I am sure for many of us the way we carry out day-to-day activities has changed over the past 18 months and some of those changes may now be permanent. Perhaps now is the time to ensure your puppy services are up to date and providing the correct type of experience.
A puppy party tends to imply a free-for-all with lunatic puppies running around, but while a lot of puppies will enjoy this type of organised chaos, for many it may be completely overwhelming and may actually do more harm than good unless handled correctly. I tend to prefer the term puppy school or puppy class as, aside from hopefully providing some puppy socialisation and fun, we do want to get some basic information and education across to our clients during our puppy class sessions.
Within my classes I aim to bond both the client and the puppy to the practice and acclimatise the puppy to coming into the practice, sitting on the scales and being on the consult room table. I also provide basic information and education on healthcare issues and behaviour as owners often have many questions and may not have taken in all information, such as parasite control, during vaccination appointments.
It is important to think about how you are going to structure your puppy classes to ensure they are as beneficial as possible
So, bearing the above objectives in mind, it is important to think about how you are going to structure your puppy classes to ensure they are as beneficial as possible.
With many puppy school sessions happening within the practice (eg in the waiting room), it is important to ensure this area is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before any session begins. This minimises the risk of disease transmission to young puppies.
I would also urge you to think about the floor surface, especially if the puppy class takes place in an area with a slippery lino-type flooring. Although this is great for cleaning up any accidents, it may not be so great for puppies slipping and sliding around when playing. Consider placing washable rubber-backed mats or foam tiles, and always have a selection of toys and treats available to both reward and distract puppies.
Supervision and class numbers
It is important to ensure there are enough staff members present for the number of puppies attending, and consider limiting puppy numbers if there is only one staff member. It is impossible for one person to be watching lots of puppies at once, talking to owners and clearing up the inevitable puddles and poop piles which will occur! We limit our one-staff-member classes to six puppies maximum, which tends to work well for us and also allows more one-to-one time.
Try to socialise them or let them play in pairs or maybe trios to start with, and group puppies with the same character types together
Putting all puppies down on the floor for a play session and hoping for the best is a recipe for disaster. You need to watch your puppies from the minute they arrive and read their body language, etc. By doing this you will be able to see which puppies are bold and outgoing and which puppies are quieter and more timid. Try to socialise them or let them play in pairs or maybe trios to start with, and group puppies with the same character types together.
I often find owners will feel embarrassed or concerned if their puppy is scared and does not want to run around, interact or play with the others. At the start of the session, I always warn people that sometimes puppies do not want to play and it is important not to force them. They may just want to sit and watch for a time and, if this is the case, it is important to protect them from the other puppies “bundling” them. If I have a particularly nervous puppy I will not include them in any free play sessions at all; I will just let them sit on the owner’s lap and watch. During a quiet time when the other puppies are restrained or we are covering an educational part, I will encourage the owner to place them on the floor then.
It is important that puppies learn to have calm time and, during periods of puppy rest and calm time, we focus on providing crucial information to owners.
It is important that puppies learn to have calm time and, during periods of puppy rest and calm time, we focus on providing crucial information to owners
During our session we focus on the following:
- Insurance – annual or lifelong, reasons why and exclusions
- Parasite control – what types, frequency and reasons
- Nutrition – puppy food, balanced diet, treats and weight control
- Exercise – types of good exercise, activities to avoid with young joints and mental stimulation
- First aid – basic first aid examples
- Neutering – when and why
We also ensure that all new puppy owners receive a new puppy information booklet which contains all the above information, as well as some basic behaviour and training information.
Consulting room time
I try to take every puppy into the consulting room with the owner for a while, putting them on the table and giving them treats to build a positive association. I will also use this opportunity to show the owner how to check the puppy’s ears, eyes, nails and coat. These sessions are always really well received by puppy owners.
I … use this opportunity to show the owner how to check the puppy’s ears, eyes, nails and coat. These sessions are always really well received by puppy owners
Take home message
I feel strongly that it is important to give owners information to take away, digest and refer back to. So at the end of puppy school, alongside our new puppy healthcare booklets, they all receive our puppy development book. This is a nine-point plan written as if the puppy is giving them advice, covering behavioural and training aspects that they would like their owners to do and understand.
The nine-point plan
- Observe and understand my behaviours – this section talks about the puppy wishing the owners understood their body language and basic behaviours. We also provide a basic body language poster in the back of the booklet
- Teach me it is OK to be left alone – the puppy talks about helping prevent separation anxiety, with methods to help and encouraging owners to leave their puppy alone
- Provide me with a varied and flexible environment – for this point the puppy talks about mental stimulation, socialisation and giving them the opportunity to explore new things
- Understand how I learn best – this section talks about training being best in short sessions, allowing one command or action to be taught and understood before adding new elements
- Allow me opportunities to learn by myself – the puppy asks the owner to avoid becoming an owner who is constantly trying to control or direct the puppy
- Teach me to expect quiet times – puppies need time to chill, relax and not be in contact with their humans at all times. Something I often ask people when talking about adolescent puppies is to look at how often you acknowledge the puppy without even realising: things like patting them randomly, throwing a toy when they come and nudge you or putting a toy in your lap while you are watching TV. Believe me, we all do it more than we think!
- Understand how I learn social skills – in this section the puppy explains that they need exposure to other dogs, including adult dogs, to learn the correct way to behave and interact. We also recommend training classes and have a local dog training club who we always recommend at puppy school, leaving their business card in the puppy pack
- Understand how your behaviour impacts me – this is always a good one and relates to owners being consistent and not losing patience. A great example is when teaching a recall: if they have spent 10 minutes chasing the puppy around the park when first teaching a recall, the owner will likely be exhausted and embarrassed and may reprimand the puppy once they catch them. They may also then not let the puppy off the lead again for days or weeks, both of which are incorrect ways to handle the situation
- Allow me to express normal behaviours – in the final point the puppy explains the importance of owners not muting normal behaviour such as sniffing when on walks, digging and scenting
If done correctly, puppy classes are hugely beneficial to both the puppies and the owners and are a great way of bonding the owners and puppies to the practice. If you are keen to start up puppy classes, or feel your classes could do with a little bit of a revamp, now may be the time.
There are lots of CPD courses available on puppy classes, some of which are run by recognised behaviourists. I have run puppy classes in various practices for nearly 20 years now, and there is nothing better than seeing a puppy from your class coming happily into the surgery for a consultation. It is even better when the puppy greets you like an old friend; this is also a great feeling for the dog owner as it eliminates their concerns, too.