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Managing a Motivational Training Class

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Teaching a dog training class 30 years must have been pretty straightforward.  Peaceful even.

Apply your standard training technique and expect the dog to comply.  If dog does not comply, apply the appropriate correction.  And since a collar correction covered about 90% of those corrections, there wasn’t too much complexity, at least in the first few classes.  Better yet, most of our training sucked the energy and movement out of dogs, so if you did a good job you could have a pile of zombie dogs in no time.

I’m not sure how much the dogs enjoyed training but that probably didn’t matter, since not pulling on a leash is still a big accomplishment for most dogs.  And that leash jerking technique definitely got a good number of dogs to stop dragging their owners here and there.

Then the change comes – get rid of the special training collars, add cookies, and remove the corrections, both verbal and physical.

And then what?

In the good old days you told your students what to do and how to do it.  People do very well with those sorts of instructions – they want to understand and they want clear direction on what to do, preferably in advance of actually needing that information.

How about today?

I recently heard about a person who was kicked out of agility class for saying “no” to her dog.   How does kicking a person out of class for something minor  improve their training?

If you teach classes and you do not allow traditional corrections, then you have a responsibility to be very specific and clear about instructing your students about what they SHOULD do.

If a dog is running off after an agility run and you do not allow the use of the word “no” when the dog fails to return, what is your advice to that student?  How do you protect the other students and dogs in your class who are being subjected to the out of control dog?  You are the instructor.  It is your job to educate the owner and create a plan that keeps the entire class in harmony – the dog, the owner and the other participants.  Anything less and you are failing at your most important job – the safety and well being of the entire class.

It’s not good enough to say “be more exciting” and your dog will return next time.  You are responsible for instructing them on HOW to be more exciting.  If the dog is stressed and over threshold,  then you are responsible for helping devise a plan for that dog to keep him under threshold and safe.  If the circumstances do not allow for the necessary time for good training, tell the owner that your situation is not appropriate for their dog at this time.  Voila.  It’s ok to say it even if they may not want to hear it.  They may be irritated and angry with you, especially if they think a good collar pop or verbal “no!” will solve the problem.  You do not need to compromise your principles, but if your principles are leaving dogs at risk, then you need to step up.

You absolutely must be educated on what to do when a dog fails to perform.  You have lots of choices, but simply ignoring what is happening around you, especially if there are safely concerns, is questionable behavior on the part of a person who calls themselves a ‘professional”

People are not that different than dogs.  Saying “no” to dogs doesn’t  give them much information about what they should be doing and telling an owner not to say “no” doesn’t give them much information about what they should be doing or how to avoid the situation in the first place.

There are no generic answers in motivational training.  There are mostly questions and paths to try out.  Yep; it’s hard work and it’s a constant mental challenge.   You no longer have a simple correction.  You have  a process which includes a very large amount of handler education.

If you’re good at your job, you’ve done a lot more than remove the training collar and add the cookies.  You studied the dogs in your class and identified any complex emotional challenges such as fear, anger, and frustration, and you’ve communicated those issues to the owner.  Hopefully you also communicated a workable plan to solve some of them.

I have had good luck instituting a list of “rules” in my classes.  Now I spend the first fifteen minutes of each group session going over my “rules”.  I have a lot of rules.  Then if someone breaks them, I feel fairly comfortable calling out the rule that is being breached and sometimes they begin to remember.  Sometimes not, and how I proceed from there depends on the nature of the breach – safety breaches will end with the person being asked to leave the class.

Need rules?  Here are mine.  Feel free to try them.

1)  Dogs are crated except when out to work.

2) Dogs are to remain a minimum of four feet apart at all times – loose dogs may not be within four feet of crated dogs.

3) No one engages with anyone else’s dogs unless specifically asked to do so.

4)  Do not bring your dog out of the crate until a plan has been discussed – you should know exactly what will happen if your dog is successful or fails at a given task.

5) Dogs work at their own pace – your strengths or weaknesses will not affect your classmates, so don’t make poor decisions for your dog in order to keep up with the class.

6)  Protect your dog’s interests at all times.

7) Take responsibility for your learning – after you’ve been with me for awhile, I will ask you what you want to do – I will not tell you what to do.

That is the current list.  I’m thinking of adding a couple of others.  I bet some of you are scared of me now.  Maybe you always were.

So what has this list of rules gotten me?

Efficient and safe classes with purpose.  Everyone has a job at all times and they know what it is.  And actually, they’re fun too.  By the end of six weeks, my students are bonded and supportive of each other – we can all recognize improvement, even if improvement means that the dog’s tail has started to wag, and for another dog we cannot find a distraction which will pull the dog out of work.

If you train dogs, this is what you want – efficient and safe classes with a purpose.  Regardless if you’re still training with traditional corrections or if you no longer allow any corrections whatsoever in your presence – you are responsible for running your classes in a manner that keeps everyone safe and clear and what they need to be doing at any given moment.

And….on a totally unrelated note, my precision heeling class will start February 25th.  For $75 you can come watch all of the lectures, videos and discussions 24 hours a day – there is no “class” time.  Working spots are full so sign up for an “observing” spot if interested in learning more about precision heeling at:


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

14 responses »

  1. Thanks for the valuation!

    My rules are the same with one addition for my reactive dog classes: If another dog in class barks, feed YOUR dog.

  2. pauline hosenfeld

    Denise, once again, a wonderful post with so many good thoughts about how to make classes comfortable and successful for both dogs and their human partners.

  3. A volunteer instructor at my local obedience club told me she had been training and trialling dogs in obedience for 40 years and then went on to say that dogs don’t like training, so you have to be firm with them to get them to cooperate. I looked down at my happily grinning boy with his tail up and his eyes shining bright with anticipation and my heart just sank. So, yeah, I guess it was easy 30-40 years ago, and for those that haven’t moved on it still is. Just be firm with them.

  4. Very interesting post. More like this!

  5. Here’s a click and cyber chocolate for you, Denise! 🙂 Great article. Positive does not mean permissive. I have also felt very frustrated as a student in a class – especially a puppy pre-school class – where the instructor is not providing the owner with any useful information to resolve the problems I see in class. Problems that are highly likely to see the dog rehomed by the time he is 12 months old. As an instructor, I also encourage everyone to feed their dogs when another dog barks, or a passing car backfires, or fireworks are set off nearby, etc. I do this in all classes, not just reactive dog classes.

  6. I think, to use your sons’ word, this should be/will be an epic post!

  7. Really enjoyed the post. Dogs and people work better with a structure they understand.

  8. I was with you except for the crating part. Most of my beginner dogs have not seen a crate (if ever) after a few months of age and won’t likely crate well in an exciting class situation. I have recently added mat work and hope to substitute mats for crates. It adds a bit more time to the initial classes but at least everyone can afford to buy and transport a mat and few dogs find them stressful.

    • I have a question.  Why use a mat instead of a crate?  If the puppies aren’t accustomed to either, then you’d have a fresh slate in both cases.  Plus at trials, dogs do wait in crates, not on mats.  So why not begin developing good crate behavior around other working dogs in the beginner class?

  9. Yes. Yes. And again, yes. I’ve recently realized that I’m not ready to teach classes — I’m told that I’m a pretty good coach, and I’ll continue to work with individuals — but group classes, not so much. But I’ve copied your list (with appropriate credit!!) for future reference because it so neatly spells out a basic “how to” that supports my philosophy of both dog work and of educating owners. Thank you. (And Karin … I like the idea of mats as a substitute for crates, as I often see the same situation. Checking in to this page has been 15 minutes very well spent!

  10. Hm, I am going to start going over a list of rules at the beginning of my classes.

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