Do Puppy Classes Have an Effect on Later Dog Behavior?
Puppy classes seem to have a lasting impact on several aspects of dog behavior.
Posted May 22, 2019
Puppy classes are now available in most larger urban centers. The rationale for enrolling puppies in such classes is based on research showing that dogs who don't have adequate contact with other dogs and people during the early months of their first year of age are apt to become more fearful, aggressive, and uncontrollable.
The foundation research for this conclusion came from the work of John Paul Scott and John Fuller at the Bar Harbor Laboratories in Maine during the 1960s. However, it would take two decades, after publication, before the world would see the first puppy socialization classes.
The credit for initiating puppy classes goes to Dr. Ian Dunbar, who holds doctorates in veterinary science as well as in psychology (specializing in animal behavior). A while back Dunbar explained to me how it all started in 1981.
"I had just gotten my Malamute puppy, Omaha, and it suddenly dawned on me that he's likely to grow to more than 100 pounds. I wanted to make sure that he would be under control when he grew up so I started to look for some kind of dog obedience school for him.
"At that time the consensus among those training dogs was that puppies were not acceptable for training, at least until they were 6 months old, and some trainers wouldn't accept them until they were closer to 1 year of age. This didn't make sense to me because I knew from my research that puppies can begin their education when they're only a few days old, and their social learning continues as they interact with their littermates and compete for available teats on their mother and so forth.
"So a dog training class which tells me that I've got to wait until my dog is a year old before I can start training him seems to me like telling a person that they can't send their child to school until they're a teenager, which would be past their most formative years for learning and developing social skills. That's was unacceptable to me, so my only recourse was to begin teaching puppy classes."
A few years after he started teaching puppy classes, Dunbar made a video demonstrating how such classes should work. It turned out to be very popular and the idea caught fire. Soon, in many countries around the world, puppy classes became an accepted and well-liked part of dog education. Structurally, these classes are based on allowing dogs to socialize with dogs and people, and they typically include simple reward-based training using food. The classes are fun for the dogs and their owners, which ensures their continuing popularity.
Although the rationale (the beneficial effects of early socialization) is scientifically based, empirical confirmation that puppy classes actually have a positive effect on canine behavior once a dog becomes an adult is fairly sparse. Therefore, I was pleased to see that a research report looking at the association between puppy classes and later behavior had been recently accepted by the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
The team of researchers was headed by Ángela González-Martínez of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Santiago de Compostela University in Spain. It looked at 80 dogs, 32 of which had attended puppy classes and 48 who had not, and assessed their behaviors one year after the completion of the puppy classes. The behavioral information about the dogs was obtained by means of the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which is a 100-item validated questionnaire in which dog owners describe the typical behaviors of their pets.
The puppy classes were six weeks long and the dogs enrolled in it were aged 3 to 9 months at the start. Classes were conducted by an animal behaviorist aided by a set of volunteers. The classes were structured around the following pattern of activities. All dogs arrived on lead and greeted each other in pairs (also on lead). Next was a game period, which involved about 15 minutes of supervised play while some advice about positive training, canine behavior, and other useful information were given to the owners.
Next, there was a period of positive training. These were short-training sessions, the exact length of which was set according to the dog's ability to concentrate. The researchers used food to train the puppies to lay down, stay, recall on command, and walk without pulling on the leash. Following this, there was a recess and rest period, after which the dogs had a session in which they interacted with people and were handled.
During this part of the class of the dogs were rewarded with food when they approached the volunteers, and when they allowed themselves to be touched and handled or to have their ears examined and so forth. The session finished with a few minutes of controlled play among the puppies where all of the dogs were let off-leash at the same time.
The experimental results from this study are presented in a series of complex regression analyses, however, the highlights are quite clear. The puppy classes had a strong effect on reducing dog-dog aggression in interactions between familiar dogs. In fact, the dogs who did not attend puppy classes had aggression scores that were 2.6 times more likely to be higher when interacting with familiar dogs such as dogs in the same household.
The dogs who did not attend the puppy classes also were 2.8 times more likely to have a higher score when it came to non-social fear. This refers to instances when the dog shows fearful or wary responses to sudden or loud noises, traffic, and unfamiliar objects and situations.
Puppy classes also resulted in a reduction in touch sensitivity, where the dog shows fearful or guarded responses to potentially painful or uncomfortable situations, including bathing, grooming, nail clipping, and veterinary examinations. Dogs that did not attend puppy classes were 3.1 times more likely to have a higher score on touch sensitivity.
There was some hint that the puppy classes also might be reducing the level of excitability in those who attended.
One result that I found to be particularly interesting has to do with trainability. In this case, higher scores on trainability manifest themselves when a dog shows a willingness to pay attention to the owner and to obey simple commands. Furthermore, trainable dogs are not as easily distracted, tend to be fast learners, respond positively to correction, and will happily fetch or retrieve objects. According to these new data, the odds of that dogs attending puppy class will have a higher score on trainability is three times greater than the odds of dogs not attending.
Overall this investigation seems to demonstrate that there are positive behavioral effects that result when puppies attend an early socialization class. The researchers summarize their findings by saying: "According to the data obtained from dog owners, [puppy class] may help prevent canine behavioral problems as it reduced familiar-dog aggression, non-social fear, and touch-sensitivity-related problems as well as improved trainability."
This certainly confirms Ian Dunbar's observations when he told me: "Our puppy classes certainly worked for my big husky, Omaha, since he turned out to be a sweet, nonaggressive dog who certainly seemed to be more obedient than most dogs of his breed."
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González-Martínez, A., Martínez, M.F., Rosado, B., Luño, I., Santamarina, G., Suárez, M.L., de la Cruz, L.P., Diéguez, F.J., (2019). Association between puppy classes and adulthood behavior of the dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.04.011