As a behaviourist I send out pre consultation questionnaires to clients so that I can gain a clearer understanding of the background of the behaviour problem. My workload consists of a high volume of dogs which are aggressive towards other dogs. The logical conclusion could be that these dogs lack socialisation with other dogs. Yet, when I evaluated all my inter dog aggression cases a few years ago I found a worrying theme: attendance to puppy parties. Not “not” attending puppy parties but actually attending puppy parties! I found this shocking. When I enquired further, I found that these dogs often fell into one of (or a combination of) two categories:
1. Hiding under the chair
2. The life and soul of the party, charging about chasing other puppies.
What this tells me is that the ones hiding under the chair felt fearful. Most puppy parties are run with puppies off lead charging about with each other. The problem for the puppy hiding under the chair is that even when hiding, if the other pups are off lead, they tend to chase the one hiding under the chair. How terrifying! This just makes pups more fearful of other dogs during a highly important period of brain development. At this stage pups need to learn their world is safe so that they can live with confidence. If they experience unsafe situations their brains become wired for danger and they can become insecure, and fearful.
One might assume that the “life and soul of the party” dog might have been very confident. Yet, in my experience of running puppy parties, this may not be the case. The one that chases the other pups and squishes them is often fearful and trying to assert control over the other pups to make himself feel safe. Having learned that he can feel safe by bullying the other pups this becomes a learned coping behaviour and then develops as a way of life. Owners often don’t really notice this until the dog matures and then starts to use growling, nipping and biting to accompany this behaviour as the adult dog's ”toolkit” becomes established. These dogs may also become more fearful as they receive negative consequences from other dogs which object to these attempts to control. The bullyish player can then learn to use aggression after experiencing it themselves from other dogs.
So, how should puppy parties be run?
Puppy parties should just be for pups which cannot yet go out to meet other dogs (8 to 12 weeks old). as it is suggested that 3 to 12 weeks is the optimum time to be starting socialisation and vaccinations take time most pups can't start training classes until after 12 weeks old. This means that all the pups are at the same developmental stage and may not have become over confident with other dogs.
Since pups won't be fully immunized it is important that a proper animal surfectant which kills nasties such as parvo virus is used to clean the facility, such as Anigene. Also attendees should be provided with surgical overshoes as they enter. Attendees should be advised that these classes are for pups not yet going out for walks. If pups live in a high risk area then they should not attend puppy parties in case they transfer diseases to others.
I feel they should generally be run with pups on lead for the following reasons:
1. If pups are on lead it is less likely that one will rush up to a fearful one.
2. If pups are on lead they are learning at the earliest opportunity that they might not be able to charge up to other dogs just because they want to. As dogs are expected to be on lead in so many places it is better that they learn there are restrictions right from the beginning. This reduces frustration later when they are not able to approach other dogs for any reason.
3. Many owners are learning about their puppies and it is easier for them to control their puppies when they are on lead. It enables them to learn about their puppy’s body language etc. without losing control of them.
4. Owners are starting to learn how to use the lead at a very early stage. (Notice the lead tension in the photo above and also the puppies' body tension. The lead tension here does not help but does prevent the puppies going too far. The nervous heeler on the left would be bold and approach the English Bull terrier further if off lead but the lead gave the owners control over this).
However, sometimes I will let a pup off lead. This would be a really fearful one that I feel needs to be able to take control of his own space. When let off these puppies will take themselves where they feel safe which is very empowering. We know as humans that when we feel we have control we are less stressed and I believe this is the case for dogs too. Often these puppies will then quickly build in confidence and then come out to join other puppies, at which time, we then pop a lead back on.
A puppy party should look reasonably calm and be fairly quiet. If there is a lot of barking and charging about then there is something wrong. If you hear barking you should see an instructor taking action to help the owner to settle their puppy.
There should be lots of space between puppies and people most of the time. We generally have around six puppies in a hall approx. 80 feet x 40 feet. If we have much more than six then it creates more pressure and we tend to find pups are less easy to settle. Remember, these classes are often the first time a puppy will have left the safety of his own home. We always start off with lots of space and then gradually let the pups meet under control.
In these first sessions it is quite normal to see pups which are not sure (see the Working Cocker in the above photo who is unsure of the Siberian Husky even though the Husky has some nice soft body language.) However, the trainer should be guiding owners how to handle the situation. If, in this photo, the Cocker had become very still and not be showing interest in the Husky or looked like she would roll over on her back for example, we would have asked the Husky owner to remove her pup from the cocker so that the cocker could feel more comfortable. There is clearly some uncertainty (low head position, crouching body position of the Cocker, clamped mouth and ears) and even the Husky's mouth is slightly clamped shut, he is also leaning slightly back from the cocker. However, given a short time these two settled down and the tension subsided. It is important that the trainers are watchful and guiding owners what to do.
When the little Cocker in this video (Zoomies) got out of her depth she performed what is known as a "butt tuck zoomie". She clearly felt stressed in such close proximity to the other pups and the rush of adrenalin made her behave like this. The owner, quite rightly, let the pup have her lead and allowed her to decide to move into a bigger space away from the others. Many people think the puppy is being naughty when this happens but it is a stress response. Some puppies may be a bit frightened but not avoidant and then get themselves into difficult situations like this one.
It is a good idea to ask to observe a puppy party before you take your puppy to one. This way if you don't like what you see you have not damaged your puppy's confidence.
In short, a puppy party should be a calm experience where your puppy can safely meet other pups and people. You should be given guidance by the trainer how to handle your pup in the different situations you may face. This should create an excellent foundation as your pups learn to feel safe in the presence of dogs and people. Feeling safe is an important foundation for being able to learn in a class environment. We find puppies which have attended our puppy parties settle down very quickly when they start puppy training classes and achieve a high standard of training. A dog who feels safe and understands what is asked of him tends to be a happy dog!