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Puppy preschool preaches patience

Like any preschoolers, they seemed a little apprehensive about meeting their classmates.

But once they went nose to nose, the six puppies _ ranging from 11 weeks to six months old _ contentedly wagged their tails and barked.

The dogs and their owners had come to the Seminole Recreation Center last week for the first full session of Puppy Preschool.

"You might say we're Muffin's "aunts,' " said Grace Allen, accompanied by her sister, Marilyn Littlefield, and a little black dog, a Yorkie/terrier/poodle mix, owned by a roommate.

As she ran around the room making friends, Muffin _ who is 5 months old and weighs 5 pounds _ could barely contain her exuberance, falling down on the slippery, tiled floor and wagging her tail a mile a minute.

Then Maria Praias, a Madeira Beach dog trainer and owner of Dog Gone Positive, took command of the six-week class, which is being offered for the first time at Seminole's rec center.

"I noticed in most cases, the owner is on one side of the leash and the dog is about 6 feet away," Praias said. "Tonight, we're going to try to change that behavior."

Praias then demonstrated the proper way to walk the dog by wrapping one end of the leash around her hand several times, thus shortening the leash. With a clicker in hand and some doggy treats in her pocket, she took turns with the dogs.

"This clicker is not an attention-getter. It is to mark good behavior when the dog has stopped to look up at you," said Praias, 30. "It is important for you to understand that you are now part of a pack . . . and you are the leader. This class is about you gaining leadership. Otherwise, your dog is in control."

When the dogs needed a break, Praias told the owners to let them socialize. "Look for a happy wagging of the tail. If they're getting too nosy around each other, pull them back."

Largo resident Brandy Fetter and his daughter, Alyssa, 11, said they came to learn how to keep their dog, Sam, from biting things. The puppy, about 13 to 14 weeks old, is a yellow Labrador with papers.

"He chews on everything in the house, including the couches," Fetter said.

Praias, a former New Yorker who has been training dogs in the Tampa Bay area for more than two years, said her goal is to help people have pets they can live with and enjoy.

"In this class, there is no yelling, no stress, no saying "no.' Just positive reinforcement," she said.

Other sessions will include basic manners such as learning to stay, sit and come to the owner; housebreaking; learning to enjoy visits to the veterinarian, good nutrition and more. Praias also has another class, doggy college, for older dogs.

Before dismissing the class, Praias repeated her cardinal rule: "From now on, everyone has to clean up after themselves. Please bring your own supplies, including plastic bags. We are so lucky to have an indoor facility and we don't want to abuse that."

The Puppy Preschool

For information about the Puppy Preschool, call 391-8345.