Let’s talk about a real situation in the dog training industry. What on earth are we doing with puppy classes?
This blog post isn’t designed to address puppy class curriculum; I’m actually greatly encouraged by where curriculum design is going.*
I want to address an elephant so ignored in the room that I bet the average dog training client is not aware it’s even there.
Puppy classes are usually taught by folks we call “baby trainers,” that is, inexperienced trainers or trainers who are newly certified.
Are there lots and lots of great baby trainers out there? Absolutely. We all started somewhere and many of my colleagues and I had years of experience under our belts via certification programs, mentorships, or some combination thereof before we sailed solo teaching a puppy class. But at every facility I’ve taught, I have routinely been the only, or one of the only senior trainers who taught puppy classes. And people have thought it was a little weird.
The attitude in many facilities is that the “real” trainers move ahead to sport classes or behaviour cases or other, seemingly more complex aspects of dog training. I, however, eventually learned that while I could handle sport classes or complex behaviour cases, in group class, I am never happier than teaching baby puppies through early adolescent dogs and their owners.
When I tell new colleagues this, they sometimes look at me as though I’ve sprouted a second head - and I’m comfortable with that - because while my professional passion lies with training service dogs, I forever return to the dogs with no skills, who are chompy because they haven’t learned bite inhibition, and perhaps most importantly, to the clients who are so desperate for someone to tell them (1) “Your dog isn’t broken!” and (2) “You’re doing a great job, here’s how we can make some things easier and set you up for better success.”
So how did we get to this place, where primarily beginner instructors teach puppies and adolescent dogs? I think we got here because the classes seem like they should be easier to teach by people who view dog training from a sport lens. For someone like me, who has cut their teeth in family dog coaching, I know the incredible complexity and nuance that teaching a truly excellent puppy class requires.
An instructor might be simultaneously doing a demonstration with a puppy while talking about bite inhibition with the class, quickly pivoting to complex questions about enrichment, exercise, house training, and/or crate training, and finishing with a detour to “my dog is afraid of my baby.” Oh yeah, that’s just the first 20 minutes of class, by the way. We’ve only just begun, honey.
For those of us who love to think on our feet, to solve problems by thinking out of the box, and most of all have the enduring empathy and kindness to coach new dog owners, puppy and adolescent family dog classes keep us coming back. These classes shouldn’t simply be “dumped” onto new trainers without appropriate support and assistance, preferably a robust mentoring and shadowing program over 3 or more months so the new trainers see a breadth and depth of dogs, clients, and issues.
One day we'll start by teaching everyone that it’s okay to say “I don’t know the answer to that, but let me find out and I’ll get back to you (by next class, or by email or phone if the issue is more pressing).” At the end of the day, confidently saying “I don’t know” is the first step to becoming a truly excellent trainer, whether you’re teaching agility, service dogs, or “just” a delightful family’s new dog who is presenting some challenges for them.
* There is no certification requirement for dog trainers at this time; plenty of trainers out there without ever pursuing a certification. Some of them are even good! As always, caveat emptor and ask questions if you’re unsure about a trainer’s background or training philosophy. And don't hesitate to ask about the experience of the person who is teaching your next puppy class.