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: https://denisefenzi.com/2014/07/16/three-seconds-of-work/) 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.