We met Rose Humphreys in 2013 when Bella went to her puppy school. It is thanks to Rose that Bella got into Agility years later.
Q. Rose you have the oldest puppy school in the Helderberg, please could you tell us a bit more about your puppy school.
A. Rose’s Puppy School is designed for pups starting when they are under 4 months old, preferably from 8/9 weeks old. The first 12 -16 weeks of a pup’s life is the critical socialisation time. The window of opportunity that exists for introducing novelty of any sort easily into a dog’s life begins to close around 16 weeks of age and even earlier for some breeds. As pups have not had all their vaccinations yet, it is difficult to introduce novel experiences into their lives. The puppy school concept is to bring a few pups (no more than 6) into a safe environment to carefully introduce them to other pups and sometimes an older dog or two, new people, new ways of moving, noises and surfaces with lots of fun and treats to gently help them discover that the human world is not as confusing or scary as they may have thought.
At the same time, their humans are taught to understand them better and scientifically based methods for teaching and managing this alien species they have brought home. All our training uses positive reinforcement methods.
It is a 6 week course of one hour a week, although that can be more flexible since I’ve moved to an online format for now.
Over the 22 years, I have added, subtracted, tweaked and developed new ways of ‘doing’ puppy school, although the core methods and principles remain. The latest addition to my classes has been the incorporation of games-based training which works on teaching dogs concepts like calmness, attention, optimism, enjoying being close and handled etc. This has been the most dynamic change in years and my clients love the way building concepts creates a more balanced dog.
Q. What made you decide to start a puppy school?
A. There were a few converging things that, over time, led to Rose’s Puppy School and helped me develop it. Firstly, although my post-school qualification is veterinary nursing, once I married a vet and moved to the Helderberg, it became difficult to work as one as it was considered to not be a good idea for spouses to work in the same practice. So I worked in other fields but missed the animals! I started training my German Shepherd for working trials and met an animal behaviourist who suggested starting a puppy school in our area as there were none here and only a couple in Cape Town. I was lucky to be mentored by one of the behaviourists running courses in the Cape and started my own in 1998. In about 2005 I came across a national training group, ThinkingPets, who were offering a course in puppy school training. I did their Puppy 1 and 2 courses, which meant that I not only had a qualification (not that anyone ever asks!) but I confirmed that I was on the right track with my knowledge and methods plus I learnt so much more! Although I work alone, I now have colleagues in the same field all over and that has been so helpful and encouraging.
For the last 2 years, I have been doing an online course to learn the games-based training methods via a UK company, AbsoluteDogs.
Q. Do you have any of your puppies that go into agility like Bella? Even if it’s only years later?
A. A few have gone into agility, Pets as Therapy, trail running, IPO working trials, showing or gun dog work. Some have completed Canine Good Citizen levels. I wish more people would get into doing more with their dogs, it seems such a waste of our dogs’ brains and abilities to just have couch potatoes. Agility is especially fun and active and most dogs enjoy it.
Q. You have quite a lot of experience with training, what other training have you been involved in the past?
A. For many years, I trained and showed our German Shepherd Dogs. The working trials (known as Schutzhund then and IPO now) we did were for tracking, obedience and protection work. I was fortunate in my first dog in that her superb temperament took us to national level competition and we were even reserves for the first South African team to compete in the World Schutzhund Trials held in Switzerland in 1997. It was really a case of the right dog at the right time, although I knew so little then! I went on to be a training supervisor at our GSD club for years.
Although not training related, another side of my love for animals led us to breed a couple of litters of Jack Russells, 2 litters of GSDs, and several Burmese cat litters. I absolutely loved being a midwife and bringing up the babies correctly but hated sending them off to new homes.
Since my working life meant less time for training, I have not competed seriously for a long time. However, our Schnauzer x Spaniel, Baggins, needed something to keep that busy brain and body occupied so I trained at agility with him for 3 years. Now I do trick training classes with him which suits his temperament better.
Q. You are currently doing trick training with your dog Baggins, is there any other training that you are involved in?
A. No, just having fun teaching him tricks and keeping my training skills up! It is a good idea for trainers to keep training their own dogs in some way as that prevents them from becoming stale and theoretical. Since Baggins arrived, I have learnt so much more as he is a very different dog to the GSDs and Jack Russells! Just yesterday I realised that I need to spend some time reminding him of the basics of attention and lead walking as he is getting really sloppy – so it’s time for a refresher for him and I. I may still enter him for trick dog competitions.
Q. A lot of small businesses struggled now with the lockdown, did you manage to find an alternative to continue with your puppy classes?
A. I’ve moved online! Just a handful of clients but I hope it will grow.
Although at first it may seem an oxymoron to run socialisation classes online as no dog-dog or dog-person interaction is possible, there are so many other aspects to the loose term ‘socialisation’ that I am excited about. Dogs also need to get used to other novel things like noises, strange getups (hats, sunglasses, sticks), surfaces, movement, etc. All the other aspects of the course can easily be taught via an online platform, with my demonstrating with my dogs and clients working with theirs plus all the information they would get in a ‘real’ class.
There are several silver linings to this cloud called COVID-19 that has forced us to go digital. My clients can live anywhere (I even have one in the UK), I can work one-on-one more easily, clients do not need to travel, we can more flexible with time as I can work indoors with lights and, for the same reason, we are not weather dependent.
Of course, our pups need to experience the big wide world as soon as possible but we can tick several boxes at home and prepare them for that. It also gives clients time to improve their handling skills and understand their dogs better before the excitement of a distracting environment becomes the reality.
Q. This is quite an important question, a lot of people (like myself) think they can train their puppy themselves, why is it so important to bring a puppy to puppy school?
A. Many people have brought up a dog before and some even know enough to use positive reinforcement methods. However, if it is 10 years plus since you last trained a dog, chances are you are using old fashioned, unscientific methods that need updating as we now understand far more about dogs’ brains and how they learn best.
As I’ve explained, there is much more to puppy school than just straight obedience. Obedience training does not prepare your dog for coping in the human world, it literally only teaches them specific positions on command.
The socialisation side of puppy school is invaluable and irreplaceable as, once the 16 weeks are up, you have lost the best time for it. Some dogs are happy-go-lucky and take life in their stride regardless but many dogs are on either side of that happy middle ground.
Some are excitable and need to learn self-control and how to harness their energy and enthusiasm, some are scared of everything and need to be carefully introduced to novelty to gain confidence and optimism. Some dogs are scared of other dogs and act aggressively or they do not like approaching strangers or being touched and handled. And their people are generally ignorant of how to teach any of that. Although people who miss out on the puppy school stage do often take their dogs to older dog training, they have missed the most effective foundation stage for changing how a dog sees and responds to his world. Training older dogs usually focuses more on obedience training and so the owner and dog have missed out.
Finally, the special time spent in puppy school, just focussing on the pup for an hour and then doing ‘homework’ builds such a strong bond between dog and human. And that, ultimately, is what I love about my job!