Dog training is a physical skill. You will learn faster and more effectively by searching out a good class. A good instructor can make adjustments based on your needs and your dog's needs. A book or video can't do that. A good instructor can provide instant feedback. A book or video can't provide any feedback. A class can provide you and your dog the opportunity to work with distractions in a controlled environment. A book or video cannot provide that environment.
Here is how I recommend evaluating training classes. Go to the first session and the last session of a class. Make sure you stay for the entire session each time. If it is a group class be sure to note how many people are there for the first session and compare with the number at the last session. Look at the behavior of the dogs and the attitude of the dogs and people. How do the first session and the last sessions compare? Is there an obvious improvement? Do people tend to stick with it? Are the people and dogs happy to be there? Listen to the gatherings before and after class. Are there gatherings? Do people talk to one another? How do the dogs behave? Are you comfortable with the style of instruction and dog handling?
The class is only where you learn how to train. If you don't work on it at home it won't do you much good. Two sessions of five or ten minutes of training on a daily basis will make a lot of difference. So will folding your expectations of polite behavior into everyday life. Many commands can be reinforced in connection with ordinary household activities. You don't like the words "commands"? Ok, use another word. A command is nothing more that teaching the dog the meaning of your words. Teaching the meaning of words involves showing the dog the meaning which includes using it in a variety of situations. I don't care whether you call it teaching words, or teaching commands, but if your dog gets loose and is heading for the street you do want a word that will cause the dog to stop.
Consistency is critical. Don't ask a dog to do something and not follow through. If you want the dog to "leave" you alone - don't say "sit" or "down" unless you are ready to jump up and follow through; instead teach "go away." Be sure to engage in daily bonding activities such as cooperative games, training and grooming or massage.
What type of training should you do? People differ and dogs differ. In my experience putting a label on a method does very little to help you evaluate whether it is appropriate for your dog. Instead I observe its effect on the dog.
My own style is eclectic, based on having dogs with very different personalities, and a heck of a lot of reading. Most of my dog's socially polite behavior is taught by folding it into daily life, instead of very formalized training sessions. I still take classes. I take classes because there is always more to learn, and because the class is a useful environment with controlled distractions, and because someone else can always see better what is going on than can the person involved. I also take classes because they motivate me into the discipline of doing things that my dogs find mentally challenging and stimulating.
The only kind of class I won't take is one in which the instructor either spends a good deal of time denigrating other training methods, or lacks any flexibility in training method. If I don't like what the body language and behavior (together) of my dog is telling me about the effect of the training method then I won't use it.
There are lots of different training books, and quite a few of them seem contradictory. For some people this can be frustrating. I think it is useful to have a book that explains training, even if it doesn't tell you how to train. One useful book to explain training is "Smart Trainers, Brilliant Dogs" by Janet Lewis. Another of my favorites is "Excel-erated Learning by Pamela Reid .
As for finding classes -- check every where. Ask your veterinarian. Ask neighbors and other dog owners. Check the phone book, and your local SPCA, rescure group, or humane society and your local parks and recreation department. Also visit every pet supply shop you can find. Sometimes classes are offered through the schools system as part of adult or continuing education. You may be able to find links that will lead you to good instructors on my behavior page http://www.dogplay.com/Behavior/behavior.htm
Group classes and individual sessions each have their place. Whichever is right for you please watch at least one session before committing yourself. If the trainer won't let you observe find another trainer.
Watch the trainer's interaction with dogs and people. How do the dogs react? How do the humans react? The atmosphere might be serious, but it should not be hostile or unhappy.
How long has this trainer been a professional? How long has the trainer been training in the area YOU need help with?
How was the trainer taught? How many and what types of seminars or continuing education does the trainer go to every year? The trainers trainer can be a big clue as to style and method. Look out especially for trainers who have limited breadth -especially if their experience is narrow what it comes to different breeds, ages or origins of dogs. A trainer who has experience only with well bred dogs may very well be unprepared to deal with the needs of the shelter dog.
What professional organizations does the trainer belong to? Does the organization offer certification? What is required? If the certification doesn't require a significant period of practical hands-on experience its value is limited.
Make sure you are clear on your goals. Competition obedience is not necessarily the best selection for a well mannered pet. Pet manners classes won't prepare you for competition obedience. If you want to compete be sure your trainer has experience and success in that area.
No one knows everything, beware of the trainer who boasts that they can solve your problem no matter what it is. If you want to address a specific behavior problem ask the trainer for references to others with similar problems that trainer has helped. Understand that the trainer can't tell you exactly what the remedial program might be but DO ask for a general outline. Ask questions. If are uncertain ASK. While you should be tactful if something troubles you get an expanation. Don't just give up and don't just give in.
A skilled trainer is flexible, observant and patient. The trainer should be asking you what you want to accomplish, and how you want to accomplish it.
While I don't think even the best book or video can substitute for a good class there are some good resources that will help you get more out of your classes.
Family Friendly Dog Training - A Six Week Program For You And Your Dog by Patricia McConnell
Superpuppy by Peter Vollmer
Really Reliable Recall DVD by Leslie Nelson
Lassie, Come! Dvd by Patricia McConnell
How to Select the Right Program and Trainer for You
Article by Leah Spitzer covering private lessons, board and train, classes and evaluating trainer experience.
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Created: September 17, 1999 Updated January 1, 2008
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