Before I became a professional dog trainer, I sat through countless hours of classes with my pet dogs: agility, herding, obedience, rally, puppy classes — you name it. Most of my own dogs have been rescues and came to me with unique behaviors, to say the least. But I was discouraged by most of the classes I took. Why? They were boring, for me and for my dog. They also often failed to address the real-life problems I experienced with my dogs.
Two of my Border Collie rescues, for example, were nearly feral as puppies. I took them to a big box-store puppy class, because I knew socializing and training them around other dogs was crucial. My shy dogs were overwhelmed and not ready for a public class, but the trainer didn’t tell me that, and back then I couldn’t recognize it. One of the dogs drooled the entire miserable hour and another tried to sink through the concrete floor. Neither accepted training treats. We flooded them — overwhelmed their senses and shut them down — and succeeded in teaching them that it is scary to be in public places.
My dogs can handle a pet store much better now, but I rarely ask them to endure it because it left emotional scars on them. I asked for my money back, but the big box store trainer said there were no refunds.
When I teach dog training classes now, I keep in mind what it feels like to be a student, handling what might be a very rowdy dog or a very shy dog or even your first dog. I always schedule a pre-interview with clients to make sure both owner and dog are ready for a class. If they aren’t, we do private lessons until the dog is ready to attend a class.
I also do something I learned from an earlier business career, which I have never seen another dog trainer do: I ask attendees to fill out an anonymous form and share with me what they loved and didn’t love about my class. Most of the time, I get good reviews, but when I don’t, I take the feedback seriously and address the concerns head-on.
Here are the top eight ideas and practices my clients have asked me to incorporate into my training classes:
1. Make the training room more realistic
Set it up with a couch, a kitchen table, and a real door with a real doorbell. People live in real homes, after all, and you need to know what to do if your dog is annoying people when you sit on the couch or greeting people at the door with jumping and licking.
2. Tell the class it’s okay to take a time-out
During class, if your dog’s behavior is over the top — or he is triggered “over threshold” and is unable to learn while stressed — the trainer should tell you that it’s perfectly fine to step out of the classroom for as long as it takes the dog (and sometimes you) to recover.
3. Allow dogs to have their distance
The hard stare from one dog to another is the beginning point of an unwanted canine reaction. Teach owners that dogs of any age won’t enjoy sitting too close to other dogs and just staring at one another. Ask owners to bring high-quality chew toys. Use partitions to block the stare when needed.
4. Limit class sizes
It isn’t productive to have more dogs and handlers in a class than one instructor can give individual attention to when it is needed. One trainer can most likely handle five teams, which allows for ample instruction to all class members.
5. Ask what the attendees want to learn
This is a biggie: Devote the last 15 to 30 minutes of each class to class suggestions. You might not be interested in teaching your dog a five-minute down stay, but you do want to know how to bring the groceries in from the car without your dog jumping up to investigate what is in each bag.
6. Teach real-world skills
Dog-to-dog greetings are difficult for many pet owners. You might have a shy dog you want to protect or an easily excited dog who is too exuberant when meeting new dogs or people. We instructors need to teach everything we know about the subtleties of canine language and what warning or stress signs look like.
7. Remember that owners often take their dogs’ behavior personally
People come to classes genuinely hoping to help their dogs. If you take your dog to a professional trainer, you deserve kudos, because you are in the minority, by far. I’ve heard estimates that as few as 7 percent of dogs receive professional training.
People are often disappointed when their dogs don’t make friends. Many owners feel that all dogs will love all dogs. This is not true, just as we humans do not love every human we meet. The best teachers have empathy, compassion, and preparedness for their students, be they canine or human.
8. Make learning FUN
Play games! Be silly and relaxed, and your classes will be, too. I hope the days where we stand in front of our pooches and scream “SIT!” over and over are long gone.
Now, for dog owners: You have your homework, too!
Once you have decided to attend a class, do the research and make sure your trainer actually is a positive-reinforcement trainer. Learning should not physically hurt your dog.
You also need to practice what you learn in class. It is not reasonable to expect your dog to learn everything in a one-hour class once a week. (And yes, your dogs do tell us which of you have been practicing and which have not!) If you spend just ten minutes three times a day working with your dog, you will be amazed at your pet’s retention and abilities.
Don’t just train at home. Reach out to your trainer if something doesn’t make sense to you or is not working. Bottom line: be proactive.
After listening for years to what dog owners tell me they want from behavior classes, I know we trainers can all do a better job meeting their needs. We must teach effectively and fairly, which means asking ourselves how we can improve classes and taking some of the responsibility for the dismal lack of owners attending classes with their dogs. Are you listening to your students? Or are you only telling them? Try listening. The owners –- and their dogs -– will thank you.
As for you students out there: Tell your trainers what you want to get out of the class. It’s made a world of difference in my practice.
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