Sunday, July 14, 2013

Puppy kindergarten or obedience class: Which is better?

Sinead the Boston terrier crashed out on a pile of dog toys
Sinead relaxes/passes out after her class
on a comfy bed made of dog toys.
When I got Sinead, she was already 5 months old. Instead of pulling her right into class on Week 1, I chose to spend a little time bonding. I gave her rules and limitations, of course, but I didn't take her directly into a classroom setting. Once I felt ready, she was nearly 7 months old, and I had a tricky choice to make. I could have enrolled her in puppy class, or I could have skipped that session and moved right into basic obedience.

It's not an easy decision.

Puppy classes provide dogs with basic obedience training. They learn how to sit, stay, come and lie down. In some classes, they even learn how to do just a little bit of heeling work. Some classes also introduce dogs to agility tools, so they can learn how to jump over a hurdle or clamber through a flexible tube. But the classes really focus on bonding and socialization. Dogs get to play with one another at the end of most classes like this, and dogs who can't conform to the rules aren't really criticized for their laziness. In general, the classes are just a little bit loose and lackadaisical.

In an obedience class, however, dogs have an opportunity to really stretch and learn. The courses emphasize form, and dogs are expected to get each motion and each action perfect, almost every time. They learn all sorts of advanced moves, and they're also expected to hold their positions for long periods of time. There are few socialization opportunities in classes like this, as some dogs enter these classes due to their bad behavior and/or nervousness. In some of these classes, letting the dogs interact could mean letting them fight. Instead, handlers are encouraged to view the other dogs as distractions that must be ignored. The focus is on the handler/dog relationship, not the dog/dog relationship.

As a 7-month-old puppy, Sinead could use some socialization. She's not always confident around other dogs she doesn't know, and she hasn't had many opportunities to meet and greet other dogs. She also has a fairly short attention span, and long tasks tend to bore her. Put these two factors together, and I have a good reason to keep her in a puppy course.

She's also just very SMART, however, and she's a little impatient with some activities she finds boring. Put her in a puppy class, I thought, and she'd learn the motions in minutes and then want to go home. I'm not sure she likes to socialize and play, either, so I wasn't sure she'd enjoy her time.

In the end, I enrolled her in an obedience course. She is learning so much, and our relationship is much stronger, but we do have to take precautions in class. She is much smaller than her companions, for example, and some of these big dogs want to snack on her. As a result, we always work in the center of the room or on the edges, far away from the big dogs. She also needs a potty break in the middle of the class, so she can regain her focus. But tomorrow, we're going to audit the puppy class, too, so I can see if that might be a better fit for her size and her mental capacity. Could be that I didn't make the right choice for her.

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