Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to: Dog School

On their very first day of school German students receive an about foot long, colorful cardboard cone filled with candies to sweeten the entrance into a somber existence that would last, according to my parents, till the day one retires. Indeed, way back when formal learning could be a dreadful time for kids, and it was not any different for dogs. Obedience training rarely began before the pup was about 8 months old, so that the harsh treatment wouldn’t damage him for life.
For most youngsters things have changed; corporal punishment and the rather humorless approach to teaching is not trendy these days. For our rookie pooches alternatives also exist, but are not nearly as universally available, which means that it’s up to the owner to do a little investigating.
And don’t be shy about it. Dog school is not publicly funded. You are paying for group classes out of your own pocket, and that gives you the right to expect certain standards from the instructor.
Competence is obvious. Learning from someone who knows little more than you is senseless. One measure of competence is experience, but it is not the only, or even the best, gauge. Being in business for 20 years can mean ongoing learning, or doing the same thing for 20 years. Dog training has progressed greatly, and someone stuck in a method from 50 years ago might not be as qualified as someone 5 years in, but who is well versed in behavior and learning theories, and open-minded to learn more - from dogs and people.
The method used should never be ambiguous or kept a secret; revealed after you paid. Good training facilities have nothing to conceal, and you should be allowed to observe a session before you sign a no-refund contract. When there, pay attention if the trainer is positive with dogs and all humans. One who treats you and your dog kindly, but yells at her staff creates a tense atmosphere and that hinders learning. Watch what the dogs tell you. Are they relaxed, attentive and enthusiastic? Watch for open mouths and fluid bodies, and where they move – toward the handler, or out the door if given the chance.
Especially for puppies and beginners the priority should be to instill the want to learn. New owners should be given the know-how to raise a well-rounded companion in day-to-day life.

Inquire if you'll have the same instructor for the duration of the course. Although it is not unusual for one trainer to fill in for another, having 3 different instructors within 8 weeks can be confusing for owners, even if they all apply the same method. Consistency is vital for beginner learners – humans and dogs.
An expert instructor is able to accurately assess if behavior is abnormal and will point this out to you. Frankness does not mean putting a judgment label on your dog or the breed you own, belittle you, or expose your dog’s challenges as a bad example in class. I’ve seen it all, and yes, even with positive reinforcement trainers. Humiliation in people school is called bullying. If it happens in dog school, it is bullying too.
And it is a football-field-size red flag if you feel intimidated by your instructor. If you feel queasy in her presence, imagine how your dog feels. Time spend together has to feel good, because it is meant to strengthen the bond, the relationship and increase cooperation. Anything that stresses or worries you, or your dog, does the opposite and is counterproductive to the sole reason why you’re there.
If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Give up on that instructor, but never give up on your dog and training.
Said that, training does not have to happen in a facility. It is a misconception that group class participation guarantees model canine behavior for life.
Like a child who can excel in school but still be socially awkward, or inappropriate, a dog, even an obedience titled one, can be dysfunctional in real life situations.
If your dog succeeds in obedience class or dog sport, but you are still having behavioral issues, taking yet another class likely won’t do you any good. You need to deal with the problems where the problems are, and good group trainers are connected to likeminded good private trainers and will refer you.
At least, for these top technical performers more group training won’t do any harm.
But for the stressed and traumatized dog, often coming from rescue, even the friendliest, most positive and conscientious class can be too overwhelming and increase anxiety and resulting expressions, including aggression.
What those pooches need, first and foremost, is a low-key environment where they can decompress, learn to trust again and feel safe. Progressive humane societies often make it mandatory for new adopters to attend a group class, and yes, rescue dogs have a lot to learn, including basic commands, but it can’t be rushed. Success in class only happens if the dog is relaxed enough to learn.

“The Imperial Animal” writes that humans are the only species where the young don’t learn through play, and we are projecting that to our dogs as well. German kids still get their candy cone, many children look forward to recess more than study time, and dog classes intersperse command training with games and tricks to liven things up.
Ideally, there should be no dichotomy between learning and play. For best results, it should be one and the same; learning rewarding in it’s own right. A lofty goal indeed, but at least for our dogs there are facilities in every town and city that strive for exactly that. The clever owner locates one for his dog.

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