People often ask why we have age limits in our puppy courses. There are extremely good reasons for this. To understand why, you need to understand puppy development. Once you understand this, you might be horrified at the prospect of mixed age classes for younger puppies.
Puppy socialisation parties 8-12 weeks old
We run puppy socialisation sessions (puppy parties) for pups between 8 and 12 weeks old. In these small group sessions we have increased hygiene standards to ensure puppies cannot pick up disease. We clean the surfaces with a specialist animal surfectant and provide surgical overshoes for people to wear over their outdoor shoes. We check vaccinations of all dogs attending (or see titre tests) to make sure the risk of passing on disease is very low. We only have healthy dogs coming in (unlike a veterinary setting) so we are able to run puppy parties from a younger age than responsible vets, who should wait until pups are fully vaccinated to ensure they cannot pick up disease from the veterinary clinic. At this age, they are also at similar development stages. They are likely to be entering, or just in, their hazard avoidance stage. This is the stage during which pups become more suspicious of new things. By 12 weeks, this window has virtually closed. This is a stage for gentle confidence building. If we were to introduce older adolescent puppies, the younger ones might be overwhelmed. These very young pups explore new experiences together and make new friends. We carefully supervise these sessions to ensure that pups do have positive experiences. We don’t cushion them totally, but as their brains are being hard wired at this stage, we avoid letting them get scared otherwise their brains would be wired for living in a scary world. This reduces confidence and increases risks of fearful and aggressive behaviours later on. But mildly uncomfortable experiences can increase resilience, depending on the background of the puppy. Some pups need further protection from unpleasant experiences, notably outbuilding raised puppies. These pups are pre-disposed to developing behaviour problems due to chronic under stimulation in the breeding environment. After approximately 12 weeks old, the hazard avoidance window is mainly closed for most breeds. This is why we run classes then for a separate age group.
Puppy Training Courses
Our puppy classes suit pups from full vaccination (roughly 12 weeks old). We restrict the age to 20 weeks old at the start of the course. The reason for this is that at the start most pups should not be in the adolescent stage. They still have puppy teeth and this affects the social interactions. Once a dog has a full set of adult teeth, their jaw is stronger and the play biting style changes. If a pup is older than 20 weeks, they are reaching adolescence and, again, their behaviour is changing. Social interactions can be rougher, social challenges can occur as they are starting to reach maturity. Hormone levels are changing radically, and this affects behaviour. If a younger pup is socially challenged by an adolescent pup, or played with in a competitive style, this can be scary for younger puppies. This is why, in our indoor classes, we refer puppies over 20 weeks old to the novice class as this group contains older puppies and the occasional adult dog that has not had any previous training.
Outdoor puppy socialisation sessions
We do, however, run outdoor classes in an enclosed space for a mixed age group. We have a huge space here so less confident puppies can feel safe even if there are adolescent puppies in the group. We are careful which puppies interact together. We run outdoor mixed age (upper age 7 months) puppy classes with pups having the opportunity to be off lead and socially interact because we want to replicate a real world environment for them. In our experience, pups and dogs behave very differently outdoors than indoors. Some are more confident and some are less confident than when in the indoor classes.
The adolescent pups will be learning they should only gently approach younger puppies and not charge up to them at top speed, whilst the younger ones will be aware that some other dogs are more bouncy and bold but not feel threatened by this as we protect their space. These classes are run by a highly experienced and properly qualified clinical animal behaviourist and accredited animal training instructor who is registered with the ABTC (Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council), the government recognised regulatory body for animal trainers and behaviourists. The early socialisation experiences for puppies are simply the most important ones. We do not believe puppy sessions should be run by new starters, these are run by the most highly experienced and qualified members of the team.
Trainers who run indoor puppy classes mixing adolescents with younger puppies might lack the knowledge to understand why they should not be mixing age groups, or classes could be run this way for convenience, or because they do not have enough puppies to run a puppy course. Whatever the reason, classes run like this are not usually beneficial to the puppy with the exception of truly resilient ones, of which there are few.
It is best to avoid puppy classes where the young puppies are in the same confined space as puppies that are around 6 months old plus. We segregate ages to ensure the puppies have the best possible social experiences and develop good habits.
Denise Nuttall B.Sc ( Hons), M. Res
Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Full Member The Canine Training and Behaviour Society (TCBTS)
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Animal Training Instructor
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist