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Anatomy of a Successful Puppy Training Program

A lot is said and written about the importance of early puppy socialization and training. Which leads to a lot being said and written about the challenges of client compliance. How do we get people to take their pups out into the world despite their busy schedules?

Australian shepherd puppy looking up.When you want something done right, do it yourself
The answer is to do it yourself. We can spend all manner of time and energy motivating and incentivizing puppy owners to prioritize socialization, but the only sure-fire way to see it gets done is to do it for them.

People are inordinately busy. They’re already juggling jobs and kids and errands and “adulting” in general. Yes, they should prioritize socialization for the few precious weeks and months they have to take advantage of this critical period. But they should also prioritize eating well and exercising and getting out in front of retirement savings.

My point is that “should” won’t get the job done in a culture predisposed to handling problems instead of preventing them. So instead of browbeating clients to spend time socializing their puppies, and then judging them for non compliance, let’s just get their puppies socialized and trained.

Taking on these tasks yourself has many advantages. You’ll save more canine lives by helping dogs avoid relinquishment due to undersocialization-related behavior issues. You’ll make clients far happier by offering them the “easy button” they want. After all, people generally hire professionals to provide a professional service, not to be taught how to do the work themselves. And you’ll increase your business and revenue by offering more attractive services that you can charge well for.

Puppy day training
Taking on the training and socialization yourself is most easily done through day training. Think of day training as board & train without the boarding. You’ll work with the puppy multiple times each week and then transfer your results in weekly sessions with the client.

How many times you see the pup each week is up to you, but the more days the better for all—the puppy, the client, and your business. At dogtec we recommend a minimum package of three sessions per week with the puppy and one weekly transfer session with the client.

Puppy day training can come in many structures, too. Most commonly each puppy is picked up for training sessions. You can work with puppies in their homes on behaviors like “go to your bed,” but the most important ingredient of a successful puppy day training program is field trips that expose puppies to a wide range of situations for socialization and proofing. Take pups to shopping centers, veterinary clinics, parks, busy urban sidewalks, past suburban schools, etc. To add play socialization into the mix, gather pups together once a week for supervised play in a safe location, or require clients to attend a weekly social.

You can also provide puppy day training in a facility setting. This approach allows for easier play socialization, but be sure to provide socialization/ training proofing field trips as above.

What to teach puppies
Socialization is the central key, of course, and thus the emphasis on field trips for exposure to life outside the pup’s home. But don’t overlook the client’s immediate goals, too. They’ll be grateful for help speeding up house training (another reason to include larger packages with more training days per week) and slowing down the puppy biting.

And don’t forget basic manners foundations. As dog trainers we know this can come later and is secondary in importance to socialization and problem prevention. But we have to speak to clients’ immediate priorities as well, and a responsive puppy with some impulse control goes a long way to creating a lasting bond between canine and owner.

That said, choose what to train wisely. One advantage of day training is the chance to proof behavior to a higher level reliability in the face of distraction. So go for depth, rather than breadth. Choose a small number of behaviors and train them well, rather than installing a wide range of cues you won’t have time to proof.

When picking what to teach, think about clients’ needs—which cues or behaviors will have the largest impact? Being able to send puppy to her bed for some downtime will bring relief to many a harried puppy parent, for example. Teaching pups to walk nicely on lead means they’re more likely to get out for weekend socialization jaunts. And of course a rock solid sit is a great impulse control default switch for any dog. Whatever you choose to teach, keep your choices to a small handful and train the behaviors in the contexts the pup will be asked to perform them.

What to teach puppy owners
All this focus on working the puppies yourself doesn’t mean your clients are entirely off the hook. They live with the pups, after all, and your training won’t do them any good if they don’t know how to take advantage.

Fortunately, because you’ve done all the work to install and proof new behaviors, you can focus your transfer sessions on teaching clients the skills and conceptual understanding they need to be more successful dog guardians. Puppy owners don’t need to be dog trainers, just as parents don’t need to be credentialed classroom teachers. But they do need to know a thing or two about how dogs learn and how to set their pups up for success.

Of critical importance is clients’ understanding of puppy socialization—what it is, why it’s important, and how to do it safely. The hours you have with each puppy will go a long way toward successful socialization, but clients will have many more opportunities to either push your work forward or unintentionally undermine it.

Teaching concepts and skill sets like situational awareness and responding proactively to environmental distractions, working at their pup’s level (aka criteria setting), and problem solving (how to make adjustments when something isn’t working) turn the average dog owner into a superstar guardian. Helping clients to internalize these ideas and modes of being with their dog on the one hand, while installing basic manners for them on the other, is a fool-proof recipe for keeping dogs happily in their homes.

Use your transfer sessions to help pups and their people practice socialization and training guardian skills in real-life situations, both in the home and out in the world together. As you do, be careful not to teach learned helplessness. If your clients are to master these skills, you must fight the temptation to provide constant direction. After initial instruction, prompt only as needed, and try indirect prompting wherever possible. For example, rather than saying, “There are some children coming up ahead. Let’s give Sadie some treats as they pass,” try “Don’t forget to scan the environment” and then, “Great—you’ve seen the children coming. Because you saw them early we have time to plan. How would you like to help Sadie have a positive experience as they pass?”

Retention and maintenance programs for puppies
Most day training programs run between 2 and 4 weeks long. The longer you work with a puppy the better her chances in life, so look for ways to offer clients additional support once their primary package ends. This benefits your business, too, by slowing the rate of new client acquisition necessary to keep yourself full and profitable.

Puppy field trips are a great way to offer training and socialization maintenance. You can take pups out individually or in small, well-matched groups for additional socialization. Grouping pups also allows you to decrease your maintenance rate a bit while not reducing your hourly income.

You can also make field trips a family affair by turning them into a weekend class or membership program where you take pups and their people on guided trips to different locations each week—the pet supply store, the park, window shopping, a cup of coffee at a local café with outdoor seating, etc.

For clients interested in more advance manners and obedience, offer advanced day training programs focused on teaching new cues while maintaining socialization.

You might also look at adding longer-term retention programs for eager clients wanting to continue with you once their pups age out of your puppy programs. Options include guided weekend field trips for adult dogs, hiring dog walkers, or launching an exclusive adult dog daycare catering only to dogs who have gone through your puppy day training or puppy class programs.

Making a difference
We all want to save and improve dogs’ lives. It is deeply, profoundly frustrating and painful to watch a puppy go without the critical socialization you know she needs. So don’t. Get in there and make it happen. You can’t control how your clients prioritize their time, but you can control what your services look like and what you do for pups and their people.