what we're here to talk about today is puppies, and I want to start right at the beginning with choosing a puppy. Amanda, I know you have a class called "Help! I've got the wrong dog …" in the PPP program, so I want to start with you. What advice do you have for people when they're choosing their puppy? What advice can professional dog trainers pass along to their clients during that early crucial step in the process?

Amanda Boyd: It's always so fabulous when people get in touch with a trainer prior to getting the puppy. If that's possible, I fully recommend it. I think it's definitely worth it to hire a trainer to even come with you and meet puppies, or at least have some sort of conversation with you prior to the choosing.

One of the main things that comes to mind for me is activity level and the physical and mental needs of the dog. I see a lot of owners who end up with the trendy breed of the moment, or a dog based on a commercial or in a movie, but they haven't done their research to understand what that breed requires. If it is a purebred dog, making sure you understand what that breed needs, and talk to people who have had that kind of dog. Obviously, when choosing a breeder, there are a lot of questions you can ask, there are a lot of resources out there, but I would say at the very least you want to be able to meet the parents, and you want to find out what the early life of the puppies was like.

I think of puppy personalities kind of in a bell curve. If you go see a litter, there's going to be the really outgoing, kind of pushy, active puppy, there's going to be the shy, kind of withdrawn puppy, and then there are going to be a lot of puppies in the middle. For most families, the puppies in the middle probably are going to work best. I think people need to understand that taking on a shyer puppy is a big project, and as much as their heart might reach out to that puppy, they need to know what they're getting into.

As far as getting a dog from another source, like a shelter, sometimes you don't have that luxury of knowing about the dog, but finding out as much information as you can. For me, a middle of the road, social, active but not too active, bold but not too bold — those kind of things tend to work best in the pet homes, I think.

The last thing I would say is making sure the family has a realistic expectation of how duties are going to be divided. In class, this is when the moms roll their eyes, because the moms end up doing everything. But what's their schedule, who's going to be responsible, are they expecting their 5-year-old child to walk this puppy? That's not realistic, so looking at the age of the kids.

And puppies are not for everyone. I think a 6-year-old lab is the perfect dog for a lot of people to adopt. So considering puppies are a lot of work, that's why they're cute, I tell my clients that a lot.

But those are some of the things. I guess one last thing, too, would be just being realistic about the timeframe of development, because people think the puppy is going to be finished training and grown up at 6 months, and they need to understand that even that first two years is considered the puppyhood, and there's going to be a lot of work put in for a good, long period.

Melissa Breau: I think that was a lot of really awesome info in there. Does anyone else have anything they want to add that folks should keep in mind when they're choosing a puppy, or helping somebody else choose the right breed or the right puppy? Casey?

Casey Coughlin: I think that being prepared, obviously, is the number one thing that I always try to help people navigate, and really looking at … Amanda touched upon this a lot, but knowing what you're getting yourself into ahead of time.

And then I just really think that looking at the whole picture, looking at the whole family, and looking at are you actually prepared to bring this puppy into your life, are you prepared in this moment of time to support this puppy in its development. And then, when things are going in puppy land, when you're not sleeping, and it's eating carpets, and things are happening like that, are you in a good place as a family to cope with that and deal with that, or in a part of your life where you can be coping with that and dealing with that, because it does add a massive pile of stress onto people, but I don't think they're always prepared going into it.

So definitely looking at your whole lifestyle, and making sure that you guys are really ready to be there in that moment for the next long-term moments, the next year of your life, if that's something that you guys are ready to take on.

Melissa Breau: Jen, anything to add?

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah. I definitely agree with what's been said. That's great advice. I would say probably the biggest thing that comes to mind for me is that I really think people often don't take enough time with this decision. I think it's relatively common for puppies to be almost an impulse thing sometimes. People see a cute one on Craigslist, or somebody's selling them in the parking lot of Walmart. Not that that can't work out sometimes, but it's a big gamble.

I try to tell my clients: keep in mind that the puppy you bring home is going to be with you for the next ten to fifteen years, if all goes well. That's a long time. If this dog ends up being a really great fit for your lifestyle, whatever that might mean for you — because it's going to look different for different people — those can be ten to fifteen really wonderful, amazing years. But if the dog is not a good fit, and ten to fifteen years of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, meaning that you're constantly having to manage behavioral traits that are potentially really disruptive to your life.

And I think that sometimes people, especially pet owners who don't necessarily do dog sports or technical stuff with their dogs, tend to overestimate how much we can fix that with training, if there's really a fundamental match between what the owner wants and who the dog is. And I also think that people overestimate how much control they have over what behavioral traits their puppy is going to display as an adult, just by virtue of being the one that raises the puppy. Genetics are a powerful thing.

So if there's one thing I could tell people about choosing a puppy, it's that. That it's really worth it to take some time and make a good choice in the beginning.

Casey Coughlin: I always like to say that we love to, as a human species and as a culture, to say there's never a right time, and there actually is a right time. You do have control over this, and so even the time of year is important. We all have the choice, but if you sit down and look at the choice, if you're somewhere where it's super-hot over the summer and you're like, "I'm not actually going to be able to get this puppy outside enough, because it's going to be 90 at 10 a.m., and I'm not going to get up early," and whatever, or the flipside of that, if it's winter and you're not going to want to stand outside at 2 a.m. with them refusing to pee because it is freezing, all those things come into play. There is definitely a right time and good choices to make.

Amanda Boyd: That makes me think of one other thing as well. I call it puppy amnesia. It happens to me, even as a professional. My second-oldest dog was 5 when I got my last puppy, who is now 4, and I was like, "This is a crazy amount of work. How do people do this? Why did I get a puppy?" So really reminding people, they say that they've had puppies before, but letting them know … it's a hard message to get across, but sometimes they're 15 years older. They were 60 when they got their last dog, and now they're 75 and they're looking at a puppy of the same breed, and they've always had that breed, and their last dog was perfect, and just remembering: your last dog was not perfect for the first two years, probably not. That goes to what Jennifer was saying, like being realistic about what effect that's going to have, going from the perfect 12-year-old dog that just passed away to now starting over with a puppy.

Melissa Breau: Sara, anything to add?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, definitely. I want to circle back to what Jen said about genetics and how important that is. When you're choosing a breed, if you're going through a breeder and choosing that breed, looking at the history of that breed and why they are even a breed to begin with, what job they were created to do, is a huge insight on how well they'll fit into your family.

One of the most popular breeds is a Husky, but if you look at why a Husky was bred, it was bred to run nonstop with other dogs, with not a lot of regard for the human that's trailing behind them, unless they were the lead dog. People get these dogs, and they want to do agility or sports, or they want to have basic manners, and they don't realize the amount of work that's going to go into that particular breed as a whole. Obviously there's outliers as individuals.

So taking the time to research that breed and history, and understanding why terriers might not be the best choice if you have small animals in the house, or why herding dogs might not be the best choice if you have little kids running around all the time, and understanding the history behind the development of the breed is huge.

And then going even smaller on that, looking at what the parents are doing and the grandparents were doing, how were they around other dogs, how were they in public spaces. If you travel a lot, how are the parents during traveling, and really finding parents that fit your lifestyle, because the puppies are most likely going to be like their parents.

From there, it's finding a breeder — if you're going the breeder route — who is really, really breeding what you're looking for, and not being afraid to sit on a waiting list for that correct dog to come around, or circling back again to wanting this puppy now, but sometimes the perfect litter is not going to be bred for two years and it might be worth waiting that long, as hard as that may be.

The same thing happens with foster dogs and rescue dogs. Odds are, when you start looking, that perfect dog is not sitting at the shelter waiting for you. And so staying in touch with different rescues, knowing what fosters they're bringing in, talking to different foster homes, going to a lot of different adoption events, and getting a good feel for the dogs and really understanding what they're like before taking that plunge, for sure.

Melissa Breau: I think that's a great thing to think about, for sure.

Casey Coughlin: I don't know where you guys all are as far as what your rescue structure is locally to you guys, but in the Northeast there's a huge influx of puppies that are getting transported in from other parts of the country, and they're falling in love with and maybe talking to a foster that's states away, and then picking up a puppy at a transport and falling in love with something that isn't actually meant to be in their home.

Sara Brueske: Right. And that's why it's so important to take the time and not jump just because you saw a cute picture on the Internet. As much as social media helps us rescuers, it can also be a detriment because … a big example: I just brought in a 9-month-old Belgian Malinois foster, so she was still a puppy and she was gorgeous, one of the dark-colored ones that everybody wants. I was getting messages left and right, and the honest-to-God answer was that she was not a sport prospect at all and she needed a pet home. Ninety percent of the messages and inquiries I had, less than 24 hours after getting her, were asking if she was going to be a sport candidate, and they wanted to put an application in, all based on a picture. So it definitely was not the right fit for those people at all.

Melissa Breau: Socialization came up in the process of talking about that stuff, but I want to dive into it a little bit more, this idea that once that puppy comes home, once they have hopefully stacked the deck in their favor and have chosen a puppy and it's here now, we hear that word over and over again: "Make sure you're doing lots of socialization. Make sure you're doing the right socialization." Let's talk a little about do's and don'ts. What's important to consider when socializing a puppy? Casey, since I know you have a PPP workshop specifically on this topic, why don't you start us off.

Casey Coughlin: Awesome. Sure. My soapbox that I stand on for socialization is I always want to be looking at everything in more of a custom light. I want to know, from my clients — and I think we all need to do this as dog trainers and teachers and educators — what do you need this dog to withstand in your life, what do you need them to be comfortable with, and then go from there.

So make your custom plan of exposing the dog to the world in a way that is suitable to you. If you are going to be sitting on patios, and going to the beach, and putting the dog in the car, and driving to vacation twelve hours

away, then your puppy needs to be able to withstand that to have the best quality of life in your family. So really looking at things individually versus someone that really just wants to go to the local park and wants great neighborhood skills, good visitors-coming-over skills.

Everyone has their own different niche of their life, and so whenever I'm exposing puppies to new things, I'm just trying to help set them up to be successful in the life in the home that they're in right now, and so not being totally over the top about needing to meet 5000 people and eat 5000 cookies in 5000 places and touch 5000 surfaces, but just seeing what does this look like. Does your puppy need to be comfortable with children? Do they not? Do they need to be around traffic? Are you hoping to drag them into the city with you?

What do you want to do, and then let's make a plan that then makes all those things really not exciting so that you can be set up for success with their behavior, and they can withstand all of that future stuff that they're going to be doing for the next ten years of their life.

Melissa Breau: I love that. Sara, do you want to add anything?

Sara Brueske: I absolutely love that plan, as far as creating custom socialization procedure, for sure. I'm a huge fan of passive socialization, and so rather than my dogs having to go interact with people or interact with other dogs, what I actually want them to do is learn to ignore those things and maybe go say hi when I ask them to, so putting the "Go say hi" on cue. And I do this for both dogs on either end of the spectrum, so my overly social dogs that love everybody, and people are super-distracting for them, as well as the dogs that are a little bit more nervous around people and other dogs. That way, those nervous dogs, they're not being forced into interactions that they're not comfortable with, and my overly social dogs are learning that those people are just there, and they're going to get a lot more cookies from me, and I will still eventually give them that opportunity to go say hi.

So, as a sport dog person, having that passive socialization is really important for me. I want my dog to be able to pay attention to me, no matter the distractions that are around them, and exposing them to people and places and things and scary noises and all that, but more in an indirect way rather than an interaction type of a format.

Jennifer Summerfield: That was a really good segue, because a lot of what Sara just talked about is a lot of what I was going to say, so that's perfect. But for sure I wish it was a little bit better understood maybe among the general public that socialization does not have to mean direct interaction with things. Because I think we've probably all seen people who are really well-intentioned. They think this means that they should let their puppy run up to every dog and every human they meet to say hello, because they're getting socialized, and that's not always a great idea for the reasons that Sara was just explaining, and it's not necessary.

Socialization means exposure to things. It means that you don't want your puppy to freak out, when they're grown up, because they've never seen a person carrying an umbrella, or a man with a beard, or a kid riding a bike. But ideally we want those things to be a boring part of the background for them, not a cue that they should get super-excited and drag you over to say hi.

The other thing that I was going to mention that I feel like I see a lot also is that I think people need to keep in mind that when we're exposing puppies to new things, it does need to be a good experience for the puppy for it to count. I'm sure we've all seen examples, again, of puppy owners who are really well-intentioned, they're trying hard to do all the right things, who are dragging their new puppy through the crowd at their kid's soccer game, or they're pushing them through PetSmart in a buggy because they know they need to socialize them, and they're doing it. But the puppy's terrified and shaking and definitely not having fun, and unfortunately, that's really counterproductive, because what this puppy is actually learning is that these places are super-terrifying, and that's not what we want.

So I would emphasize that while we do want to expose puppies to all the different things we need them to be comfortable with as adults, we really have to do this at the puppy's pace. If they're scared, we're not helping them.

Melissa Breau: Amanda, anything?

Amanda Boyd: One thing I really stress to clients is to have some sort of structure to the process, rather than leaving it up to chance that they're going to see something to expose their puppy to. Really making a schedule, keeping a checklist. There are a lot of charts and lists available out there so that people are really checking all the boxes, literally, if they socialize their puppy.

I think also having someone supervise at least the early stages, whether that's in a class setting or whether that's in a private lesson, so that they are sure that they are going about the process correctly and that they can read their puppy's body language and understand when the puppy is having a positive experience and when the puppy needs a break. That's all I would really add.

Melissa Breau: Maybe one of you would talk about this for just a second, but the idea of making sure they also understand what emotions their puppy is expressing in the moment. That's certainly worth talking about. And my next question is actually about class structure, so maybe if any of you have included that in the class, you could talk to it a little bit. But I know that folks have strong feelings about puppy classes, so I'd love to hear what you guys think a good puppy class looks like — playtime, no playtime, you mentioned a potty break in there, which I think is really cool. Jenn, I know you have a class on this starting right around the corner.

Jennifer Summerfield: Right. Next week.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to start it off? And then we'll run through everybody.

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I can definitely give what my definition or what my views are on a good puppy class. I agree with you that it's something that people have strong feelings about, so don't take this as the puppy class gospel that you can't disagree with. Other trainers might possibly have some different views, or different ways to handle the details, which is totally fine.

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned the body language piece, because I agree that that's important. That's actually one of the things that I talk to owners about in Week 1 when I teach puppy classes, because a lot of dog owners don't know this stuff. They don't know what their puppy looks like when it's nervous or when it's unsure about some things, so I think that's an important piece of information for the owners.

As far as puppy class in general, I think puppy classes can be really great or they can be not so great, depending on how the class is being run and what the experience is actually like for the puppies and their owners. So the first thing I would say is that a good puppy class, ideally for me, should be emphasizing socialization, meaning controlled positive exposure to novel things, and life skills, like being comfortable with handling and grooming and bed exams, that kind of stuff, versus teaching obedience commands as the main emphasis.

Not that you can't go ahead and introduce some puppy-friendly obedience skills, because you absolutely can, and I definitely do, when I teach puppy classes, but ideally the instructor should have their eye on the big picture. You have your puppy's whole life to teach obedience, but you have a really narrow window of time when they're young to make the most of all the other stuff we talked about. So for me, a good class should emphasize those things.

The second big thing is that the class should be a positive experience for the puppies. So as we were just alluding to a few minutes ago, it's not helpful, and it can actually do harm, to expose them to new things in a way that they might find scary or overwhelming. So a good instructor should be sensitive to this and make sure that they're setting everybody up for success.

I know that you asked specifically about puppy playtime, Melissa. This is the controversial part, probably. That can be a topic that people definitely have strong feelings about. I actually do go into the pros and cons of having off-leash puppy play in my workshop, because I think that's something a lot of people have questions about. And there's really no one right answer. I have seen great classes that included puppy playtime and great classes that didn't, so you can totally do it either way.

But I can at least give you the short version of my thoughts on it. There are things about puppy play that can be really great. It can be a really nice way for puppies to get some positive social experience from other dogs, it can be a way for them to practice or develop appropriate play skills and communication skills, and some puppies may not have a lot of other places to practice that stuff. So that part can be really beneficial.

But on the flipside, it can also go really poorly. Everybody has seen an example of a situation where you have some really rowdy, boisterous puppies that are ganging up on the more timid ones, practicing some bullying behavior, and then you end up with a situation that's not a healthy social experience for anybody.

So as far as what I do personally to try and maximize the possible benefits and avoid the pitfalls as much as possible is, when I teach puppy classes, I do allow some off-leash play, if I have puppies who are able to do this safely, but it's pretty carefully controlled. So, for example, I might only have two or three puppies off leash at a time, not the whole class having a free-for-all, and I would match those puppies pretty carefully according to their size and their energy level.

I also try to keep up a pretty running commentary for the owners about what we're seeing, because again, they don't know this stuff. They don't know what normal play looks like in a lot of cases. They don't know what the signs are that maybe things are getting a little bit too intense, and we should intervene and redirect the puppies. So I try to make sure I talk a lot about that while the puppies are doing their thing, to help the owners learn what's normal and what's not, and what you should do if things do start to get a little bit intense.

That being said, there are definitely some class sessions where the puppies just may not be very compatible with each other and it's not going to happen, so that's OK. If you have a class … and it's a small class this time around. We have a 14-week-old Lab and we have a 10-week-old Yorkie, that's probably not going to be a great pair, so that's OK. If that happens, we talk about that as a learning opportunity, like why are these puppies probably not compatible, even if they're both good puppies, and we find other things for them to do instead.

So for sure there's definitely a lot I could say about that, but I don't want to take over the whole podcast. But we do talk a fair bit about it during the workshop, so if anybody wants to hear more, you can definitely chase me down there and we'll discuss it.

Melissa Breau: Sara, do you want to pick it up?

Sara Breuske: Yeah, certainly. It's been a few years since I taught group puppy classes, but that is where I started my career was group classes, so I do of course have some strong feelings as far as puppy classes go, as we all do. I'm pretty similar to what Jen said about life experience being the main focus, rather than obedience behaviors.

However, I did find with a lot of my students, they wanted to teach their dogs how to sit down and all those things, so I definitely included those, but we did it more in a real-life context, like, I want you to be able to have your dog lay down at the cash register while you're checking out at Petsmart or Petco, or I want your dog to be able to walk loosely at your side while you're shopping, or be able to have a mat stay while you're out at a café, or something along those lines. So more in a realistic context rather than an obedience mindset.

As far as playtime goes, I actually didn't include this in my classes, but what I did instead, which was a good opportunity for people, we did proper greetings on leash, so we showed how to do that, like making sure your dog is focusing on you, giving them a cue to go say hi, all those things.

And then we did a puppy play session that was not scheduled with the puppy class, so if they wanted to come back a different day, they could do it. And then I expected, since they were my students that were in the puppy playtime, they would be practicing things like recalls and rewarding focus for their dogs and stuff like that with their dogs, so they were actually practicing their obedience skills while doing puppy playtime. And then of course we had a couple of different areas, so it wasn't just a free-for-all. They were matched based on energy, just like Jen said, and we were definitely discussing body language and emotions while they were playing as well. But it was a good opportunity. That way those people that did want to have that puppy playtime, they were allowed to come back and use that, and it wasn't getting tied with their puppy class.

Melissa Breau: I like that. And I love that you mentioned the idea of real-life situations in there, because in spinoffs, because I've taught those classes too, and when I did, pet owners have such a hard time taking the concept and then saying, "OK, this is where I should use it in real life," if it's not really specifically taught to them that way. The idea of, "OK, you're sitting on the couch to eat food; you should teach your puppy to go to their mat during that time" was really mind-blowing for some people, which is kind of cool because you get a chance to expose them to that idea, but I love that you plugged that in there.

Casey Coughlin: Can I talk about puppy play?

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Casey Coughlin: Because I have the opposite that literally just gave me an anxiety response to hearing you guys talking about [letting them all play]. I sit on the other side. It's my personal nightmare. My second Border Collie now is seven months old, so I just lived this with her, with "Let's have some social experiences," and it's spring, so everyone has a puppy now, and yay, all my friends have their puppies and we're going to do great things with them, and all that.

But I love puppies socializing with adult dogs because I want that example to be set for them for the rest of their life, like the expectation when you are interacting with another dog isn't going to be, or most of the time it's never going to be, this ram-around like puppy play. I actually have a really close friend with a puppy, and we've had to completely stop even hiking together because they were too much. It's just too much, and it then fades back into other interactions with other dogs where now my puppy is exhibiting really inappropriate responses to adult dogs because they're like, "Yes! A dog! I'll jump on your head and we'll have a great time."

So I never put it into my personal puppy classes, and I try and refocus my clients on do we have some socially savvy dogs to put this puppy with, so they can get the best expectations for future life. Not that my puppies and dogs don't play with their friends, because they definitely do, but it's a little bit different than going up to new dogs and creating social experiences with strangers.

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. I agree on that same thing. I don't let my dogs play with a lot of other puppies for the same reason. They still get that experience, but in very limited quantities, because, like you said, what they practice they get really, really good at, and that's not something we want them practicing doing all the time, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Amanda, anything to add?

Amanda Boyd: When I do my puppy classes, I usually think of it as three different parts. A third of that time is going to be spent doing socialization with people, with other puppies, with objects. It would include some husbandry aspects.

Another third of it is going to be skills, and not focusing on anything too big at that age, but at the very least the four feet on the floor for greeting, maybe a little bit of prevention of pulling on leash, and some attention to owner.

And then the other third would be settling, so teaching the puppy how to entertain themselves, maybe with a puzzle toy, and teaching the puppy how to relax and settle in that group setting.

I personally do puppy playtime. I've done classes with both. I think that puppy playtime is a great time for the handlers to learn what it looks like for dogs to play appropriately, and to help them understand when to intervene with their puppy and when not to. I think it definitely requires a qualified instructor and someone who's very present, so puppy playtime for the teacher is probably the time that you're working hardest in class, and it can always be difficult when you have that one puppy that doesn't quite fit in with a playmate, but you can use that as a discussion point.

My classes almost always have two different groups playing, and sometimes I'll have some take a potty break or work on a skill while I monitor the other playgroup. I call them the frat party and the cocktail party. The frat party is the more confident, playful, physical pups, and the cocktail party might be the more timid or smaller, gentler puppies. I do think it's really important for people for bite inhibition and for practicing biting. People come into puppy class with all the war wounds that they want to show you, and I think it's important for them to go home with a tired puppy that's had a chance to play at least a little bit with other puppies.

Melissa Breau: Going beyond socialization, the other buzzword that comes up … we talked a little about skills, but this idea of foundations. So I'd like to know what you ladies consider to be crucial foundation skills for puppies, and I think everybody competes in dog sports, so some of the differences that you might think about when you're talking about a future sports prospect versus the awesome pet dog that a lot of folks in your average puppy class really want. Sara, do you want to start us off?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, sure. I don't know about everybody else, but I'm pretty sure I have an answer for this. Our sport dogs are pets first, so we want a lot of the same things that an awesome pet home or a pet would need. So they need to be able to settle in a crate, because you never know if they're going to have to be crated in a boarding facility or at doggie daycare or at a veterinarian's office, or maybe they just aren't safe in your house loose, so they need to be crated for that.

For the sport dog team they have to be crated in a whole bunch of different places — at trials, at competitions, in hotel rooms, wherever you may be. So those things are the same. They have to be able to walk on leash loosely and greet people calmly in a nice manner. For the sport dog, that's super-important. They're going to have to interact with the judge at some point, and they might have to interact with other people, exhibitors, they're going to have to walk past other dogs, other people, food on the ground, everything that a pet dog would be seeing at a café or walking down the street in a neighborhood. So those things are exactly the same.

And then of course housetraining, some general focused stuff on us, recalls, those types of behaviors are all the same. Where my sports dogs differ is in the additional behaviors I train. So all of that foundation stuff is the same, except for my sports dogs are learning fancy behaviors like pivoting on a bowl and chin rests and downs without moving their front feet and all of that stuff. But the rest of it, it really is all the same.

Melissa Breau: You think about it as with your sports dogs you want probably to do more training over the course of their lifetime, it makes sense that that starts in puppyhood, there might be some additional skills or foundations, but you still do want all of those pet skills that everybody wants. Amanda, do you have anything you want to add to that?

Amanda Boyd: I usually work mostly with pet dog parents, and so I can speak most to that. I do advise sport dog clients in my classes, if there's something they want to do differently with their sport pet experience, we can absolutely do that and just let me know. But with pet dog people I think there is a different approach to be taken.

For foundation, again, I really want to make sure that the puppies are getting proper socialization and introduction to the household in terms of manners, and learning to tolerate handling, and nail trimming, and that kind of thing. But as far as foundation skills, I do think there are a couple that are important.

Number one would be attention to the handler, because if you can't get the puppy's attention, and the puppy decides the handler is not interesting, then that's going to be a difficult thing to overcome, and it's going to be hard to build on that. I also think it's good to try to prevent things that are harder to fix later.

I had mentioned earlier the four feet on the floor idea. If you get a puppy and you allow them to receive attention when they're jumping for weeks or months, and then all of a sudden decide it's a problem when they're larger and stronger, I don't think it's really fair to the puppy to change the rules, and it's obviously going to be much more difficult to do it late, so I just advise my students to picture their puppy as an adult, or picture themselves wearing nice clothes, or something like that, and how do they want the puppy to behave. And so trying to give them some prevention tactics for jumping and for rewarding polite greetings.

The other big one would be leash walking. I think it's too time-intensive and labor-intensive to put into a lot of puppy classes, but at the very least using some sort of management tools, so getting them into a harness or something they can use in the meantime, so that a little bit down the road, when they do really want to work on that, there are options for using different equipment or a different approach, so that the puppy hasn't been practicing an unwanted behavior for a period of time.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Jenn?

Jennifer Summerfield: The skills that Sara and Amanda mentioned as far as obedience-type things that are going to be important for pet dog people are right on target. For sure we like polite greeting behavior, recall, mat training, crate training, that kind of thing.

If we're comparing the question of what do primarily pet dog owners want versus what are some differences between what they want and what maybe the priority might be for dog sport people with their puppies, I think that pet dog owners, a lot of what they really want are passive skills. Like you guys said, being able to relax and not being annoying when there's nothing going on — that's really huge. And being tolerant about handling, like, can you give this dog medication, can you clean his ears, can you trim his toenails, those kinds of things.

I think the other thing that pet dog people want, by and large, and maybe prioritize even more than some dog sports people might, is that they really want their dogs to be basically friendly and easygoing when it comes to social interactions. People really want their pet dogs to be fine with being petted by random strangers on the street, and they really want them to be fine when the grandkids come over. They want them to not bark and lunge at other dogs when they go for a walk.

So I think in a lot of ways it's those soft skills more than specific behaviors exactly, or obedience skills, that maybe are more important to pet owners in a lot of cases. Those are the things that I would argue we should probably be focusing in on with pet puppies, which of course comes back around to socialization and practicing those basic husbandry skills that we talked about from an early age.

Melissa Breau: Casey, do you have anything you want to add to that? I know we covered a lot of ground.

Casey Coughlin: Of course. Foundations, for me, for my pet families, include some sort of skills that we commonly refer to as stashing of food or stashing of reinforcements, because I know tons of pet parents and pet dog trainers, really their concern is, when do I get off of the food, when do I stop feeding the food, OK, great, he can do it with a cookie, but now he can't do it in front of the front door, and all that kind of stuff. So I teach that up front, like, food on the table, food on a shelf, and how do we do this in this room and then go get food, so that I mitigate that for everybody and the dog can trust that there is something for them for producing the behaviors.

And then I always focus on, like, in my mind you need exercise enrichment as your main foundations for a happy dog life, so that you can settle when nothing's going on, because something did already go on in your day. So focusing on whatever avenues they can get exercised, let's make those the training skills that I want so that that's enjoyable to their humans so that they participate more in that. So if that's recall training because they're going to go to the beach, if that's loose-leash walking because they're hitting pavement, I just want to know what do you want to do so that I can make your life easier and want you to want to do that more with your dog.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. And I like that you mentioned exercise in there as one of the important things to think about, because nobody else has brought that up, and I think that's definitely an often overlooked topic of conversation with puppy people. What other factors do you consider as contributing to raising an awesome young dog? What else should folks do — or should trainers help advise pet dog owners to do — to set our puppies up for success? Sara, do you want to start us off?

Sara Brueske: Sure. We've covered a ton already in this podcast, but one thing that I am really trying to encourage people to do more often, whether they're a pet home or one of the sport dog teams that I work with, is to teach their puppies that it's OK to travel, so going to hotel rooms, as well as it's OK to stay with somebody else overnight.

So if you think about boarding, everybody's so busy, they have to board their dogs somewhere, or maybe they might have to spend the night over at a veterinary clinic, where we don't want them having additional stress on top of that. If we can expose our puppies to that right away — and it kind of falls under the socialization tent — but if you can expose the puppy to, "Hey, staying with my friend is a lot more fun, it's a puppy sleepover, it's fun to do that and it's OK to do that," and it's something that's going to happen, do that when they're young, rather than later when you absolutely need them to be OK with that, because it can be an anxiety-inducing situation for dogs that aren't well-versed in travel. So that's my one thing I would like to encourage people to do more.

Casey Coughlin: Yeah, and that's easier than you think. Everyone loves to obsess about a puppy's schedule, and I try and say, "Let's not," because then, when those changes happen, when you do drop them at your friend's house, it's actually OK that they didn't eat at six o'clock, and that their special bed isn't in a special place, and all of those types of things too.

Melissa Breau: And obviously there are some puppies who are going to be more inclined to wanting their schedule to be special than other puppies, but definitely being aware of that, and working with or around and intentionally to balance that out. Amanda, do you want to add to that?

Amanda Boyd: I think in an ideal world, depending on resources and time and money, clients could really benefit from a combination of private lessons and puppy classes. I've found that that's an ideal balance, if it can be found. So even if they just do one private lesson for you to come and see the house, and help them apply what they're learning in class and what they're reading about to the home setting.

And then also puppy classes just for that socialization exposure, for the consistency, to keep the people honest on their practicing and their questions, to watch the puppy developing, see and address any issues that are coming up. I think if they can afford at least one private lesson and a class, that's something that I think works really well.

I also think just being realistic with people about the developmental timeline. And I would say committing to ongoing training with a professional for the first year of the dog's life. Ideally, I would say two years, but I don't want to send everybody running for the hills. But I think one year of training under the guidance of someone who knows what they're doing is really important, and that it's not three months, it's not six months, it really is that first full year.

Melissa Breau: I like that idea. Jen, do you want to add anything?

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I think that we've definitely covered a lot of the major thing, for sure. I would add, I guess, to what I think it was Amanda said about setting expectations for that first year or so of life, though I do think that's really important, especially with pet dog people in terms of success with their puppy, trying to help them understand that a lot of annoying things that puppies do are perfectly normal and that they'll get better on their own with age.

I think with pet dog owners there's often a pretty significant freak-out factor over things like destructive chewing, or biting and mouthing during play, and, "Oh my gosh we have to fix this," when actually it's fine. It's just a developmental phase that you have to get through. It's going to be fine. So for now, put things away, confine the puppy so it's not destroying your house, provide lots of chew toys, and don't try to pet them when they're excited, because they're going to bite your hands. So just manage and be patient, and once they're older, things will get better. I think that's a big, big, important message for puppy owners to understand.

Casey Coughlin: And what about our expectations for the people? We also need to be talking to them about that too, like, we need to have expectations on this 4-month-old puppy, like, what it can and cannot handle, but then also to your clients. I don't want them to ever think that they have to sit at dinner and constantly train this puppy to lay on the mat, because that's not real life and that's not going to happen. I'd rather you put him behind a baby gate, and let's just train during a snack when your kids are eating and you have time to think or not.

So really managing it for them too, because they're super-overwhelmed and super-frustrated, and then they think that dog training is this huge undertaking that, like, every meal from now until forever you have to be treating this dog for staying on the mat, or whatever your thing is, and it gets lost in real life and then it doesn't actually get reinforced in a critical moment when you can actually make a difference with it.

Melissa Breau: For those who are interested in the Pet Professionals Program, specifically talking to those out there who either want to teach pet dog people, pet dog classes, or they just want to be trainers in general, are there common misconceptions that you think that pet dog trainers maybe don't consider — or even that they just don't know — when it comes to working with puppies that you wish folks were aware of? Jenn, do you want to start?

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I do think that the training community as a whole is a lot more puppy-savvy nowadays than it used to be, which is great. Probably the biggest thing I would say that we haven't really talked about so far — and honestly, I see this coming more often, unfortunately, from the veterinary side of things, but occasionally from trainers as well — is this idea that you can't really get puppies out of the house doing anything until they've had all their vaccines, which is a huge problem because, unfortunately, your socialization period where your best opportunity to do that is going to be over by the time the puppy is 12 to 16 weeks old, and your puppy vaccine series doesn't finish until 16 weeks. So there's the problem.

I feel like I hear that less, maybe, than I used to, and I also feel like I hear it more from — like I said, unfortunately — from veterinarians and people in our community more than from trainers, but periodically I'll hear it from other places as well, so that's probably the biggest misconception that if I could snap my fingers and have that be gone tomorrow, it would be that.

Melissa Breau: I'm so glad you brought that up, because as a vet to have you talk to that a little bit is so awesome. It's really just about a balance of risks, right? There are some risks to not socializing your puppy, and there are some risks to not having your puppy have all their vaccines, and people have to figure out which is the bigger risk for them and their dog.

Jennifer Summerfield: And be smart about where you take them. I'm not saying take them to the dog park and plunk them down in the middle of this area where sixteen other dogs have pooped today. But there's a happy medium. They can go places. Just be cautious.

Melissa Breau: Sara, do you want to talk to that?

Sara Breuske: Yeah, absolutely. I actually want to circle back to what Casey had said earlier about managing your expectations for your students as well, because even though this is our passion for us — we obviously chose dog training as our professional career, so that must mean we really, really like it — our students aren't that.

They just want a dog, and they want that dog to be a bro dog, and they want the dog to hang out with them, and dog training is not their life, and they don't want to carry cookies in their pocket and put it through the laundry machine. They don't want that.

And so just being aware of what their real life is like, and managing expectations of what they can and can't do, and letting them know that management is an option, and that training takes time, and that if they are dedicated, that they can put in the time, but it's not a big deal, like, everybody just relax and it'll be OK.

Melissa Breau: I love that you called them bro dogs. That's kind of awesome. Casey?

Casey Coughlin: I think that something that we're a little bit underserved in the positive reinforcement community right now, and all these really great, hungry trainers that are coming up, is that we're, like Sara said, this isn't their profession. Our clients want easy to follow, simple instructions that work, and overloading them with information is really detrimental to their relationship with you and their feelings about dog training.

So it needs to be really simple, really clear, and we could be better served as a community for learning a similar learning theory to apply towards our clients so that we are not … we get really getting excited about something and hook on to that and want to explain it to them, and they don't want to know the science. They just want to know how to hold the cookie that makes the dog sit, and then the dog sits. They just want to see the results.

I think we get very excited, and then we want to share everything with everybody, and you have a few clients that you can do that with out of a hundred, and so save it for them. And then everybody else, just teach them how to do things, teach them how to manage, teach them how to fill Kongs, and make them love the experience instead of trying to get them to love the science of dog training.

Melissa Breau: I think that's awesome, because as dog trainers, like you mentioned in there, you don't want to overload the owner with information that's detrimental, and obviously with dogs we're hopefully pretty good at that, like the idea that we don't want to try and lump … we want to break things down into tiny pieces, and we want to expose them gradually, and we want to keep their frustration level in mind, and yet, when it comes to people, sometimes we forget all about all those pieces.

Casey Coughlin: Right, and they have all these questions, like, what about this situation, and what about this, and what about this, and so it's easy to go down rabbit holes with them instead of just back to these simple principals, refocus them.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Amanda, do you have anything you want to add to misconceptions or things for pet dog trainers to think about?

Amanda Boyd: Yes. I would say that I do hear a lot of trainers starting out — and I probably thought this myself as well — that puppy classes are a good place for a trainer to start, and I actually think that more of the opposite is true. I think the most experienced trainers are the ones that should be teaching puppy classes, because there are so many important factors that we've all talked about today, and so I don't necessarily think it's a great option for a very, very beginner trainer. Maybe starting as a co-instructor or an assistant. And if you are starting out with puppies, starting with a small group, limiting it to four to six students at most, so that you can really make sure that you're addressing everyone's needs in the class.

Melissa Breau: Obviously we've covered a huge amount of ground in the course of this podcast. We've talked about a lot a lot of things. It's definitely on the longer side, but hopefully folks appreciate that, because I think it's lots of good information. Feel free to bring something back up that you've already mentioned, but if you really wanted listeners to have one takeaway or one tip for working with puppies from what we've talked about or from your experience, I'd love to have you guys share that one thing or rehash that one point. Amanda, do you want to start us off?

Amanda Boyd: The thing that I would say is, number one, as an instructor, be deliberate, make a plan, don't wing it. Make sure, as each class progresses and in each class, that you're covering things that you want to cover, like handling, and exposure to different surfaces, and that kind of thing,

And then also to keep an eye on any puppies that are prone to falling through the cracks, so especially a shy puppy or maybe a slightly reactive puppy that had a hard first week — if they don't come in the second week, follow up, get in touch, because they want to address those things sooner rather than later, and keeping in touch with them and getting them back in class or back in lessons can really make or break how that puppy matures, so I think that's really important.

Melissa Breau: Casey?

Casey Coughlin: My number one thing would be to focus on daily routines and making your puppy's life as enriching and fulfilling as you can.

Melissa Breau: Sara?

Sara Brueske: I'm going to circle to sport dog puppies because we haven't talked a whole lot about that, and that definitely is my area of expertise. Everybody with their new trial puppies, no matter what sport they're getting them for and what they're training them for, they always feel this pressure to get the behaviors done, and they're comparing themselves to the other puppy that may be a little bit further along. Puppies are puppies for a while, so if we take our time training them and we focus more on our relationship with that dog rather than the actual behaviors, the behaviors will be easy to teach later on. So even if you do just have a pet dog, focus on enjoying their puppyhood and taking your time with them, and take away all that pressure, because everything will happen in the end and it's not a race.

Melissa Breau: And Jenn?

Jennifer Summerfield: I would say my big takeaway would probably be that if you're working with puppies, make sure you're going at the puppy's pace for whatever you're working on. Don't get in a rush or try to force things, and keep in mind that this is your chance to make a good impression on them about the world in general, and about training in particular, so you really want to try to use that wisely.

Melissa Breau: I love that. Before we go, I wanted to give you guys each a quick second or two to talk about the PPP classes, since that's why we're doing all this is to talk about PPP and celebrate the fact that it's launching this month. So talk about those classes that you've got coming up, whatever you've got running next, and if you know offhand when it runs, by all means feel free to plug that too. Jenn, do you want to start us off?

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I have a workshop coming up very shortly, actually, called the Perfect Puppy Class: Scheduling, Structure, and Skills, and that starts on July 14, so registration is open for that now. We're going to talk a little bit about what the goals of puppy class should be, what are we trying to accomplish when we teach puppy class. We're going to talk about logistical stuff, like finding a location for your class, and what kind of scheduling you want to choose, layout for that class, that kind of stuff. And we're also going to cover some specific skills and things that you can opt to incorporate in your class to give you some examples of that.

So it's geared towards new instructors who either would like to start teaching puppy classes at some point, or who are maybe in the planning stages of putting together a class, but there should also be some good stuff in there for trainers who are actively running a puppy class right now and might want some additional thoughts or suggestions on things that they can incorporate.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Amanda?

Amanda Boyd: My first class coming up is How Human Behavior Affects Dog Responses and Behavior, and so it's not necessarily your typical body-language class in terms of reading dogs. We have a lot of great classes on that. My workshop is really focusing on the training process, what things can people do with their bodies, with their voices, to help the dog be successful and to help be reinforcing to the dog, and what sorts of behaviors do we tend to do that might be demotivating to the dog or might lead the dog to be confused and not get the response that we're looking for. So I'm really excited about it.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Sara?

Sara Brueske: My next class for PPP doesn't start until September. It's Settle and Stay for the Café, so it's talking about teaching your dogs to relax in real-life situations so you can bring your dog out and about in different places.

Melissa Breau: And Casey?

Casey Coughlin: My first workshop is Management Versus Training: Choosing the Best Option for Your Client, and that's running July 28, and it's all about all I focused on during this podcast, such as what issues or challenges should we be managing and how should we do that, and what should we be doing to apply training skills, which behaviors should we be funneling towards training, and then how do we balance both of those things to make your behavior work be the best that it can be most effective.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I almost accidentally put you guys in order that your classes are going to run, and if I'd switched Casey and Sara, I would have gotten it perfect.

Jennifer Summerfield: So close.

Melissa Breau: Oh well. I guess two out of four. Thank you for joining me, ladies! This has been fantastic.

Casey Coughlin: Thank you Melissa.

Jennifer Summerfield: It's been great. Thanks for having us.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. As a reminder, for the next couple of weeks we'll be chatting with instructors of FDSA's new sister school, the Pet Professionals Program, kind of like we did today, talking about things like today's topic, playtime in puppy class, but we'll also be talking about things like tricky training situations and dealing with bad behavior.

Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

Management, Training and Maintenance Part 1
Language and Dog Training: Do the Words We Use Mat...

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