Missy's Blog

Why We Don't Do Free Play in Puppy Kindergarten Class  

Puppy Kindergarten Class is a wonderful opportunity for new owners to learn all about successfully raising their recently acquired 4 legged family member. Many folks contact us about classes and want to know if we offer “Free Play” (where puppies are let off leash) during our kindergarten sessions, and just as many are surprised and/or disappointed when we say no.  Why do we not allow puppy free play during our kindergarten class? Let me try to explain:

All puppies arrive to class with their own personal previous experiences and Imprinted behaviors in tow. You are always going to have a mix of confident and forward puppies (some even trending toward bully behaviors), and others who are socially suspicious or worried about other dogs, people and/or environments. The “let them play” theory assumes that everyone will work out the social engagement rules while interacting in an often too small space with too many puppies and a limited established time frame. However, what usually happens is that the nervous dog who is trying to say “Please don’t come over here” gets side swiped or charged setting up a very bad potential precedent for all new future engagements with unfamiliar dogs. I often hear that these puppies need to “Learn to stand up for themselves”.  I completely disagree. The pushy puppies spend the short play session successfully chasing, gripping and pinning puppies who are not capable of stopping the “friendly” assaults.  The common remark is “they need to get corrected to learn not to behave that way. Again,  I completely disagree (have you ever watched toddler children discipline each other – it is not a pretty picture!) Somewhere in the middle are the puppies who may be acting appropriately and are having a good social experience – but what have we taught the rest? It is important to remember that young puppies are incredibly impressionable, and just one emotional or physically scary event can set them on a dangerous path with undesirable consequences moving forward. 

So what do we do differently? 

We allow our puppies time to acclimate to the training room with personal space designed with visible barriers. This allows the puppies to process what is going on around them, and learn to focus successfully on their handler.  We want to build the puppy’s confidence that their owner can keep them safe by easily protecting them from individuals crashing into their personal comfort space. They also learn to be calm and quiet around other dogs and recognize that everything with 4 legs and a tail is not an automatic invitation to engage.  Puppies learn enthusiastically in this environment once they understand that their owner is the most fun thing in the room. 

So they never get to meet each other?! 

After a few weeks, we can see that the puppies have learned some valuable cues and have settled nicely into the environment. We have taught and practiced some necessary skills for meet and greet behaviors (including a name response, touch target,  and have learned about social cues and respecting/supporting them). Now we safely pair puppies with a barrier between them to practice appropriate meet and greet training and retreats. All initial greets are navigated by an attentive trainer to be sure that owners are listening and hearing their puppies view of the engagement.  Utilizing the gates allows puppies the opportunity to introduce themselves on leash without the risk of the conversation becoming overwhelming. After a week or two of these controlled meets, we begin doing on leash meet and greets without the barriers, respecting what each puppy says about meeting others. Some puppies just want to observe from a distance which owners now understand is just fine. Other more gregarious greeters have learned to check in with their handler to request a meet, and to wait until they have been offered our “Go Visit” cue to engage. The on leash meetings are kept short with loose leashes and handlers practicing calling their puppies back to them (remember we have practiced this cue a bunch!) 

Does is work?

Yes! Puppies learn appropriate social interaction skills, and can also learn that sometimes “not” interacting is an applicable choice.  If done well, it may prevent nervous dogs from the need to lunge, growl, or bark at other dogs in an effort to stop an overly friendly greeter.  “Tarzan” greeters learn self control and to include their handler when interested in meeting another dog.  We consistently remind owners that puppies need time to process and think, and giving them a safe period to adjust to a new environment and learning skill set without the added challenge of what can be an unwanted extroverted social experience might be one of the most important things we do in our kindergarten class. 



© Sandy Meadow Farm Dog Obedience School, Westfield, Ma 01085, 4/2023

My dog got "Kicked Out" of obedience school!  

"The trainer didn't like me!".... "The trainer didn't like my dog!"...."The trainer is afraid of big dogs."......"The trainer doesn't like small dogs."...."The trainer doesn't like my breed of dog!"....."The trainer won't work with dogs with issues!"......

 Rarely are those statements true... in fact.... it is generally the exact opposite. We are not judging you or your dog,  nor do we have a prejudice against a certain size, breed, or temperament of dog. Good dog trainers want to get to know you, understand your dog's personal learning needs, and work hard to be sure we are setting both of you up for success. If we are suggesting that a standard foundation group class is not the right choice for you, we have a pretty good reason for it and are hoping you will understand and agree based on our years of experience, practical knowledge, education, and history of client success stories. 

Approximately ninety to ninety five percent of client dogs will find great success with group classes, but unfortunately, for a few it will not be a suitable setting. . That is not something that I say lightly - I am the head trainer of an obedience school that trains dogs in  group classes 6 days a week, and has been doing so for nearly 30 years. Group classes help dogs learn and focus around distractions, offer a social outing for the dogs, supply emotional support and valuable advice to owners, and allows participants to share successes, challenges and experiences  Sadly, clients that are displeased with an unexpected change of plans often make statements like the ones above on social media and during conversations using an inaccurate explanation for why their dog was removed from the class setting. I want owner's to understand that if we are recommending a different training path for them, we are doing so in the best interest of both ends of the leash.  

Why are some dogs not a good match for group classes, at least initially?

1) Your dog is Fearful of strangers or other dogs: A group foundation training class usually consists of exuberant adolescent dogs, recently rehomed dogs, and families with children. If your dog's fears are strong, placing him in close proximity with uncontrolled stimuli may be a very bad idea. He needs to feel safe and comfortable, and needs to learn that his handler can maintain the environment for him with compassion and guidance. In our school, we might suggest moving a dog to another foundation class with a quieter group of  known dogs, doing private training first, or enrolling in a fearful dog class that specializes in helping your dog gain confidence and build trust. 

2) Your dog is Reactive to other dogs: For dogs to learn, their brains must be in a responsive state. If your dog is highly aroused by the presence other dogs, frustrated when access to other dogs is restricted, or becomes unable to settle or respond to you, food, or your trainer, then we may not be able to keep him in class. The environment needs to be conducive for learning, and it is important that we maintain a workable environment for everyone taking the class. We have lots of tools to help a dog settle in class including utilizing gates, buffers, increased distance training spaces, thundershirts, and calming massage, and may try for a few weeks to improve your dog's response to the classroom. We need to recognize that dogs arrive at class with a lot of previous experiences influencing their behavior, and sometimes we need to address those first before including them in a group setting.

3) Your dog is Aggressive to other dogs or people: If your dog has a history of causing damage to another dog or person, he can not be included in a foundation level class. We are not saying we can't help him and that training shouldn't occur, but it is my personal policy not to put clients or their dogs at risk in a class with a dog who has already demonstrated his propensity to bite. Your dog needs private training - he may be able to join a controlled group class in the future once the details of his aggression have been correctly diagnosed and modified. This will include dogs who redirect (or bite) their owners when they are highly aroused or frustrated. These dogs need one on one customized, private lessons in an initially quiet environment before we can expect them to cope with a more stimulating one. 

4) You or your dog require different educational methods:   If you or your dog has a disability or a processing issue that makes the group class more challenging and unncecessarily difficult for either of you we will often suggest some additional support. In some cases, we might bring an assistant into the classroom to offer one on one help during the class.  Sometimes we will suggest having some private lessons as an adjunct to your class work, or we may recommend switching from the classroom to solely privates to gain your foundation skills with plans to come back to a fun group class.at a later time. 

5) Trainer A kicked me out, so I went to Trainer B and they "fixed" my dog in 1 class! If you walked into another class and they placed a choke collar, a prong collar, or an electronic training collar on your dog in the first 20 minutes you were there, successfully used the aversive tool to suppress your dog's undesirable behaviors, and you are comfortable with potentially sacrificing your relationship with your dog by punishing him instead of training him, then we are glad you found a trainer willing to do that for you. Your dog;s outward behavior is information, and it takes skill and understanding to recognize why he is behaving a certain way and to figure out how to help him alter his response. Aversives don't teach, they simply punish, and we would prefer to build a relationship based on trust rather than fear. We need you to understand that we are making decisions that are in your dog's best interest which includes his behavioral , physical, and emotional long term health

6) But I made it through multiple weeks of class or finished a class and THEN we got kicked out! Your dog's behavior is always changing. He will be influenced by hormones, household changes, experiences at the dog park or the groomer, medical concerns, and numerous other life events. We may have kept him in class for a few weeks to see if he would settle in, but it didn't work. He may have been relaxed the first few weeks of class, then his behavior changed and concerned us. Maybe he finished a puppy class, but as he entered adolescence  we began to see some issues that we thought would be better addressed privately. Please remember again that we are ALWAYS considering what we think is best for you and your dog and are making suggestions to help, not to anger or upset you. 

In my career as a group class trainer, I have only "kicked out" ONE student, and that was due to physical abuse to a dog that I witnessed during class. If we remove you from class we ALWAYS suggest other training options and will never leave you with no choices. That might include a different specialized class, private lessons here at the training center, or a  referral to a colleague trainer who is an expert in specific behaviors of benefit to you. We are not being critical of you or your dog - we are trying to help you be successful on your training journey and are hoping with additional guidance and support that we can get you and your dog successfully and happily back into a group class environment in the future. 

Melissa Kielbasa, CPDT-KA is a certified professional trainer, owner of Sandy Meadow Farm Obedience School, and is director/head trainer for K9's for Kids, Inc pediatric therapy dog unit and the Westfield Woofers K9 dance team. She has been training dogs professionally since 1998 competing in a variety of dog sports and events.