Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Choosing a dog training class to meet your goals

As a professional dog trainer I try to offer a variety of options to my clients. Let’s discuss what works, what doesn’t and how to get the best results for your family.

Dog training is a skill that most people don’t have. Professional trainers have spent thousands of dollars and years of their lives learning this art and science so it’s important to consult a professional.

Now you’ve managed to find a number of positive reinforcement and experienced professionals to choose from. In the Calgary area there are so many. Now what class should you take?

Well truth be told there’s no perfect answer for this. You have to take a look at a few factors:

  1. Can your family commit to a weekly time/day for at least 6 weeks? Most group classes require participants to come every week for that period of time. Missing a class makes it very hard for you to get the full understanding of basic skills.
  2. Does your dog handler suffer from any disabilities that would make a class environment overwhelming or hard? (examples would be anxiety, hear impairment, etc).
  3. Is there someone to watch the kids and a person to handle the dog? Most group classes need at least 2 adults to accommodate children being there. Don’t try to watch the kids and train your dog. It rarely works out for the dog or yourself.
  4. Does your dog suffer from fear, aggression, hyper activity? A private training session should always be your first step.
  5. How old is your dog? Some young puppies do a lot better with training at home and going to puppy play classes to socialize. A combination can work wonders.
  6. How much experience do you have when it comes to dogs? If you have questions about everything than a private training session can bring you the answer you need. Most instructors have a limited ability to cover material outside of the curriculum in a group environment.

Those are just a few factors that can impact your success with training your dog. Let’s look at the options:

Indoor group class
Russ practicing heeling at a rally practice indoors.

This is the route that the majority of families choose for dogs or puppies without severe behavior concerns. It can be an excellent way to train your dog but you must practice outside of class times. You need to make sure you set aside 10-20 minutes daily to practice (minimum). It’s also a good idea to find out the size of a group class beforehand; 6 dogs is a good amount but more than that can be overwhelming for a beginner and the instructor will have limited time for questions. Indoor group classes can also limit how well your dog listens to you outside or at home. This is where the practice everywhere mantra needs to play in. Be strict with yourself and take your dog out and about to practice what you’re learning in class. It’s important to note that even professional trainers won’t have a perfect dog after only 6 weeks in a group class. Training is a lifelong commitment and many families need more than 1 set of classes.

Outdoor group class
Outdoor class at the C Train station.

This option works great for families who love to be outside with their dogs and have the patience to handle distraction training. I recommend taking an indoor class first OR having a few private sessions under your belt. The exception to this is that many puppies (4 months and under) can do exceptionally well outside as they are still very owner focused at that age. Make sure your dog is up to date on vaccines before you start. Considerations for group classes outdoor include checking class size and making sure you have time to practice.

I offer an outdoor group class that has two times a week and is run on a drop in style. This can work well for people on shift work, vacation plans, and need some flexibility. The commitment to practice is still required though.

In Home Training or Private Training
Two awesome jack russels who have enjoyed private training with Where's Your Sit.

For many of my clients private training delivers the best results. It’s flexible, can accommodate families and moves at your own pace. In home training also allows serious behavior problems like aggression or fear to be addressed. It’s down side is that it is definitely pricier.

The benefits are huge as the trainer is focused only on you and your dog’s needs and goals. You’ll learn what’s relevant for your lifestyle and move through the steps at your dog’s pace instead of rushing through it in just six weeks.

Some dogs benefit from having both in home and group classes. The combination of both allows your dog and you to learn the skills first and then practice around other dogs.

Board and Train
This little Goldendoodle had both private, in home training and some pet sitting where she polished up her skills.

This is the option where you send your dog away for a period of time and in theory he comes home completely trained for you. Board and train can work in certain circumstances but to be honest it’s less than ideal. It works well for people who cannot develop the mechanical skills necessary to train a dog (in home training can be a solution for this though). It rarely works for people who are simply “too busy” as your dog will return home and the routine of daily training will be gone.  Your dog would definitely need to be gone for an extended period of time and you need to commit a good amount of time and follow up with the trainer and your dog to ensure a smooth transition. A better option for be for the trainer to come you several times a week and train your dog while you are there watching and learning.

Which option for you?

Well truth be told there isn’t a magic formula. The best behaved dogs belong to owners who are committed to training them and spend time learning about their dog. When I’m working with my own dogs I follow this line of though:

  • What’s currently available for group classes (types of classes, times, length, instructors). If there’s a class that will benefit my dog and I can fit it in then I attend. An example of this would be when Marco was a puppy I didn’t need to take him to class to learn how to train him but I did want him to be exposed to a class environment. I enrolled us both in a Canine Good Neighbour class with a trainer I admired. This allowed him to practice his obedience in a new place.
  • What does my dog need? When I adopted Remi she was really scared so a busy group class would be overwhelming for her. Luckily enough I could take care of the in home training myself. In addition to working on confidence boosting at home I also found a small sized fearful dog class for her to attend. The combination of these efforts worked great.
  • What would I like to achieve? When Marco was a puppy I knew I wanted him to compete in dog sports. My goals were Rally Obedience and Agility. Because these goals were important to me I selected group classes that would advance that desire such as Canine Good Neighbour, Formal Obedience, Intro to Agility, etc. If you want your dog to participate in dog sports than research what’s available for puppies or young dogs in the beginner level. If your goals include having your dog do volunteer work with you than at bare minimum you need a beginner obedience class followed up by a Canine Good Neighbour class.
  • How can I practice in as many places as possible? My dogs take classes with numerous trainers in Calgary. WHY? Because it exposes us both to new places and new ideas. I highly recommend expanding your practice base outside of just 1 building.
Hopefully this will help you explore your class options. Another way to check things out is to call or email the trainer you’d like to work with, explain your goals and ask their opinions. Trainers should always be open to letting you watch them teach a class or giving you references.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Protect Your Dog

In recent months my Aussie Marco has had a hard time being at the dog park. His herding drive seems to have increased dramatically and he assumes new dogs are his for the chasing. Marco’s style of chase includes lunging over the top of a dog and also nipping at their back paws and legs. While he is not overtly aggressive and causing visible injuries it is inappropriate behavior and scares the other dog. I’ve been working diligently with him so that he can learn to play again. Strangely enough this behavior for Marco is linked only to the dog park and usually large breed dogs. If I introduce him at home he is appropriate. He also use to have some of the best dog social skills I had ever seen so I was fairly certain with time, patience and lots of training he would overcome this.

 (Marco at a Rally Obedience trial which helps fine tune obedience skills)

Luckily Marco’s play skills have come back but I take some preventative measures. Marco needs to keep focused on me in a sit or down or moving heel when a dog is approaching. He is not allowed to charge them. If the dog seems like a “target” he would usually try to herd then he cannot go play until he has truly calmed down and preformed a nice curving greeting.
A few weeks ago we were practicing at Southland when a large retriever approached. Marco has a hard time with retrievers so he was waiting in his down stay while my other dogs went over to say hi. The dog hung out with them and we had no issues. When the couple who owned the retriever came over the lady asked why Marco couldn’t play. I said because he tries to herd larger dogs and we’re working on this behavior issue. She promptly said I don’t mind if they play rough. This took me back in all honesty. My response was that I did mind and that her dog could get hurt. She didn’t seem to think anything bad could happen from my slightly smaller dog tackling hers.

Needless to say Marco didn’t get to play with that dog. He was an older guy who had interactively positively with everyone else and didn’t need a maniac Aussie hanging off his back. He also never approached Marco on his own for a sniff greeting so I took that to mean that he didn’t want to meet Marco.

What I learned from this is that most people don’t understand what appropriate play is. And this isn’t the first time this has happened with Marco. A gentleman with an Airedale had the same response. I find this disconcerting. Marco looks pretty innocent by nature. He is a mostly white dog with startling blue eyes. He is around 45lbs and fluffy. He can get away with murder except I’m not fooled. I’m attempting to do two things by working with him at the park. The first is restoring appropriate social skills and the second is keeping everyone else’s dog safe. I don’t understand why the owner of the dog at risk would be alright with Marco hurting them.

You need to protect your dog. This means if you see a dog coming that looks like trouble then go the other way. By trouble I mean: out of control, distance increasing barking (those barks that make you want to back up), snapping, crazy chasing or roughhousing, mounting and other undesirable behavior. This has nothing to do with breed for the record but the individual dog. I also check out the owners… are they paying attention, interacting with their dog, pausing to reward at times, etc. If they aren’t then I am out of there or my dogs are in stays with me. I’m responsible for their wellbeing because they can’t be. Just like if you have your kids at the playground you need to pay attention and would stop another child from hurting them. Dog parks are unruly places that really need a bylaw officer presence but don’t seem to have it. So take some responsibility and do right by your dog. Rough play with a stranger dog is never okay. Two dogs that know each other well can have a slightly more aggressive style and still be able to calm themselves down (within reason) but a strange dog will not have that relationship with your dog.

Pay attention to your dog and keep him/her safe. It’s your job as your dog’s guardian.