Starting your puppy out right can make a high difference in both his progress and the final outcome. Every potential service dog needs a solid basis for dog and human socialization and environmental enrichment. The 8-16 week when they first come home covers two socialization sensitive periods and is a critical time to start developing social skills with other dogs and people. Use it wisely.
Look around at your local classes. Visit a class or two by a couple of different trainers before you join them. Ask if they have had other SD candidates in class and then ask for their reference info so you can talk to them.
Choosing a puppy class to take your service dog pup to can be made easy if you have some criterion in mind. Use the list below to see if the class will meet most of your needs for your service dog candidate. It is unlikely that any one trainer will met all the criterion, but the list will help you make your best choice. Feel free to sign up for more than one if the trainer only offers one a week or is missing any key criterion that another class may offer. Above all, be prepared to be your puppy's advocate and be careful to keep all experiences positive. Ask questions about what is the basis of a specific behaviour if it is not obvious to you or if you have concerns. You have the right to obtain (keep your puppy safe) during parts of training you don't agree with. Get him to do other known behaviours during those periods to keep him busy and use the time effectively.
The bottom line is that you are looking for a class that focusses on using the other puppies not only for socialization to continue dog language and bite inhibition skills, but as a distraction that he can be called away from and do other behaviours in their presence. A class that lets the puppies play for long periods, without frequent call aways and then ends only teaches the puppies to be more focussed on the other puppies.
Feel free to print off this page as a handout to give to your trainer to help her understand your needs better. All puppies will benefit, not just service dog candidates.
Name of trainer: _________________________ website: _______________________________
Address: Location: ________________________________ city: _________________________
Contact info: phone:_________________________ email:_______________________________
How to Choose a Puppy Class for Your Service Dog Candidate
Look for a Class Where:
___1. The trainers focus on simple ways of getting behaviors such as luring with food or capturing with a marker sound to start with, then shaping with slightly older puppies. Force should not be used (pushing a puppy into a sit or down or pulling on the leash).
___2. The puppies are paired off for short spurts of play, then rotate partners. This allows the pups to learn to interact with other puppies of different sizes, fur length and shape and energy levels.
1:1 allows the humans to gently intervene before things get out of hand. In small rooms, baby gates or Xpen dividers are helpful to keep the pairs apart. Trios can be allowed if each puppy has been successful interactions with the other two singly first.
___3. The humans are on their feet and interacting with their pups (not sitting on the sidelines). Premack Principle should be used during interactions. This means that the puppies learn some simple behaviors like eye contact, sit or nose target to a hand, then allowed to play with a partner for a few minutes, then are called away and asked to do a simple behavior, given a reward then sent back to play with their buddy. This teaches them good behavior patterns such as coming away from another dog and focussing on her handler despite the distraction of other dogs. This must happen right from the start.
___4. The trainers teach you about dog body language and what the most common behaviors mean. How do you know when the puppy is not feeling comfortable and when you need to redirect their attention or intervene.
___5. Class is short (45 min or so). Longer sessions are not desirable. In fact, shorter is better as there is better chance of positive experiences for the puppy. Young puppies get tired quickly.
___6. Handlers start learning without the puppies. The human handlers need to learn the theory and practice before applying it on their dog. They need a chance to focus without the distraction of the puppy. This can occur in a human-only session before class starts, and also at the beginning of each class. 10-15 minutes is enough to teach you what you will be doing in class as well as set up the handling expectations for each class and where your starting spot will be. Then you go get your puppy. A family member or friend can be waiting in the car or outside with your pup.
___7. The trainers provide a variety of different environmental enrichment opportunities each session. This could be different flooring, things to crawl over, under and around, hanging things, sounds playing in the background, things commonly seen in life (crutches, canes, children, ladders, wheelchairs or strollers etc)
___8. Children are welcome in class but are supervised by a teen or adult whose sole job is to work with the child on interacting with the puppies. A great opportunity, but needs to be structured.
___9. The puppies are all in a narrow developmental range 8-16 weeks, and are highly supervised. Ideally, at first small puppies should be matched by size, at least until they gain confidence and care with puppies of a different size and developmental stages.
___10. Class has a maximum of 6 puppies of different breeds, shapes, colors and sizes. 4 is ideal. Even if there is a higher trainer to pup ratio, too many puppies is too many puppies to keep track of and the sheer chaos of more than 3 pairs is hard for the puppy and handler to focus in.
___11. Puppies are off leash for the class. This requires a room of decent size so each handler puppy pair has enough room to train.
___12. That puppies are allowed to just sit and watch if that is where they are at. Let them decide when they are ready to interact. They should not be forced to interact. Give them time to assess the situation and that choice helps them to gain confidence.
___13. More frequent sessions are ideal. A trainer who offers drop in classes (with limited group size and consistent handling expectations) many times a week is great. The more frequent the brief exposure to different puppies, rooms and environmental enrichment the better.
___14. The trainer follows a regular room cleaning protocol to prevent the spread of disease. Since puppies may start classes at 8.5 weeks, all of them should have their first set of inoculations.
From: Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs Blog www.viassistancedogs.blogspot.com 2015
Here's a video that shows a well-run small class of 3 pups.