Many new (and seasoned) dog owners understand the importance of a well-trained companion. The easiest way for many is to attend dog training classes hosted by an experienced trainer.
Attending a dog training class is not just about teaching your dog to sit and stay, however. It’s also one of the best ways to build your dog’s confidence and improve your relationship. The question is, how do you choose the right dog training class for your particular pup?
Finding the right dog training class in your area
In some areas you’ll have only one good option for dog training classes; in others, you may be overwhelmed by your choices. If you are facing the latter, a good place to start is by consulting with a trusted dog rescue organization like the Humane Society, ASPCA or even Animal Care and Control. Your vet may also be able to provide you with recommendations.
If your dog is new to you or has no experience with training, a good place to start is basic or beginner level class. This is also a good option if you are a first-time doggy parent, even if your dog already has some basic skills. For those novice dog owners that find the format of a group class intimidating, working one-on-one with a dog trainer that comes to your home may be a more comfortable choice.
What to look for in a basic dog training class
1. A qualified instructor
Did you know that there are no real requirements to become a dog trainer? That means any Tom, Dick or Harry off the street can teach a dog training class, so it’s important to get some information about an instructor’s skills and background.
Ideally, you want a class run by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-ka) but, if one isn’t available in your area, make sure the instructor’s bio includes how long they’ve been in the game, any organizations they are associated with and what training methodology they use. It’s best to choose a positive-reinforcement or rewards-based trainer over a “balanced” or “traditional” dog trainer that uses pain, fear, and intimidation.
2. An indoor class
Some qualified dog trainers don’t have access to an indoor facility and hold basic training classes in public spaces like parks. But for a dog that is just learning to learn, an outdoor environment is a challenge because just about everything—from passing people to the weather—can be a distraction. If your dog is a beginner, he’ll do better learning in a quieter and more contained learning environment.
3. A series of classes vs. a drop-in class schedule
To build your dog’s skills, you need consistency over time and the best way to do this is to attend a class series that slowly builds on basic skills week-by-week vs. a class that allows dogs at different skill levels to drop in when they please. Your instructor will be more focused and engaged if everyone in class is on the same page.
4. A class tailored to your dog’s age (if possible)
While a dog training instructor will teach dogs of all ages the same basic skills, puppies, adolescent and adult dogs have different attention spans and different needs when it comes to learning. If you have a variety of classes to choose from in your area, go with an age-appropriate class to help your dog get the most out of learning.
What to expect from a beginner’s class
Most basics class instructors assume that their canine students will come to class completely green. I find that, in my beginners’ classes, many of my students have begun to teach their dogs to “sit” but haven’t experimented much beyond it. In a typical beginner’s class, you can usually expect to learn the following basic cues:
- Leave It
- Hand Targeting
- Leash Skills
The most important thing you and your dog will learn in a basics class, however, isn’t a cue, it’s how to speak the same language. A good dog training class will help you and your dog to communicate more clearly and recognize what parts of your relationship could use work.
If your dog is more advanced thanks to training you’ve done at home, you have two options. The first option: attend the beginner’s class, anyway. While your dog may be a pro at sits, downs and stays at home, accomplishing these feats in a new environment full of unfamiliar dogs and people is a unique challenge that will test your dog’s abilities and reinforce their skills.
The second option you have is to start with an intermediate-level class to build on the skills your dog has already learned, though be aware that some dog training facilities will require you to take a beginners class before allowing you to enroll in an intermediate one.
Many organizations that offer dog training, like the San Francisco SPCA where I teach classes, have a number of classes meant to address common behavioral challenges or teach skills beyond the basics. Typically these will be a series of classes you sign up for in advance but “playgroups” for puppies or adolescents frequently allow drop-in students. Check out some of the more common options below:
Barking and lunging at other dogs or people while on walks is one of the most common challenges for dog guardians. It’s also one of the most tricky problems to address without guidance. A class in reactivity will help you to learn management techniques for your dog’s barking and lunging and desensitization-counterconditioning methods for improving it.
Classes geared towards shy or fearful dogs will help you and your dog to build confidence in anxiety-producing situations around strangers, unfamiliar environments, and other dogs.
This is a fun, fast-paced opportunity for your dog to learn how to run an agility course full of tunnels, bridges, jumps and pole weaving. Any dog can enroll in an agility class (there may be a basics class prerequisite) but those with a lot of energy and drive will really excel at agility.
Other games and tricks
Some facilities offer introductions to other exciting dog-sports that your pup will love, including flyball, scent/nose work, barn hunt and even herding. (Don’t have a purebred herding dog? Your pup may love Treibball!)
If you’d rather teach your dog some skills they can show off for friends and family, look for a circus or tricks class. Most of these classes will require that your dog knows some basic cues in order to participate.
What About Online Classes?
Online dog training can be a great alternative if you cannot find a trainer that meets your need. Online training classes also work well if you have a tight schedule, limited transportation, or a high anxiety dog.
For fearful or reactive dogs, online training also allows them to train under threshold (that is, with less stress and distractions) so that you can see quicker improvements in behavior. For reactivity cases, however, we also recommend having a live instructor, rather than a pre-recorded session. Some dog training apps offer one to one classes with instructions.