Why Obedience Training Class might not (yet) be the right Choice for your Dog

Almost two years ago we adopted Bobby. At that time he was about 3 to 4 years old. Nobody really knew much about him…he was found on the streets as a little puppy and since than had spend his life in a shelter in Bosnia. We decided to take a basic obedience class where he/we would learn the really simple commands such as ‘sit’ ‘stay’ ‘down’ and ‘heel’. I have read some dog obedience books beforehand but none of them really focused on training adult dogs. Of course, Bobby didn’t know any commands in Dutch and hand signals were also a big mystery for him. An obedience class seemed to be a good way for both of us. I hoped to get some tips and tricks on how to easily train him and he would learn outside with other dogs and maybe even make some friends.
I planned an introductory meeting with a dog trainer to see whether we liked their training methods and whether he thought Bobby would match with one of his training groups. Everything went well and we got assigned to the weekly puppy course. Despite Bobby being older, he knew as much/little as a puppy and his attention span was equally short. Due to his soft and gentle character he wasn’t a ‘thread’ for the small balls of fur (in the end it seemed Bobby who ‘suffered’ most from the little hyper puppys). The classes were given outside on a huge grass field in a group of about 10 to 15 people/dogs. At first I was really looking forward to the obedience classes – being outside with puppys and doing fun stuff with my dog. After the third class however, I realized that this obedience class didn’t work at all for us. Obedience training is a very important and valuable part of dog training and helps bonding with your dog. Therefore, it should take place under the right conditions. The right conditions differ from dog to dog and person to person. You have to find out for yourself under which conditions you can train your dog best and under which conditions your dog learns best. What do you need to feel confident and patience? There were three important aspects, which I have not thought through before I enrolled us to an obedience class:

1. Training in the right setting and location

Training your dogs asks a lot of patience, attention, time and focus. The more skills your dog requires, the better he will become in staying focused during exercises and paying attention to you. However, at the very beginning your dog (puppys especially) will be all over the place, getting distracted by  everything and everyone. In these cases, dog obedience classes in a group setting are far from being ideal. Not only do you have to pay attention to the instructions of the dog trainer, but also control you puppy/dog and keep him focused and engaged. Training outside right at the beginning also is not the most convenient way since it causes even more distraction. Although (obedience) training should also take place in highly distracting environments, it is not wise to start the training under the most difficult circumstances. Classes, outside can be a perfect addition to private/home training, because you can test your dog’s abilities in a safe but distracting environment. So try to think about the right moment..is your dog ready yet to train under distraction or is it better to keep training at home for a while?

In our case, the group setting did not work at all. Bobby got distracted by the other dogs and could not stay focused during the exercises. Our bond was not yet strong enough which made it even more difficult for me. Training outside made the entire experience even worse since he tried to follow all the different smells. Although we trained, next to the weekly obedience class, at home, he was not ready yet to train outside. Therefore, I advice to first start training you dog at home or with a private trainer, to strengthen your bond. When adopting an older dog it can take some time before the dog will trust you and follow you around. Obedience training can strengthen that bond, however you must take it step by step. Your dog should never get bored or annoyed during a training class. Keep him animated and happy. That way, you can both enjoy the training.

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2. Training duration and speed

Younger dogs often have a very short attention span. This is no problem, as long as you take the attention span into account. Obedience training can be fun but also quite a ‘heavy’ exercise. Depending on your dogs’ cognitive abilities he will need more/longer breaks in between training sessions. When training in an obedience class, it might not always be possible to take breaks that suit you and your dog best. Keep in mind that you as a human has to stay focused too during training. When selecting a dog school try to find some information about the content of the classes. Do they have a clear learning strategy and structure or do they think of the lesson content on site? Is there room for individual changes or do you have to follow the lessons strictly?
Give your dog enough breaks in between training sessions to keep the fun, that way he will learn best. During our obedience classes we were not supposed to deviate from the lesson content but we did it anyways. Bobby couldn’t keep his attention with the exercises so I gave him the chance to do something different before we would continue. It makes no sense to force an exercise on your dog when he clearly is not ready yet. There is nothing wrong with taking your time during obedience class. Your dog will feel if you are stressed and act on it.
Try to find an obedience class that suits your dog but also your lifestyle. Will you be able to attend classes every week over the next few weeks? We subscribed to a 12 week obedience training which meant that we had to pay for the 12 weeks regardless whether we followed 12 training sessions or not. Sometimes we didn’t attend a class on purpose because we needed more training time at home. However, that way we lost classes which was a pity, really. Flexible training classes would have been a better solution for us because we could go only when we were ready for the next exercise.

3. Training philosophy

There are lots of dog schools and obedience classes and it is a difficult task to find a good one that suits you and your dog. A first meeting with a dog trainer can give you some insights on their training methods and their philosophy. Taking your dog with you to a first meeting can help you to see how they handle your dog and how your dog reacts to the trainer. I was really happy with the trainer during our first two obedience classes, however we got another trainer after the third week which made me so nervous that Bobby would feel it too. Everytime the woman would stay next to us to see whether I did everything correct, I got so nervous that I couldn’t make Bobby follow me. The moment she would leave, Bobby did everything I said without hesitation. I would never have thought that Bobby would reflect my nervousness and uncertainty during training but other people had the same experience.
Try to explain to the trainer what you expect from the classes and see whether it fits with their program. You can also visit some of their classes beforehand to see how they handle the dogs and set up the exercises. Simple things can become a big problem during dog training so try to observe the lessons as good as possible. Do the instructors answer questions? How do they interact with dogs as well as humans? Being a good dog trainer does not only mean that you understand dogs but can communicate your knowledge to the humans. Does the instructor communicates loudly and harsh or clear and friendly? Does everyone seem to be confused and bored or are dogs as well as humans happy with the class?
What do you think of physical discipline in dog training? Under which conditions do you think it is appropriate or not? Communicate your expectations with the instructor beforehand to see whether you are on the same line.

All in all, dog obedience classes can be a great way of training your dog but don’t expect too much personal instruction/attention. Try to figure out how your dog will learn the best way before enrolling to a obedience class. Don’t feel bad if you start obedience class and stop halfway through. It is better to realize what works and do it good than trying to force something on your and your dog that is not suitable at all. Like humans, dogs learn in several ways and there is no one-fits-all approach. Try to find something that both you and your dog enjoy and do it!

“There’s facts about dogs, and there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions. If you want facts about a dog, always get them straight from the dog. If you want opinions, get them from humans.” (J. Allen Boone)

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