A puppy class will never be perfect – filled with the most well behaved pups and understanding clients who believe and follow your every word flawlessly. If this was possible, you wouldn’t be having them in your class. Clients join your class because, at a minimum, they want to learn what’s best for their puppies and teach them ‘dog manners’ so they can live a harmonious life with them. Puppies are there so they can be socialised, learn the ‘dog manners’ their owners want them to learn and, of course, because their owners brought them to the class.
In the case of a puppy class with three Labradors, one German Shepherd, one Border Collie and one Border Terrier, we can see there are several issues with both owners and dogs that can escalate out of control if we do not handle them early on. In terms of the layout of the class, please refer to Figure 1 to see a visual representation of a possible idea of how you could set the class up. Figure 1. First, let’s look at the puppies.
As the question explained, two of the rambunctious Labradors – let’s call them Labrador A and Labrador B – are littermates. Being littermates usually means the pups will do their best to play with each other in class so it is important to keep far away from each other during class time so they can work on training instead. It is worth asking the owners to try and limit play time with the littermates during class. They are welcome to let them play outside of class, if that’s what they would like to do.
The Border Collie is anxious and does not like other humans and dogs near so it might be worth putting them towards the back of the class, seeing how they are the first class. If the situation is bad and it cannot concentrate, you could suggest a barrier so that you could minimise the line of sight to other dogs and people and lessen their thinking about other people and dogs coming close. Also advise that other clients leave that corner alone, especially when teaching appropriate greeting to avoid exacerbating the situation.
See how the Border Collie is with assistants approaching for the appropriate greeting exercise – without coming into contact with them – and if they are still too reactive, the assistants and you can work on counterconditioning by throwing treats on the floor towards the Border Collie when you pass by and check on them during exercises, if the owner is alright with it. This way, the Border Collie can start learn to associate treats with people coming near it.
Having a dog that barks in class can be hard as it can set the whole class off and it can quickly descend into a room of constant ear-splitting noise. Similar to the Border Collie, see how the German Shepherd is during the first class and if he is nervous and can’t focus on learning, consider asking if Chris would be open to using a barrier. Whether he will believe you when you say you think the GSD is nervous or that he’s protecting him, the barrier is there so that the GSD can focus on learning instead of the other dogs or ‘protection’.
Keep an eye out for signs of nervousness and try to minimise the triggers in class. As for the Border Terrier, you have to first clarify with Jane if he has issues with resource guarding with his food around just humans, dogs or both. Due to Jane’s opinion that the aggression is due to the dog trying to dominate her and reducing his status, she is probably taking his food bowl away during meals, so it might be resource guarding around humans only.
In this case, and in regards to his dislike of being handled, it would be best if, like with the Border Collie, other clients did not interact with the dog during the class and especially during appropriate greeting exercises. In case the food aggression is also directed towards dogs, placing him farther from the Labs means that the Labradors, a notorious food-motivated breed, are not eating the Border Terrier’s treats or jumping into his space to access the treats. Of course, the owners are welcome to refuse a barrier.
However, if the dog is unable to cope and learn in the class environment, it might be worth suggesting 1-to-1 classes instead, transferring the credit from what they have already paid for the puppy classes to the 1-to-1 classes if they agree to them. Let them know that not all dogs are able to cope in class and it’s okay. If they would prefer not to do 1-to-1s and you cannot have a constructive class with their pups in it, you might want to refer them to a colleague.
But first, do what you can to keep the dogs happy and learning in your class. In a class full of puppies and humans, there is always opportunity for conflict. The owners of the Labrador littermates may see the class as an opportunity to let their pups play, the play may get too much for them and venture into inappropriate play territory or spill over to the other puppies in the class. The other owners may not appreciate their and their puppies’ learning being disrupted and the puppies may not enjoy the playtime.
This is especially applicable to the owner of Labrador C who wants his rambunctious puppy to lay next to him. Signs of conflict in owners would be saying “no” to dog/owner, pulling their dogs away and/or looking to you for help. Signs of conflict in dogs would be tails tucked or sitting with their bum on the ground to hide anal glands, ‘submissive’ urination (which could also just be excitement), and/or signs of stress such as lip licking in the absence of food, displacement behaviours, shaking and panting when there is no physical exertion.
There could be cases of conflict between the owner of Labrador Cand others clients as their puppies may come close and disrupt his trying to get the dog to lie down beside him in class. Or they may not even need come close to disturb the Labrador and their owner, as Labrador C has been labeled as ‘rambunctious’ in the hypothetical situation, we might assume that they are quite energetic and boisterous and therefore, harder to control and get them to lay down during a class in a new environment filled with new smells, people and dogs.
This could lead to another conflict, where the Lab just wants to play with other dogs, sniff the new smells and run around but the owner wants them to lay by them. The owner and dog could both become frustrated. The owner might start jerking the dog around, try to physically push them down to lie down and/or tell them off for not laying quietly. The dog could show signs of stress and/or fear such as panting, appeasement behaviours such as lip licking and ‘grinning’, displacement behaviours such as yawning, shaking off and nose licking and avoiding the behaviour.
Conflict can definitely arise between the anxious Border Collie and other dogs and owners as they are known to snap at other dogs or hands that get too close. The most obvious sign of conflict would be a bite. Less obvious signs will probably start with yawning, lip licking and/or ears back and escalate to growling and showing teeth. The showing of teeth will differ from an appeasement smile in that the corners of the mouth do not pull up but instead, the vertical retraction of lips. Failure to recognise these signs will usually end in a snap or bite.
It is best to make sure you have assistants on hand watching any interactions that may occur, even if you have asked other clients in class to make sure they and their puppies do not go too close to the Border Collie. The Border Collie puppy may also start snapping at the owner’s hands because it is most likely going to have its anxiety heightened due to the new environment, dogs and people. They also will also struggle to focus on training as they may feel the need to keep an eye out for any potential dogs or people coming near.
This will most likely frustrate the owner as they will feel the puppy is not listening to them, being ‘naughty’ or ‘disobeying them on purpose’. It would be worth suggesting a barrier in this case, or taking the Border Collie to a separate corner of the venue or maybe outside if it is safe and getting an assistant to work with them 1-to-1, if the Collie is comfortable with them. The nervous German Shepherd puppy will most likely bark in the class because of it being a new experience that could set him off.
Regardless of whether Chris thinks the dog is nervous, he will most likely start to get frustrated with the barking as the other owners will inevitably look over every time the dog barks and the other puppies will probably start barking each time the GSD barks. Also, what happens if no one is near but he is still barking? The barking will no longer be validated by the ‘protecting his owner’ theory and Chris may shush them (giving him attention) or start using aversive methods such as jerking his leash to shut him up if the shushing doesn’t work.
The nervous GSD will most likely become more nervous as the class progresses, wanting to keep an eye out for potential fears and being unable to focus on training. This will frustrate the owner as, similar to the Border Collie, the owner may think the puppy is not listening to them, being naughty or showing them up. Again, like the Border Collie, it would be worth suggesting a barrier and getting an assistant that the GSD is comfortable to work with them and help them with any questions they may have.
The Border Terrier and his owner will most likely be the pair you see conflict with. A dog who feels the need to express themselves when they are being handled, has issues around food and has an owner who tries to ‘reduce the dog’s status’ is most likely one that does not have a great relationship with its owner. Dominance theory is based on an idea that there is someone who needs to be the ‘winner’ on top. A relationship based on the dog ‘submitting and everything being a competition of who ‘wins’ generally means it is not one based in trust and understanding.
If the puppy dislikes being handled and has issues around food, you will most likely see the dog getting snappy when being handled by the owner and maybe having a hard mouth trying to snatch the food from the owner. Also, if he is approached while eating, he will most likely show the signs of food guarding – starting with an eye flick, getting very still, growling, and finally snapping or biting – so it is best to stay vigilant while working with him and making sure the assistants are especially observant and do not push his boundaries.