Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS, European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine (Companion Animals)
Puppy parties are a very useful way of practices actively promoting the prevention of behavioural problems in dogs and of encouraging new owners in the principles of responsible pet ownership. They also offer the practice an opportunity to promote the services that they offer and to encourage owners to view the practice as an overall healthcare centre for their new pet.
The Importance of Socialisation and Habituation
When the issue of behaviour problem prevention is discussed in a canine context a great deal of emphasis is put on the importance of socialisation and habituation. These processes of associative learning are extremely important in increasing the puppy's perception of people, other animals and physical situations as being non-threatening and also in priming the individual's stress response mechanism so that they are able to adequately and appropriately control their response to stressful situations in adulthood.
In order to maximise the benefits of exposure to novelty and challenge in the environment it is essential that new people, animals and situations are introduced in a controlled way and that the risks of inadvertent sensitisation are minimised. Correct selection of a venue for a puppy party, with appropriate flooring and noise levels for example, and the provision of adequate suitably trained staff to supervise the event are essential if the puppy party experience is to truly benefit the puppies and not inadvertently contribute to behavioural problems of fear and anxiety later in life.
Training as a Method of Behaviour Problem Prevention
In addition to talking about socialisation and habituation and providing the opportunity for puppies to meet new people and new dogs in a novel surrounding the puppy party also offers an early opportunity to talk to owners about the importance of training and to explain why there is far more to it than simply controlling your dog.
Training is defined as "the process of learning the skills that you need to do a job" and if we consider that most pet dogs have been selected to do the "job" of being a companion for people it helps us to define what we are aiming to achieve through the process of training.
In the context of a companion animal the basic aims of training are to create a sociable, obedient and adaptable individual which can cope emotionally with the challenges of living in a human society. Individual owners may wish to take this further and specify more advanced levels of behaviour that they wish to achieve through training but this is outside the remit of a puppy party and these owners will need to find more specialised training clubs to provide the information that they need.
What Can Be Achieved in 45 Minutes?
During a puppy party the aim is not to create the world's most obedient puppies but rather to instruct owners in the principles of canine learning in a way that enables them to adapt basic principles to teaching a range of more complex commands. In addition it is important to pass on information to the client about the importance of emotional state in the context of learning and to teach them how to train in a manner which instills self confidence in their pet and reduces the risk of developing issues of emotional conflict.
Talking about Pavlov
One of the ways in which dogs learn is through a process called Classical or Pavlovian conditioning. This is an associative form of learning and involves making a link between a previously insignificant signal and the performance of a reflex or involuntary behaviour. The most noticeable example during puppy training is that of house training and this is probably one of the biggest concerns for owners of new puppies when they come along to a puppy party.
It is important to explain the significance of timing in this form of learning and to emphasise that the process is not inherently difficult to achieve. Offering advice about the selection of an appropriate signal for toileting, such as being outside rather than being on newspaper, can help to make the process far less frustrating for puppy and owner alike. In addition practical suggestions for selecting appropriate times to ensure that the puppy is in the right location for elimination can significantly increase the owner's chances of being successful in training and also reduce the risk of punitive techniques being employed.
Unconditioned stimulus (US),
e.g., Full bladder or bowels
Unconditioned response (UR)
Conditioned response (CR)
Conditioned stimulus (CS),
e.g., Being outside
Pavlovian Influence on Negative Behaviours
In addition to explaining how classical conditioning can be used to teach a puppy how to toilet appropriately it is also important to explain to owners that the same process of learning can lead to the development of less desirable behaviours, such as fear responses.
Explaining the passive way in which associations can be formed between contexts, such as the veterinary surgery, and negative outcomes, such as pain from an injection, will help to highlight how important it is to ensure that puppies gain positive experiences in as many environments as possible. It will also help to emphasise the importance of learning to read the puppy's body language signals so that the owner is aware when it is anxious and fearful and can help to minimise associations between these negative emotional states and the presence of potential cues such as people or other animals.
What About Instrumental Conditioning?
Instrumental or operant conditioning occurs when there a stimulus and a response are associated with a consequence which influences the likelihood of that response being offered again. One of the main implications of instrumental learning as related to behavioural problems is that dogs will go on learning in this way even when no-one intends to teach them anything. Provided a stimulus and a response occur in conjunction with some form of consequence then learning will take place and in this way a lot of so called problem behaviour is inadvertently learned.
The principles of instrumental conditioning form the basis of animal training and much of behaviour modification so it is important to explain the principles to new owners so that they minimise the risk of teaching unwanted behaviours and maximise their success in teaching appropriate ones.
Example of Instrumental (Operant) Conditioning
Dogs that bark incessantly when in the car:
Stimulus: Travelling in the car
Consequence : Car continues on its journey and reaches a pleasurable destination
Likelihood of behaviour occurring again in the same context: Increased
Dogs that jump up at people when they greet them or are generally over-enthusiastic when visitors call:
Stimulus: Visitors call
Response: Jumping up
Consequence : Social interaction
Likelihood of behaviour occurring again in the same context: Increased
The fact that instrumental learning is occurring all the time means that it is not necessarily essential to take dogs to obedience classes in order to teach them, but it is good to explain the advantages of a well-run training class in terms of socialisation with other dogs and learning obedience commands in a context full of potential distractions. However, owners of new puppies need to be made aware of the fact that for the puppy any situation has potential for learning and whilst classes can be very helpful in organising a routine of training the learning process is not confined to Monday nights in the village hall. Equally in order to establish wanted behaviours it must be emphasised that training needs to be ongoing and that the homework of teaching commands in the home environment is essential if the situation of having a perfect dog at training class and a problem dog at home is to be avoided.
The Importance of Emotion
In addition to teaching owners about the principles that influence the way in which their dog learns it is also very important to explain the role of emotion in the process of learning. It is well recognised in people that stress and negative emotion detrimentally affect an individual's ability to learn and yet we battle on with our pet dogs trying to teach them to comply with obedience commands in situations where they are noticeably distressed.
It is helpful for owners who have attended puppy parties at their veterinary practice to understand the significance of inducing a positive emotional state during training as this will lead them to the logical conclusion that the use of training gadgets that are designed to frighten or startle their pet is likely to be inappropriate. Instead owners should be encouraged to work on the basis of rewarding appropriate responses and increasing their pet's self-confidence by the frequent delivery of positive interaction. It can be very beneficial to emphasise the increased significance of reward, in terms of increasing self-confidence, when the behaviour has been offered by the animal spontaneously and this can lead to an introduction to the concept of clicker training. However, introducing the clicker to multiple puppies in the context of a puppy party is not a good idea as it has the potential to cause significant confusion, and it is best to limit discussion of this training method to verbal theory at this stage. However, if any puppies in the class are already showing signs of low confidence or emotional conflict then it is worthwhile to offer one session with these owners so that they can work on increasing self-confidence as early as possible and thereby reduce the risk of developing behavioural problems.
Puppy parties can be a fun and rewarding experience for owners, patients and the practice provided that they are run effectively. From a behavioural perspective they offer a unique opportunity to start new owners on the right path in terms of training their puppy and establishing a positive relationship with it. Introducing the principles which influence the way in which dogs learn can help owners to select appropriate training techniques and to be more discerning about suggestions that they may receive from those around them. Surely the aim of every puppy owner is to have a happy and healthy pet that complies with commands so that it is safe and sociable. Achieving this goal is best served by creating a positive and trust filled relationship between owner and pet and fostering a positive approach to the training process.