There are plenty of options out there for dog training. Literally any one can call themselves a dog trainer and conduct lessons or classes its important to figure out the best trainer and training type for your dog. I am not going to focus on how to pick the right trainer, though I do recommend utilizing the expertise of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (http://CCPDT.org) and interviewing any trainer that you are considering working with. Here, I will focus on the purpose of group classes and how to determine what is best for you and your dog. I don’t think I need to state it, but obviously we recommend training for every puppy and dog at any stage of life (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/why-hire-a-trainer/).
The first thing to consider when determining the best training program for you and your pup is what are your goals? Are you trying to learn how to train your dog, teach your dog new skills that you feel comfortable with yourself, generalize behaviors you have already taught, socialize with other dog owners, or use dog training equipment unavailable at home?
Once you’ve determined your goals, we can start to determine whether group classes are a good fit for you and your dog. There are many types of group class available today, but essentially a group class involves multiple owner-dog teams working in one space with one instructor. Group classes can range from puppy level classes with all inexperienced dogs, to competition level agility and obedience with highly exacting teams. While a lot depends on the instructor and the facility, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to enroll in a group class, such as any training has the potential to lead to great growth or harm.
So, when is a group class a good idea and when is it not?
If you are trying to learn how to teach your dog a skill set from scratch or you are interested in learning how to train, you may not want to join a group class. Group classes where the dogs and owners are both somewhat inexperienced can be hectic and overly distracting. Remember all training should incorporate distance, duration and distraction slowly to help generalize behaviors. Throwing in too much of any of these variables can cause frustration and lead to imperfect training (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/dogs-generalizing/). You don’t want to end up in a situation where you are trying to learn and teach at the same time, it is almost like the blind leading the blind and neither you, nor your dog, will benefit. On the other hand, observing a class without your dog present is a good way to learn how to teach the behavior so that when you do have your dog out to work, you can focus all of your attention on them.
If you have already taught your dog certain behaviors but would like to generalize them utilizing the distraction of other dogs, you may want to look into a higher level group class. In a class of more experienced dog-owner teams, the dogs are more focused on their owners and you can utilize the instructor while focusing on working through skills you are already comfortable with. For example, if you and your dog have already worked through basic duration, distance, and controlled distractions with a down-stay at home, a class may be a great place to increase your distraction level while lowering your distance and duration criteria. This is also a good option for teams looking to use agility or obedience equipment that they do not have space for at home.
Renting out a training space with equipment is another great option if you are comfortable with the skills but need the space to practice. If you are looking to socialize with other dog owners, don’t put your training on the line. Training around other people does not really leave you time to socialize. You should be focused on your own footwork or reward rate and on your dog’s performance. Meetup.com © (http://meetup.com) is a great place to find other dog owners looking to arrange play dates or even go out on a walk with your dogs. These are purely social events and until you and your dog have a lot of training experience under your belt, you should spend training time focused on training.
What about puppies? Don’t puppies need to socialize in a group class?
Well, to be perfectly blunt- no. Most puppy classes try to focus on obedience skills, which leads to a lot of frustrated puppies and owners. Some classes will even use a visual barrier to try to keep a puppy focused on the owner. This is not really socialization and allowing a free-for-all group play session at the end is not really appropriate socialization either. These puppies clearly do not have a strong foundation in skills so there is no reason to frustrate them with high level distractions, as this leads to a very weak foundation and can even teach reactivity or fear as a side effect. Appropriate puppy classes do not focus on obedience commands, but rather socialization and exposure to people, objects, other puppies and even well-behaved and tolerant adult dogs.
Can you mix obedience commands into this type of class?
Yes, of course. However, it should not be the focus or even 75% of the class. If you have ever experienced a pet store style training class, you might now be realizing how ineffective they are (way too high distraction level, too small a training space, not enough focus on experiential socialization, etc.). Proper puppy classes allow puppies in their critical social period (birth-16 weeks) to accumulate as many positive experiences as possible and assist the owners with the adjustment of having a puppy. Other appropriate socialization options are daycare, taking the puppy out and about to all sorts of new places, etc.
What if group classes are not the right option? What type of training is best for you?
Private lessons are one option. This type of training comes in two flavors if you will: sessions where a trainer works one-on-one with your dog and sessions with you and your family learning to work with your dog. If you are looking to learn how to train your dog or looking to teach your dog a new skill set, this is a great option as it can be focused and tailored to meet your needs and skill level. Some of these lessons may be more conversational to cover basic information or to work through training concepts with you, some may be more active with skills being taught. Private lessons are completely free-form and customizable. The only down side is for more experienced dogs looking to generalize or work under high distractions. In this case, a private lesson may need to be conducted in a public space, which can be inconvenient and potentially less predictable. If you opt for any training where you are not present (daycare and train, board and train, etc.) be very sure that you fully understand the methods used and trust the trainer you are working with. Be leery of extravagant promises or too-good-to-true guarantees.
Essentially, group classes do have their place in the world of dog training and can be a viable option for people looking to work with their dogs in a more challenging environment or with unique equipment. Unfortunately, most people who take a group class are there for the wrong reasons and do not get to accomplish their goals. It is very important to have a plan when you approach training with your dog: what you are looking to gain and what the best way to go about it is.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator