Tami Pierce’s students can be loud, wander off for no reason, roughhouse in class.
They also can be brought to heel by bacon treats, subdued by belly rubs and distracted by squeaky toys.
Pierce teaches Yappy Hour: a puppy socialization program at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
“We know that puppies have a very finite period between 3 weeks and 14 to 16 weeks that they are sort of sponges,” she said last week. “They are at a time where they learn to be a social dog.
“They learn that either things can be really scary or things can be OK. This sets the stage for really their whole lives.”
If that socialization period isn’t utilized, dogs often show up at their vet’s office — or worse, a shelter — brimming with fear and anxiety, which can produce behavior problems. Separation anxiety, for instance, often has its root in noise phobias, she said.
“We feel that this is a really important period in a puppy’s life that we need to intervene as general practitioners to let clients know, this is a time when we need to get your dog out to see people, places, things,” she said.
Yappy Hour started as a once-per-month event for vet student learning. A year ago, the faculty added a curriculum of four one-hour sessions for puppy owners, with new dogs welcomed on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.
To take part, puppies must be 8 to 14 weeks old, have been checked out by a vet, dewormed and received their first DAP (distemper, adenovirus and parvovirus) vaccination.
That last part can provoke some hand-wringing.
“There are a lot of veterinarians that are still telling people you shouldn’t let your puppy out in public until it’s had full vaccinations at 4 months old. We feel strongly that that’s the wrong message,” Pierce said. “More animals die of behavior problems in the United States than die of all the diseases put together.”
Pierce, an assistant clinical professor in small animal community medicine, teaches the program with Melissa Bain, assistant professor of clinical animal behavior; Julie Meadows, community medicine’s section head; and resident veterinarian Liz Stellow.
Veterinary students learning about animal behavior act as teaching assistants, interacting with clients, explaining portions of the evening’s lessons, giving out treats when a wiggly pup sits still for an instant.
The program’s students aren’t really the dogs — but, rather, their earnest, well-behaved owners.
The curriculum covers the basics of socialization, along with a wide array of puppy-owning lessons: safe car travel, choosing a leash and collar and teaching a dog to walk on a leash, house training, coping with biting and jumping, grooming.
The dogs are exposed to different types of flooring, practice going up and down stairs, even riding in elevators. Potentially scary sounds are played for them — lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals — in order to pick out puppies most alarmed by them and begin the process of desensitizing them to the noise.
Vet students (often equipped with cheese-in-a-can) give mock examinations, with the goal of making vet visits less intimidating for the dogs.
Owners are also taught some overarching philosophies, beginning with positive, reward-based training.
“Clients tend to inadvertently reinforce a lot of the behaviors that their dogs do,” Pierce said. “A lot of it is counterintuitive, what we’re teaching: ignoring bad behavior, praising good behavior — that’s our mantra.
“Having kids, having pets — it’s difficult to ignore bad behavior, but it does work. We try to use that as our first line of treatment.”
Another key concept: “Nothing in life is free.”
“It’s basically the idea except for air or water, everything is an earned resource: walks, attention, food, treats, playtime — everything is earned by the puppy. We teach them to do something to get something,” Pierce said.
Because there are only four one-hour sessions, the bulk of the work falls to the owners. They’re given handouts to pore over, including a two-page checklist of suggested situations, sounds, places, surfaces to which to expose their puppy.
“I tell clients to do what they’re going to do in their life,” Pierce said. “So if they go to Tahoe every week, they should take their puppy to Tahoe with them and get them used to the car and get them used to the routine. That way, the puppy will be acclimated to their lifestyle.”
One of three puppies at last week’s class was Scout, a 3-month-old black Lab mix whose small body, long legs and big feet seemed almost unable to hold his energy, with owner John Thomson of Davis and his children, Julia, 10, and Andrew, 8, trying to keep up.
Tuesday was John’s first class. His wife, Krista, had brought Scout and the kids previously. He said that Yappy Hour (a “parenting class,” he called it) had given the family a common set of tools, so that everyone managed Scout’s behaviors in the same way.
He asked Pierce about what to do with Scout on a walk. “He wants to be a sled dog,” John said.
When Scout pulls, stop walking; then, when he gives up pulling, go forward, Pierce suggested. Or try changing direction altogether.
After class, Andrew and Julia said their puppy was better controlling his urge to leap up on people.
“Whenever Scout’s not behaving well, he should just sit — because that’s the command he’s learned the best,” Julia said. “He didn’t know how to do anything (at the beginning). He jumped on everyone. But then he learned if you sit at someone’s feet, you get a treat.”
Pierce said she hoped to see well-adjusted, confident dogs after four weeks: dogs that can play nicely with others, respond to basic commands, walk on a leash and have the an effective bond with their humans.
That comes from giving clients the resources and skills they need, she said.
Pierce recommends that clients continue with some kind of training for their dogs when they complete the program, when their pets receive a diploma and get their picture taken.
“Having a puppy is a lot of fun, but it also is such a short time to get a lot done — getting the puppy house-trained and learn how to walk on a leash and be socialized,” Pierce said. “The clients we see, a lot of them aren’t sleeping initially. It’s like having a new child.
“We try to encourage them and give them a little pep talk: It’s going to be all right, you’re doing everything right. A lot of clients are very worried that they’re going to do something wrong. They’re so genuine and sweet, they really want to do the right thing. We’re there to give them that encouragement.”
The cost to attend the program is $80. To register, call 530-752-9811.
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden