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

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