As a novice dog owner it can be more than a little daunting looking for good place to take dog training classes. So often it seems people just pick somewhere close to home, or that a friend or co-worker has recommended. While that may be a great place to start I think if you are willing to take a few extra steps it can pay huge dividends!
Most trainers will teach the basic skills your dog will need in life (i.e. sit, down, stand, come, leave it, and stay). So what’s the difference? Well, a good puppy class will help with socialization to people and other puppies, create a positive association with training for your puppy, help develop a strong bond between both of you, and detect any early warning signs in the puppy’s behaviour so they can be addressed right away – before becoming a big problem. Most importantly a good class will train your puppy faster, which is the whole point to taking the class!
So where do we start, well if you live in a big city and you’ve ever Googled dog trainers in your area, you’ve probably realized there are a LOT of dog trainers out there. Calling yourself a professional dog trainer doesn’t take anything other than hanging your shingle, so it can be a little daunting as a novice owner to figure out who really knows their stuff. Rather than research all 100 people we need a quick way to narrow down our selection.
Finding Potential Classes
If you know some people involved in the local dog community who competes with their dogs, or are enrolled in training classes, ask them where they would recommend. Your vet will likely also have a referral. Many local rescues also offer a variety of classes. If your breeder is local they may also have suggestions as to where you could take classes. I’d also look at the trainers directory of a few of the professional dog trainer associations: The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers, Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and Karen Pryor Academy are a few of the better known ones. You can also look at which training centers are sponsoring local expos, competitions, rescue’s, or on air at your local TV station. Hopefully, after doing this search you have a list of maybe 20-30 people or facilities to research. I’d try to group them into a top 10 listing of those you’ve heard good things about or seen from a few different sources to start with. You can always come back to this list if none of your further research works out.
Reward Based Training
Look for classes that promote reward based training (can also be called positive reinforcement training), and rule out any that promote physical corrections. Some people associate reward based training with “bribing” with food, however this food based training is often used simply because it is the most effective and quickest way to train dogs in a class setting. Reward based training is what is encouraged by all major veterinary associations, dog training associations, animal behavioural science programs, animal trainers, and humane societies. Being that it is also the quickest and most effective training method it seems the clear answer to me. So I would steer clear of any trainer or facility that does not endorse similar policies.
Certifications & Knowledge
As dog training is an unregulated profession, there is no single certification a trainer must attain before offering classes. There are multiple certification bodies all with vastly different qualifications, teaching, and testing requirements. As a newbie it can be a little overwhelming trying to decipher what all these initials mean! The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has provided this handy reference sheet on what the certifications stand for and who issues them. This can be a great way to go through your “short” list of trainers while looking at who their certification is with, what they require to attain certification, and what methods it encourages its members to use. Generally speaking, I would look for an instructor that belongs to at least one of the main associations. Preferably one that requires minimum training hours, or skill and knowledge testing. This isn’t a guarantee that they will be a good instructor, but most of the associations have reasonable code of conduct policies that its members are supposed to follow. So it’s a good start.
If someone doesn’t hold any certifications, I wouldn’t necessarily rule them out, especially if they are competitors in some dog event, sport, or competition and frequently place well. However, I would look for someone that has many years of dog training under their belt, and again someone that advertises reward based training.
Regardless of whether they are certified or not I would look to see if they regularly seek out learning opportunities to increase their knowledge or skills. Look for someone that often attends lectures, workshops or seminars, or takes classes with their own dogs.
Attend A Class
Hopefully the above suggestions narrow down your field of potential classes to 3-5 that sound most promising to you. I think if you do nothing else, you need to go audit a class from each of the top trainers you are considering. Please be considerate and ask them ahead of time if it is ok to attend and watch one of their classes. In my view the answer should always be “yes, you are welcome to come watch anytime”. However, they might suggest another night so you can see the puppies earlier on – or towards the end of a series – depending on what you’ve outlined as wanting to see or your concerns. Or they may limit how many people can watch per class, so again please just ask ahead. If their answer is “no” you can never attend, move on and look at the next facility. There should be nothing in class that they wouldn’t want you to see.
If you’ve never done puppy class before, watching can give you a great idea of what to expect; and give you a refresher on what puppies are all about! More importantly however it gives you a feel for the class structure and trainer. Is the trainer professional when dealing with the owners, are they gentle with the puppies, do they get results, and are the people and puppies having fun? At some point prior to attending class they have told you (or stated on a website or ad) that they use reward based training, are they? Is there anything owners are being asked to do that bothers you? If it is at a large training facility or pet shop, do you get the same instructor every class? Ask, how many puppies are allowed to enroll in each class (4-6 is usually a good number per instructor).
Equally important is whether this someone you click with? Would you be comfortable asking questions during class? Would it be someone you could call and book a private session with if you are struggling with your puppy or if they are showing behavioural concerns?
Location often seems to be the #1 reason people pick a training facility or class, but I would suggest that it is well worth it to drive a little further to attend a class you will enjoy and be successful in. If you aren’t comfortable working with the trainer, and aren’t having success in training your puppy it doesn’t matter if the training center is 10 minutes away or 90 minutes away you will likely stop attending.
When I got Tess I went through this basic process, I came up with four classes to attend. They all met my minimum requirements of being reward based and having some form of certification and experience.
The first class was the closest to me, and a large training center offering a variety of different classes. They had the largest number of puppies in class compared to the others I audited. From memory (always questionable!), I would guess 15+ puppies. The format was one main trainer with a few assistant instructors helping. So, I would say the ratio of puppies to instructors was the same. Some of the puppies in class were doing very well, some did pretty good, and one or two was doing poorly. I believe the main instructor was the same every week, but the assistants would change; I wasn’t crazy about that. There were two puppies in this class that really stuck out to me, one was a fearful deer hound who was shut down in class. He wouldn’t take food, look to his owner, or move in any way. While the instructor did come around to provide some training the owner could do at home, I felt that they failed that puppy and owner. The owner was getting nothing out of those classes. The puppy was too overwhelmed by the activity and number of dogs and people in class to learn anything. The best thing for the puppy would have been to suggest private training to help the owner teach the puppy the life skills he would need, in a calmer environment; and likely suggest a Fearful Fido type class to address those behavioural issues while it was still relatively easy. The other puppy that stuck out was a typical rough housing fun having Labrador pup who liked to tackle and pounce on the other puppies during play time. While he was not an aggressive puppy in any way, he was being obnoxious. To the credit of the instructor she stopped it very quickly, unfortunately she just picked him up rather than try to teach him what was appropriate. It likely would have been fairly difficult to “fix” this in class with time constraints. However, again I would have liked to have seen some attempt to work on it, and a suggestion to the owners to set up a private consult to address this. Working on it with the 12 week old puppy would be much easier (and cheaper in the long run) than with the older dog I imagine running around at the dog park!
The second class I checked out was much more typical, a class of maybe six puppies, held at a local community center. There was a mix of more boisterous and timid puppies like the previous class, but play seemed better managed and the owners seemed more similar in their successes. The trainer was very professional and considerate, and the class was well structured, but for some reason I just didn’t click with her delivery method.
The third class was a boarding kennel that offered classes, the instructor wasn’t who I initially set out to see, but the classes looked excellent. There were a couple super star pups, people and puppies were having fun, learning, and the instructor was very good.
The last class was the furthest away (45 minutes across and outside of town) but was the right one for me. It was at the trainer’s personal facility. Class size was around 5 puppies, training methods were excellent, and the puppies were learning lots. I wouldn’t say the class was as much “fun” for the people, and the puppy play time was shorter than some of the other classes I had watched. However, the instructor was a serious competitor in multiple dog events so I suspect the clientele was looking for something a little different. Ultimately, she was the person I knew I would be comfortable asking questions of and trust her answers, and whose teaching method worked for me.
Had I gone off of websites alone, or word of mouth suggestions, I doubt she who I would have gone with; but it was the best place for me to be. I couldn’t believe how much it helped to watch different classes and see the different teaching styles and class structures. As a new dog owner I couldn’t put to words what they were doing “right” or “wrong” but by watching the classes I got a sense for what would work for me…regardless of whether I knew why! That’s why I so strongly believe you need to watch a few classes, where you end up might surprise you!
Now that I’m looking at adding a new puppy, I’m going through this again. I have four on my list to check out this go round.
The first would be who I took classes with before. At this point in time there are no puppy classes scheduled so I am waiting to see if any are booked around when the puppy comes home.
The second is a facility I take most of my classes at. I have already audited a few of the puppy classes; the instructor is excellent as is the facility. Class size is a maximum of 5 I believe, but I’m a little concerned there may not be enough puppies in this class (or people) for socialization. However, knowing this class will work for my needs takes a lot of pressure off. I might end up doing puppy classes at two facilities just so the puppy has more exposure to people and other dogs. So this one is pretty high on the list right now.
The third is another facility where I am enrolled in a flyball class at the moment. I would like to watch a puppy class since it is a different instructor. I’ve met her and she seems very nice, and I think this could be a good alternative. They also offer a puppy socialization “class” and a conformation class. So if I don’t take the puppy class here I might sign up for one of the others. Unfortunately, at this time their puppy classes are scheduled on the same evenings as my agility & flyball classes. So depending on when the puppy is ready to enroll, and when my existing classes end it may or may not work scheduling wise.
The fourth would be our local humane society, I’ve taken some seminars through them and was very impressed with the quality of trainers and their level of knowledge. So I would like to audit their classes to see how they run. At this point it looks like one of the class times might work into my schedule, so that’s a bonus!
If you’d like to do a little more reading on any of this here are few resources you may find of interest:
How to Choose a Dog Trainer
Certification Cheat Sheet