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Is Your Class Working for You?

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I recently chatted with someone who was thinking about pulling out of her agility class.  The dog was struggling to pay attention in a group and the overall experience was creating misery for the owner.  To stay in class or not; that is the question!

Let’s start by asking ourselves why you are in class and go from there.  Here are some possibilities that come to mind:

You are there to learn how to train your dog (human skill building)

You are there to teach your dog skills that you know how to teach. (dog skill building)

You are there to teach your dog to perform in public. (generalization)

You are there to use equipment or space.

You are there for the human social environment.

Most likely it’s a combination of all of these factors, so let’s consider them.

1)  You are there to learn the skills.

This is a tough one, since the tradition in dog sports is to train the human and the dog at the same time in a public group setting.  With a very patient dog or a quick handler, this might work but more often than not this creates an incredibly steep learning curve for everyone.  The blind are leading the blind, and most of the time the dog gets the short end of the stick.

I’d suggest that you leave your dog in the car and learn what you need to know in class – alone. Take notes and practice your footwork.  Work hard to understand what is being asked.  Watch others practice and try to understand what does (or does not) appear to work.  Then go home and videotape; start alone and then add your dog.  When you have a skill mastered at home, bring your dog to class and get the instructor’s feedback since there is no point in practicing wrong!

I’m also a big advocate of private lessons.  Crate your dog while you work with your trainer, and do not add your dog to the picture until you are very confident about what you will do if things go right and also have a plan if your training goes less well.  If finances are a consideration, keep in mind that private lessons are often a better use of your limited resources.  My experience is that you will learn more in one well structured private lesson than in a month of group classes.

As many of you know, I run an online dog training school. In the same manner as private lessons, this allows the handler to review and learn new skills in a low stress environment, first alone and then with the dog.  It works incredibly well – and the price is right!  So keep an eye on that option.

2)  You already know the skills and how to teach them, but now you are working with a new dog.

I’d strongly suggest that you do not need a class for this.  Practice at home where it is quiet and an optimum learning environment for your dog.  When your dog has mastered the skills being asked for, then a class might make sense for other reasons.

3) You are in a class for generalization.

Great!  But…remember that generalization has two components; ignoring the environment to focus on you (engagement) and working specific skills in public.

The order should always be engagement first and then worry about skills.  If you do not have sufficient engagement for the work being requested, then trying to get specific behaviors is going to create misery for both of you.  Stop.  Regroup.

Work on focus (moving and static),  three second behaviors ( see this blog for ideas: play with food and toys in public (engagement), and alternating work with crate time (dogs wear out!).  When your dog shows you these abilities, then identify the skill from class that you really want to practice and figure out if it fits within the parameters of your dog’s ability.

4) You are there to use equipment or space.

Consider renting the space or ask if you can join a class and work “on the sides”.  If your dog is obviously trained to the exercises, is not disruptive, and you’re paying for the class, then most instructors are comfortable with this option.

5) You are there for the social environment.

Make good use of your crate!  There is no reason why your dog needs to be out with you while you chat with your friends.  Simply put your dog away.  When you want to train your dog, give 100% focus on that.

If you follow these guidelines, you will progress much faster OVER THE LONG RUN.  If you push, pull, and cajole your dog to work in a class over their abilities, you will pay the price.  Your irritation will be transmitted to your dog – who will begin to avoid you and develop an unhappy attitude towards you in particular and training in general.  Further, your dog will learn to perform with only half a brain – leading to poor quality work and lifelong attention issues.  You will find yourself with shaky foundation behaviors.  And if you think it’s irritating to teach a one year old  dog to perform simple and reliable behaviors for a few seconds in public, wait till you’re doing those same exercises with a three year old dog that has developed 2.5 years of habit ignoring or actively avoiding you.

The process is always the same.  Teach high quality behaviors in a comfortable environment that is conducive to learning and excellent attention.  Add distractions and challenges within that environment to help your dog develop fluency.  And then take those behaviors on the road, where the environment will provide the next level of distraction.  At this point – where you have a well focused dog who needs to practice their skills in public – a class environment might start to make sense.

Good luck!

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.

16 responses »

  1. “or ask if you can join a class and work “on the sides”. If your dog is obviously trained to the exercises, is not disruptive, and you’re paying for the class, then most instructors are comfortable with this option.” There is no way any of our local instructors would allow this during a class. For one, it would be highly distracting to the dogs in class.

    • Where I started teaching and everywhere I’ve taught since, we’ve always allowed it. The generalization benefits to the team practicing on the side are of course key, as well as the motivational benefits to our class attendees as they watch the advanced training. They’re not disruptive because they’re doing the same exercises albeit at more advanced levels.

      • In the case of me and my young dog for several months, we were doing….nothing except watching and eating because that was about all he could manage in public. No one ever objected to my presence.

    • When I read things like this, I feel so blessed to be in Australia, where most Dog Club ‘classes’ are run outdoors. There is nothing to stop non-members coming and watching the class. You might be asked to leave, if your dog is disruptive, and if you are NOT a member you would not be welcome too close to a class. With one of my ‘problem’ dogs, I began working with her outside the chain-link fenced ‘dog training area’.
      When she became calm enough to work ‘out there’, I joined the Club and worked by myself removed from the main group but trying to do the same as the class, until she calmed enough to be able to join the class itself.
      When I ran my own classes — on our own property but in the paddock — I used to suggest to people with highly reactive dogs that they just come and sit with their dog and watch. I could even set up a barrier (BBQ table laid on its side) so that the person could see and hear, but the dog could not see the other dogs.

    • I was referring to agility classes. Here the dog not working is crated, Obviously more then one dog running off leash on the course would be distracting.

      • actually, the article was also referring to agility classes. A high percentage of the agility classes that I am aware of take place well before single dogs are actually running courses – they are foundation classes and teach basic handling and obstacles. If a dog can run a course in a public setting then they might as well enroll in the class, on the assumption that the foundation skills are already mastered and now the handler is working with a well focused and trained dog. No contradiction there.

      • Ummm. You CAN still go watch a class with your dog on leash, and on leash you can still practise some of the foundation skills — like staying 🙂
        You can also watch while your dog is in a crate — and your dog can watch, too 🙂
        OF course you wouldn’t have your dog on the course while another dog is running the course, even IF you were actively participating in the class.

  2. Great article, and something I’ve been thinking about for some time, we seem to be doing the same thing over and over in class, running a set up course twice–my dog can do the obstacles well, our handling works well when we are on it, but she may or may not focus at the start of a run–decide to get the zoomies and run off first. Which is what has happened at every trial–zoomies and/or DQ with only one run where we got close, but didn’t go clean. I don’t feel like continuing to do the same cookie cutter things addresses this issue and my instructor just pushes us to try another trial–“she’s doing so well in class”. I feel like I need exercises to work on her focus on me, something very fundamental is missing. Without that missing factor, I think going to another trial will be another exercise in disappointment.

    • It could be either focus or an issue of generalization – either way, “more of the same” won’t solve your problem, though it’s probably not doing any harm.

    • Zoomies are supposed to be indicative of stress. Whether it is YOUR stress causing it or her own stress, I would suggest GOING to as many trials as you can, with the dog, but as a spectator.
      If you cannot do that, could you make up some simple agility equipment that you can take to a public “off-lead” area and practise?
      Or maybe just change to ‘lure coursing”? 🙂 I’ve never had a zoomy dog until now — the Mad Milly’s favourite thing is running in huge circles in the paddock with her ears flying in the wind. I don’t know if I will ever be able to beat the zoomies, or even if it is important — so long as she had the paddock to fly in 🙂

      • Sounds like my girl, she also loves to gallop in big circles when she gets the chance. She’s a lanky collie hound mix. We did actually do a for fun lure coursing set up that was at a trial once and she loved it. Unfortunately there aren’t in lure coursing clubs or events very close to our area. We have been as spectators to many events, but probably need to do more . . .. in the four years we’ve been doing agility, we’ve been to maybe 5 trials that we entered, plus 4 Rally ob trials. She certainly takes being in her crate pretty well compared to the first few events. But I’m sure my stress is definitely a factor on top of our lack of tons of exposure.

  3. Thanks for this post… I “left” a local obedience class after deciding my dog wasn’t ready for it. She’d gotten to the point of good attention and good behavior performance for short pieces (we hadn’t started putting it all together yet… and still haven’t) and I was hoping to practice those… but the combination of the environment (it was hard for her to focus.. not impossible, but I had to stay on my toes and cut things off when she tuned out) and the instructor, who kept pushing us to “do more” because my dog happened to have the best precision (for short exercises) in class, led me to drop out. It just wasn’t working for my dog. And it was making me feel bad about the training… CER is just as important for us!

  4. I am a great fan of ‘working on the sides’. After all, for trialling your dog does NOT need to work in a group, but only in a ‘doggy atmosphere’. (Except of course for the group exercises.)
    This might not be an viable option though for an inexperienced handler, or a person who is in class to improve their own handling techniques.

    In this situation, or for a very nervous dog, I like to sit with my dog and just watch the class. It can be brilliant, you get to see others working, and listen to the instructors advice to them. Your dog gets to learn to relax in that atmosphere without anything else being asked of her.

    With my current Shrinking Violet, I have reverted to sitting and watching the class, with her lying *near* her crate — working towards, I hope, her being IN her crate and actually letting me leave her. She is great when trialling (Rally) but cannot be left when I want to trial my other dog OR even go to the loo.

  5. Really good advice, presented in an easy to follow and rationale way. I totally relate. I stopped agility classes for many of the reasons listed and took an on-line course that ROCKED. Foundation work is well worth it, I also got private lessons which were well worth it. I don’t feel so alone with my views now. Thank you 🙂

  6. Another reason I like classes is because of the structure it provides. It keeps me on task. I have struggled over the past years being an independent Freestyle trainer. I know how to train a dog to do Freestyle, but I have trouble getting myself organized enough to do what I need to do, and I often let things go. I miss a weekly class for that.

    That’s why I put in the investment of a gold spot in the current Rally FrEe Freestyle class at the Academy – for the accountability factor. Even when I do bronze I let things slide too much. I really need an instructor, or coach, to provide the structure to stay on task.

    That’s the reason my current performance girl is best at Agility – we go to an Agility class each week with an instructor. I don’t often learn a lot in the way of new skills – it is really more of a structured practice at our level, with occasional handling work thrown in. But it keeps me doing what I need to be doing.

  7. Have a 3.5 year old lab x gsd, bitch ,she is my 3rd obedience dog and I have trained her from a puppy , she had one.full.season of good work and.winning places , then last season as my depression wasn’t good it all fell apart , she was leash reactive to.dogs before this happened, and can be now, but her work isn’t at all as strong and motivated as it use to be , and I can’t get it back . She is a sweet girl and at club she seems a little scared of the dogs ,which doesn’t help her work.. any suggestions


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