Know what to ask and look for when choosing the right training class for you and your dog.
Most of us recognize the importance of training our dogs. Positive force-free training teaches dogs the skills they need to live successfully in the human world. It also provides mental and physical stimulation, and strengthens the human/dog bond. But how do you know which training class is right for you and your dog?
Private vs. group classes
Group classes are best suited for dogs that are friendly with other dogs and people. They are usually taught on-leash to ensure every dog’s safety.
If your dog shows any aggression, is very fearful, needs help with specific behaviour problems, or if you simply want one-on-one attention from a professional, then a private class is your best choice. The trainer will set up a behaviour modification plan tailored specifically to your dog’s needs and your training goals.
Where to find classes and trainers
Veterinary offices, pet stores and breeders, as well as animal shelters and Humane Societies, often work with trainers, and may recommend one to you. You may also find a local trainer through a professional dog trainer organization’s website. If you know someone who has worked with a good trainer, ask for a referral.
Classes should allow a maximum of only six to eight dogs unless the instructor has assistants, in which case the number of students may be higher.
Questions to ask the trainer
A professional trainer will encourage you to ask questions. If the trainer shows any reluctance to explain his or her methods, look elsewhere. Good trainers have no secrets and are happy to share their knowledge.
Here are some questions to ask:
What training methods do you use?
The answer should include the terms “force-free”, “positive reinforcement” or “reward-based”, as these describe a positive training ideology.
2. How do you address unwanted behaviours (like jumping or stealing food off the counter)?
In positive training, unwanted behaviours are addressed through prevention and management, and by teaching substitute behaviours. If the trainer’s answer is to punish or discipline the dog, walk away.
3. Are you a certified professional dog trainer?
Dog training is an unregulated profession. This means that literally anyone may call themselves a dog trainer. While certification does not guarantee the trainer is best qualified to train your dog, it shows a certain degree of professionalism. Certified trainers take their jobs seriously and have put in the effort, time and money to complete a dog training program. That being said, be aware that not every certified dog trainer is automatically a positive reinforcement trainer.
4. Do you have experience with my dog’s particular training needs?
Some dogs need an experienced trainer who can deal with problems such as separation anxiety, leash reactivity, resource guarding or aggression. In those cases, private in-home sessions are called for.
5. Can you guarantee a successful outcome?
This is a trick question. The answer should be “no”. Professional trainers can never guarantee the training outcome. Training success depends on many factors — including your dog’s health, his past (training) experience, his daily routine, his environment — and also on your own training skills and commitment.
If at any time you feel uncomfortable with the way the trainer treats you or your dog, speak up. Never allow the trainer to hit, jerk or otherwise hurt or yell at your dog. Intervene immediately and end the session.
It is not uncommon to hold group classes in public parking lots or parks. This can be a good opportunity for training around distractions, but the area has to be safe and clean. Often, a clean indoor space is preferred to allow puppies off-leash play breaks.
What to expect from your first training class
- When you first arrive at a group class, make sure you keep a safe distance of at least 6’ from the other dogs. Prevent any greetings between dogs unless the instructor allows it and demonstrates how to do it safely.
- It’s normal for your dog to be excited and seemingly out of control. At this time, don’t ask him to do anything. Stay calm and wait for him to calm down as well.
- Once he has settled, give him some treats without asking for any behaviours. You are simply creating a positive association with the new place.
- Your dog may not do every behaviour so don’t stress. You are there to learn. This should be a fun time for you and your dog!
How to prepare for your first training class
- If your dog has a lot of energy, exercise him before class but don’t tire him out so much that he sleeps through class. Give your dog the opportunity to go to the bathroom right before class.
- Check that your dog’s collar and harness are secure.
- Carry plenty of familiar high-value treats in a treat pouch. These may include real meats such as chicken, turkey, hamburger or cheese.
- Bring a mat, towel or bed to provide your dog with a comfortable place to relax between training exercises.
- Bring a bowl and water.
- Wear comfortable clothes and non-slip shoes.
Positive and force-free training only!
Positive reinforcement training applies the principles of behavioural science and learning theory, and has been proven to be the safest and most effective training method. It entails the use of food, play, affection and other rewards that motivate your dog.
Physical punishment is never applied. Stay well clear of trainers who recommend hitting, kicking or jerking and/or the use of aversive tools, such as choke, prong and shock collars.
Other red flags are the use of the “alpha roll” and the terms “leash corrections”, “dominance theory” and “pack leader”. These concepts stem from outdated so-called “traditional training” methods. And while “balanced training” may sound nice, it means that both positive reinforcement, as well as physical punishment, are used.
Andrea Gronwald is a certified family dog trainer through Raise with Praise, Inc., owned and operated by Paul Owens, a leading positive dog training expert. She has worked with dogs as a volunteer for two Humane Societies. Andrea and her dog are also part of a volunteer pet therapy program for veterans. She recently started working as a trainer for a local dog training company. Andrea is a strong proponent of positive training methods.