Should Play Be Part of a Puppy Kindergarten Class?
Early puppy socialization classes can have the most beneficial effect on the future success of a dog’s life. Good classes teach owners how to better understand their puppy, while introducing the puppy during their most critical learning period to all the things they will encounter in their life with humans. The importance of these classes is confirmed by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which states that “enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies.”1
The pressure to get socialization right increases when the AVSAB goes on to warn dog owners and trainers that “Behaviour problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond” and “are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters.” These statements, and the fact that owners rarely attend more than one or two classes during the life of their dogs, increase the importance of what dog trainers teach in these socialization classes.
The specifics of the socialization process described by the AVSAB are that “Every effort should be made to expose them to as many different people, well-socialized animals, situations, places, etc. as possible.” The actual implementation is open to interpretation. And because this is such an important time in a puppy’s life, we need to be as clear as we can about what this looks like. How much and what kind of exposure is required? What do well-socialized animals look like? What does the owner-dog bond look like? How do we know if we are doing it right? According to Julie Vargas one of the best ways to determine success of a puppy socialization class, in a measurable way, is through behaviours.2 In other words, how does a well-socialized and bonded-to-human puppy behave?
Ultimately, what do owners want their puppy’s behavior to look like? That is the deciding factor for the dog’s success in the family home. The answer, I believe, is that a well-socialized dog is attentive to their owner, often looking toward them to see what they are doing; is comfortable on leash (not frustrated by it); is able to settle in a variety of places, including in the presence of animals, specifically strange dogs; can hear strange sounds, such as a baby cry or a vacuum cleaner and not be afraid; and can travel with owners to soccer games or walk down busy streets. A well-socialized dog can also walk up and down stairs, sit calmly in the back seat of a car, or lie down in a crate.
When I was first approached to teach a puppy class, I was excited to work with puppies. I believed, like the puppy owners who sign up for puppy class, that the earlier we get puppies into class, the better behaviours we would be able to teach. Getting this early start on teaching puppies prevents big problems later, such as lunging and pulling, jumping, barking, and lack of focus. What I learned was that this was not always the case; in fact, we often had more distracted puppies that were unable to focus on their owner, pulling toward other puppies, and unable to settle in class. Week after week I wrote out an assessment of each puppy’s progress, trying more fun and games for puppy and owner to gain more focus from the puppies, with moderate success. What takes a puppy from happy to sit with their owner in Week 1 to unable to connect with their owner in Week 3? I believe that the answer was the introduction of puppy-puppy play in Week 2. If puppy-puppy play led to more distracted puppies in class, was direct engagement with strange dogs helping or hindering the future success of the puppy to live in the family home?
Let me describe what the puppy kindergarten class looked like with puppy-puppy play. In the first week of a six-week class session, the young puppy, between 8 and 11 weeks of age, would tentatively make their way through the doorway into the training area. They were often nervous and unsure, and we would patiently wait for the puppy to work their way in, teaching the owners their first lesson: Take the time to let your new puppy learn to explore the world. We would instruct the owner and the puppy to find a spot, to roll out the mat or blanket we asked them to bring, and then teach them their second exercise of the class: a settle exercise.
The puppies would often stay close to the mat and the owners, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the new place. Some puppies would growl at the sight of another puppy in the space, some would hide behind their owners, and some just stood, unable to lie down, taking in the sights. The first week is a discussion on all the things a new owner would need to know about puppies: potty training, crate training, puppy development, and how to socialize their puppy while making sure not to overwhelm or scare the puppy. If you asked the owners why they brought their puppy class, the answer was that they wanted to prevent problem behaviours such as biting, jumping, and pulling on leash.
For the second week of classes, the puppies came into class and owners settled them on their mats, while we talked about puppy-puppy socialization, explaining what to look for in appropriate puppy-puppy play; we taught the owners how to interrupt appropriately if the play is not going well. Then for the last 15 minutes of the class, we put the puppies in the same space, two at a time, following strict rules about matching age, breed, size, sex, and play style, to let them interact.
The scene was this: We had owners standing around watching what the puppies would do, and we had young puppies moving toward each other. Sometimes we got cautious sniffing of each other, maybe we got a young puppy that was scared by the other puppy and ran and hid. Sometimes the other puppy was turned on by the chase, chased after the first puppy, and that puppy hid, or maybe that puppy came out to play. Other times we saw both puppies meet each other and immediately engage in an arousing game of wrestling, only to turn into aggression after two minutes of play, causing the trainers to jump in and split them apart. For some puppies, a perfect play session ensued, including play bows and taking turns, and the puppies looked happier than we had ever seen them. Play ended, the owners went back and settled the puppies on their mats, and we discussed what we had learned about the puppy interactions.
For those whose play was not successful, we reserved some time the next week to try introducing a different puppy, maybe a smaller one, or maybe one of the puppies that played well, giving them a second opportunity to play. These were short sessions, five minutes at most. Then we separated them, and moved on to teaching other things about puppies.
Puppy play can make progress in training class more difficult
In the weeks following the puppy play, I found many of the puppies struggled to focus on their owners. They were more interested in the other puppies in the room, and the owners were frustrated by their puppy’s inability to focus on them. For example, one young Husky puppy had a great experience playing with another puppy, and yet, for the next four weeks, the owners never found a way to regain that puppy’s attention. We added higher and higher value cookies, we tried toys, we tried teaching the owners how to play with their puppy, but nothing worked. Why, when these puppies were in that stage of their development that they were most able to learn, were owners struggling to teach them? The reason has everything to do with stress, fear, and the arousing nature of play during a formative period of the puppy’s life.
Stress, learning, and aggression
In his 2018 book Behave, Robert Sapolsky talks about the physiology of stress, how “moderate transient levels of stress are wonderful — enhancing various brain functions.”3 In other words, moderate stress increases learning and memory. Teachers use this to help students learn: Give a student a test, and that moderate stress of test-writing makes the lesson stick; add another stress and tell them that if they fail it will cost them their whole academic career, and their stress levels go up, and it hinders their brain function, limiting their ability to think. This is why exposing a young puppy to various strange and wacky things at a moderate pace, making the puppy slightly uncomfortable, enhances their life-learning experience, but too much hinders their ability to function appropriately.
Still, it is not that simple. Because stress also makes you more likely to see things as scary, it makes it easier to learn fear associations and harder to unlearn those associations once they are made. This is the state of a puppy when they first come to classes, and as trainers, we work with owners to help build the puppies’ confidence. However, direct engagement with strange puppies may not be a situation a puppy would choose for themselves if given the choice; one study showed that puppies chose the human over a strange dog when given the choice.4 This may be due to the fact that social competitiveness for resources begins in the litter as early as 6 weeks of age.5 Because puppies already have a learned social history of interactions with other puppies, the stress of meeting strange puppies increases those predisposed toward aggression to act aggressively. This behaviour is then rewarded both by being practiced, and because the act of behaving aggressively toward the other puppy reduces stress. It makes the aggressor physically feel better by lowering their glucocorticoid levels.3 This reasoning is confirmed in several studies that show that puppies that display aggressive behaviors at a young age tend to continue to display aggressive behaviors as older puppies and into adulthood — behaviors rooted in aggressive impulses feel good to perform, and animals repeat what feels good to them.4,5
One final point that Sapolsky makes is in regards to stress and displacement aggression (frustration-induced aggression). Stress an animal out and they are more likely to redirect their aggression toward another animal or person, and that too will make them feel better. And as trainers we often talk about redirection, seeing this very thing in dogs that are so aroused that they often misdirect a bite onto their owners. Now imagine the effect this has on a puppy that is still developing and learning, one that is in fact in their critical learning period.
Stress is a problem, and as trainers we watch for it in our classes, working diligently to match play styles, size, etc., to avoid those stressful situations. We do this because sometimes the play pairing is perfect and the puppies look like they are performing a choreographed dance; it is so fun for trainers and owners alike to see. Everyone loves to see the joy on a puppy’s face as they romp and frolic, having the best time of their young life. It is what we strive for in puppy-puppy play.
The answer to the problem is twofold: Play was too rewarding, happening at one of the most sensitive learning periods of a young puppy’s life, and if the experience is too rewarding it can make a lasting impression. This is because “earlier experiences have a larger effect than later ones because they have a greater chance of influencing the trajectory of the system in development.”4 Second, novice owners struggle to compete with that kind of reward.
Puppy play doesn’t teach bite inhibition
Let’s take a closer look at bite inhibition — teaching a puppy to control their bite pressure, specifically towards humans, by putting them with other puppies to learn to control their bite pressure. First, developmentally, puppies’ teeth come in at 4 weeks of age, and it is at this time that they learn what bite pressure to use to pick up and carry objects. This is also where they “should” learn not to bite too hard on their mother’s teats or she will leave. That is not a successfully rewarded behaviour. It is also suggested that puppies learn bite inhibition from their litter mates, and yet that too is false. Instead, the play is more aggressive, not less, with redirecting aggression on the more timid puppies.5 So if they don’t learn from their mother or their litter mates, they must learn it from other puppies. Why do we assume putting them with a strange puppy is the solution? Puppies in play bite each other’s legs, backs, noses, and ears, until the victim squeals. This is not bite inhibition; in fact, the puppies are learning to use their mouths more during this formative period, not less, and they definitely haven’t learned to not bite humans from this exercise. In their limited social experience, they will use those first learned behaviours on humans when they come into the human family. Humans see this all the time, puppies biting on hands, pant legs, and whatever else the puppy sees or encounters, normal puppy behaviour. Puppies learn how to act appropriately around humans from humans.
After taking a closer look at bite inhibition, I learned that controlling their bite around humans was not actually happening the way owners wanted. I found that was true for other puppy-puppy play behaviours, and that puppies were learning more inappropriate dog-human behaviours, not less.
Puppy play leads to practicing behaviors the owners don’t want
Leash frustration is a natural part of a puppy’s learning. That is why the first part of the socialization process is teaching the puppy to feel okay on the leash. The goal is for them not to feel frustrated that they cannot engage with everything around them, and that they need not feel trapped by the leash, unable to move away from scary things. The second part of the socialization process is teaching the puppies how to behave around other dogs while on leash.
When we bring them to puppy class and we introduce puppy-puppy play or direct puppy interaction, we undermine this socialization process, increasing the puppy’s leash frustration at a time where owners are still struggling to build a trusting bond with the puppy. It is for this reason that I think classes should focus on how we want puppies to act around humans first, building that trust account. Then we need to consider how we want them to act around other dogs in their day-to-day lives. Dogs can’t run around off leash to meet and socialize with every dog everywhere, assuming that is what they would choose to do if given the choice, yet in their first meeting of a new puppy, we do exactly that: we let them off leash to directly interact with the first puppies they meet.
The puppy has learned that sometimes they can go over and play, other times they can’t, and the one thing that prevents that is the leash. Leash frustration leads to more leash pulling, which leads to owner frustration, which undermines the dog human bond. What I believe most owners want is for their dog to walk nicely on a leash past other dogs. Owners want to be able to take their dog places where other dogs are, and not be concerned that their dog will bark, whine, or pull them towards every dog around.
Inappropriate play behaviors
We uncovered another reason to take puppy-puppy play out of puppy kindergarten class when we looked at what behaviours the puppies were actually practicing in play and compared it to what owners wanted. The behaviours were incompatible; owners don’t want a dog to jump, bite, trip them up, or steal their stuff, all things that dogs do to each other in play.
Looking at two sources that described different dog-dog play behaviours that are commonly observed, we start to see that those behaviours are not behaviours owners want their dog to practice with them.6,7
- “Play bite: Bite immediately preceded by play chase or play approach, but not anatomically specific. Often the bite appears to be an attempt to hold the other animal or circumvent its flight. Does not appear to be predatory.
- Mouthing: Dog chews lightly on a portion of another animal. Dog’s teeth do not usually puncture the animal’s skin.
- Play chase: Chasing other animals with ears up or forward, tail wagging, head high or straight. Bounding and chasing are often not directed at another animal but rather are displayed in a run with a target animal. Sometimes followed by a play bite or other contact, but often not even eye contact is made.
- Wresting bout: Mock fighting that may include jaw-sparring, scruff-biting, hip-slamming, and alternately standing over, pushing, or pulling and rolling over with another animal.”
- Leap up on hind legs, with front paws around other’s head and tail up.
- Paw at another animal’s face or body.
Interestingly, when we compared the previous list with Jean Donaldson’s list of the 10 common behaviours that owners don’t want but do nothing to prevent,8 you see many of the same behaviours:
- Jumping up as a greeting.
- Indiscriminate chewing of all matter.
- Eating any food within reach (food-stealing).
- Distress vocalization when socially isolated or confined.
- Interest in members of own species.
- Cannot be handled or groomed easily.
- Fear of strangers/biting strangers.
- Resource guarding.
- Chasing and biting moving objects/rough play with children.
This means we have young puppies during their most formative learning curves, having just come from their litter mates, where they first learn their play behaviours, moving in with their human family. The family rushes the puppy to an appropriate puppy kindergarten, and the first behaviour they get to practice is the opposite of what owners really want! Of course, one could argue that we can correct for bad behaviour that may have been encouraged in puppy-puppy play with proper training, and this is true to some extent, but I have seen even the most seasoned trainer struggle to connect with a puppy after a rousing game of puppy-puppy play. Imagine how hard it is for novice owners to succeed.
What can we do instead?
When I considered taking out the puppy-puppy play from my curriculum, it was because I could see that it created more distracted puppies, frustrated owners, and struggles to teach the puppy skills that would help them to live better in a human home. We wanted our classes to strengthen the dog-human bond first, something that doesn’t happen automatically while exposing puppies to other puppies, not in play, but working side by side. We need to remember that the puppies have spent eight or nine weeks out of the 12 in the socialization period with their conspecifics, leaving less than four weeks to help owners to socialize their puppy.
I didn’t want to take play away altogether, but to use it in a way that enhances the dog-human relationship by first engaging the puppy with humans. We introduced things like how to teach your puppy to play with dog toys, not your favorite shoes or the tv remote control ; this allowed us to add in a trade or drop it behavior. We played start and stop games to help owners recognize signs of over-arousal, and to teach the puppy that play stops when they start to bite, jump, or engage in ways that the owner doesn’t like. We added a bit of fun into teaching our puppies how to walk on a leash, recalls, and even sits, downs, and stands. We added calming exercises such as puppy massage, and a relaxation protocol for puppies. This led to puppies that were focused on the owners. They settled better with their owners as well, leading to more owner satisfaction and more buy-in to our training program. By the end of Week 6 of puppy kindergarten, many of the puppies could do tricks like roll over, spin, touch, and even an introductory nosework game. This did not happen when we had puppy-puppy play, as the puppies struggled to reconnect with the owners in the weeks following the play session.
This extra time that we acquired when we stopped having to struggle to regain the puppies attention allowed us to concentrate on other aspects of socialization such as unusual sounds, smells, the touch of strangers, veterinary care, strollers, and a variety of weird and wacky things that the dog may encounter in their lifetime with humans. We also used this extra time to discuss puppy behaviour and development with owners, and better ways to live with their puppy. Does this mean I discourage dog-dog play? No, but I do think we need to consider that 8 to 12 weeks may be too young for puppy-puppy play. If the goal, as stated by AVSAB is to bring puppies into class to better socialize them with human families, let’s do that.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (2008) AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization.
- Vargas, J. (2013) Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching. New York: Routledge.
- Sapolsky, R. (2018) Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Books.
- Miklósi, A. (2015) Dog Behavior, Evolution, and Cognition. Oxford University Press.
- Lindsay, S. (2000) Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training. Ames: Blackwell Publishing.
- Coppinger, R., et al. (1987) Degree of behavioral neoteny differentiates canid polymorphs. Ethology 75:2, pp. 89-108.
- Horowitz, A. (2009) Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play. Animal Cognition 12, pp. 107-118.
- Donaldson, J. (1996) The Culture Clash. Berkeley: James & Kenneth.
Shelley Doan, BSc, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, is a certified professional Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant. She is the owner of 20/20 Canine Consultants, in Brandon, MB providing in-home dog training, and canine assessments, for problem behaviors. She teaches a variety of dog classes, volunteers as a behavior consultant with Funds for Furry Friends, a local animal rescue organization and spends her spare time writing and reading. She has two dogs at home, Sophie an Australian Shepherd mix, and Max, a German Shepherd mix. She can be reached through her website www.2020canineconsultants.ca.