How to Choose a Dog Trainer
Taking your dog - and your family - to dog training classes is a wonderful and fun way to help you understand how your dog thinks and learns, and how to motivate your dog to repeat behaviours you like! You can also have a trainer visit your home for private sessions to boost your dog IQ. While costs vary (group classes typically cost from $150 to $250 for six to eight sessions while private sessions generally cost $35 to $80 per hour), the investment will repay itself many times over throughout the life of your pet - helping build a trusting and loving relationship based on mutual understanding and respect.
Is dog training important?
Dog training is important for many reasons - including improving the relationship between you and your dog by developing a common language to communicate. It is also important because dogs - from puppies to seniors - learn from our daily interactions. Often the very things we think we're discouraging our dogs from doing - are the very things we're encouraging and rewarding! For example, many people try to discourage jumping by pushing or yelling at their dog - in fact rewarding this attention-seeking behaviour. Or they may try to get a dog to stop barking by yelling at him to stop - inspiring even more spirited barks since the dog thinks the owner has joined in the fun.
Training helps teach us how our own behaviours are interpreted by dogs and how we can help our dogs understand what we want from them. In addition to exercising your dog's mind and making his life more enriched, dogs gain confidence and a sense of security from clear, consistent training - because they understand what's expected of them and how to meet those expectations. And, very importantly, you learn what is reasonable to expect. Sadly, many dogs end up in shelters simply because their owners never took the time to give them proper guidance.
What should I look for in a trainer?
Look for a trainer that uses "positive-reinforcement" techniques that are humane and fun including "lure-rewarding" (using treats to lure dogs into position), and "clicker training" (marking the exact moment the dog is doing the desired behaviour using a small device that makes a "click" - followed by feeding a treat). Good trainers possess patience, flexibility, authority and self-control - combined with a respect and love for animals, a gentle touch, and a great sense of humour (essential to enjoying dogs!). Even the best trainers are seldom equally successful with every dog. The training techniques that are highly successful with one type of dog may be completely ineffective with another. A good trainer can think of several different techniques to try to accommodate all dogs.
In class trainers should give clear instructions and explanations, provide demonstrations for each exercise (typically using the dogs attending class), and give individual feedback while everyone in the class is given an opportunity to try the lesson on their own dog. If there are seven or more dogs in the class an assistant is often recommended to help ensure adequate individual feedback. All trainers have slightly different styles - from enthusiastic, fun and fast-paced to more serious or relaxed. Ask to view a class beforehand and find one that interests you. Many schools welcome school age children so ask what their policy is if you're interested in having your kids participate. If the dogs and people in the class enjoy the trainer - it's a good sign you and your dog will too! Trainers should also be available to provide individualized advice for common behaviour issues.
When should I be concerned about the trainer?
If the trainer advocates the use of traditional punishment techniques that involve yelling, choking, tugging or popping the leash, smacking, shaking the scruff, alpha rolling (forcing the dog onto his back), choke chains (that literally choke the dog and can cause tracheal and oesophageal damage) and any other actions that cause pain or frighten the dog - walk away. These techniques may train your dog - but the cost is your pets trust and sense of security - as you've now taught the dog you're unpredictable.
How does positive-reinforcement training work?
Each of us likes to be praised rather than punished - and the same holds true for our pets. That's the theory behind positive-reinforcement. Positive-reinforcement means giving your dog something she likes as soon as she does something you want her to do. Because all living things repeat behaviours that are rewarding to them, positive-reinforcement encourages your dog to voluntarily give you the behaviours you want - and to enjoy learning.
Examples of positive-reinforcement could include: food, praise, treats, petting, belly rubs, walks and fetch. Each dog has different tastes so the list may differ depending on the dog. Typically, during initial training treats (or food - can be kibble) are used every time the dog does what you want. Once the dog is responding reliably, you may reward her with treats intermittently and randomly - for example, three out of every four times she does the behaviour. Then, over time, reward her half the time, then about a third of the time - until you are only occasionally feeding treats - but mixing in other "life" rewards as well (petting, fetch etc.). Your dog will learn if she keeps offering desired behaviours eventually she'll get what she wants. Usually a word like "yes" or a "click" (if clicker training) is used to mark the exact moment the dog does what is desired, followed by the reward. This allows the dog to clearly understand what she's being rewarded for each time and helps her figure out what behaviour she needs to repeat to make more good things happen.
What is taught in basic training classes?
Most basic puppy (12 to 18 weeks) and adult (18 weeks and older) classes typically cover the following commands in class over six to eight weeks of one-hour sessions: sit, down, stand, stay (adding duration, distractions and distance), off, come, walking on leash without pulling and a few fun tricks such as roll over, take a bow, shake a paw and touch. Both hand signals and verbal cues are taught for each command. Topics covered generally include chewing, nipping, barking, jumping and housetraining among others. The only major difference between basic puppy and basic adult classes are the puppy play sessions - an important part of dog-to-dog socialization and teaching puppies to have gentle jaws (soft mouths) through feedback from other puppies in play. Because older dogs have stronger jaws, play session is generally left out of the curriculum in these classes.
How long will it take to train my dog?
It depends on you, your dog, and your training goals. Dogs continue learning throughout their lives. Every time you are with your dog, one of you is training the other (many dogs are very good trainers!). At the end of a basic training class, some dogs are quite reliable with their basic cues and behaviours, while others require more training. Once you have completed basic training, you can find opportunities to continue your dog's education to more advanced levels, where he will become reliably responsive to your hand signals and verbal cues in distracting environments or at a distance.
What other classes are available?
There are many dog sports classes available if you're interested, including: agility (in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race against the clock), flyball (in which teams of dogs race against each other from their handlers, over a line of hurdles, to a box that releases a tennis ball to be caught when the dog presses the spring loaded pad, then back to their handlers while carrying the ball); musical canine freestyle (a modern dog sport that is a mixture of obedience, tricks, and dance that allows for creative interaction between dogs and their owners); and many more. Click here for a more comprehensive list. Dog tricks classes are another fun way for you to exercise your dog's mind and spend quality time together.
If you enjoy helping people and have a dog of sound temperament you may be interested in joining the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. The Therapy Dog Program takes a volunteer and their dog into organizations on a weekly basis, including hospitals, seniors' residences or nursing homes, where many people spend time isolated from their families. Through regular visiting, a bond is created between the client, dog and volunteer. Each dog's temperament is assessed to ensure their suitability for the program and the dog must demonstrate certain capabilities such as: accepting a friendly stranger; sitting politely for petting; walking on a loose leash; walking through a crowd (including wheelchairs); sitting on command/staying in place; and reacting well to another dog or to distractions (noise, jogger). To learn more about the Therapy Dog Program, visit: www.sja.ca and click on "Community Services" and then "Community Service Programs" in the drop down menu.
Training should be fun for you and your pet so if you become frustrated stop and take a breather. Remember how long it takes to raise a child and you'll realize how unrealistic our expectations can be of our pets. With the right technique, the proper motivation for your pet, and patience - we can teach our dogs many things.
Where can I find a trainer?
Recommendations from friends, neighbours, a veterinarian or your local Ontario SPCA or humane society are a good place to start. You may also contact the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers (CAPPDT) at 1-877-SIT-STAY or browse their online searchable trainer directory at: http://www.cappdt.ca/trainers.jsp. Please note, the Ontario SPCA does not endorse any individual trainer and encourages people to choose positive trainers who use methods that do not cause pain or suffering to dogs, but help foster a trusting relationship.
Helpful books to better understand and train your dog
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
Click for Joy! by Melissa Alexander
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
Dogs are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson
Excel-erated Learning by Pamela Reid