It’s September, and the fall semester is underway. But human students aren’t the only ones heading to class. Lots of pet owners with new puppies (or just unruly dogs) are sending their little ones to obedience school. You may be where those owners were a short time ago, i.e., ready to sign your pooch up for classes, but unsure where to go or even how to start. You don’t want to just register for the first class you come across, but how do you find the best one? We’ll help you take the right steps to choose an obedience school that’s a match for your dog.
1. Understand how your dog’s breed feels about training.
Before you even start, you should try to understand your dog’s breed’s history to get an idea of how it will take to training. Every dog can be trained, but some breeds tend to be easier to train than others. A lot depends on a given breed’s temperament, the purpose for which it was bred, its general level of intelligence, and its desire for discipline or to please a master. Knowing these things about your dog can help you establish reasonable expectations for how easily and quickly it will take to train. Of course, a dog’s individual personality may contradict anything about how its breed typically behaves, so the most important thing is to know your own dog well.
2. Look for classes that fit your budget.
Before you look at obedience schools and classes, decide how much you’re willing to spend. Of course, we like to think that no price is too high to get our pets what they need, but realistically, you or your family probably have a budget within which to work. Setting a spending limit before you search will help you narrow down your list of candidates and possibly help keep you from spending too much unnecessarily. As with most things, you shouldn't assume that the most expensive obedience training is also the best. There are more important indications of quality to look for.
3. Learn about different schools’ training methods.
There’s more than one way to train a dog. The majority of people would probably be most comfortable with positive-reinforcement training, which generally emphasizes a reward-based system, offering treats for good behavior. Dominance training is more of a negative-reinforcement style, using implements like choke chains and shock collars to establish an aversion to unwanted behavior. Dominance training should be avoided, because, at best, you will end up with a dog that “behaves” out of fear and, at worst, the dog may end up more reactive and ill-behaved than when you started.
4. Seek out multiple referrals.
Getting referrals will probably be the most important step you take in finding the right obedience school for you and your dog. You can start by asking the school or instructor for referrals, but that may not be enough, since naturally they won’t refer you to anyone who's had a bad experience with them (if anyone has). Family and friends are reliable sources of honest opinions, but their knowledge and experience may be limited, so also seek out the advice of professionals, like vets, animal-shelter staff and pet groomers.
5. Check up on credentials and experience.
Word of mouth is one thing, but you’ll also want to check up on a candidate school or trainer to make sure they have a professional background. There are no legal regulations for dog trainers, so you’ll have to make sure yours has credentials. How many years of experience do they have? Do they hold certifications, like a CPDT-KA or a CAAB? Be sure to verify that any credentials presented to you are legit, because it’s not uncommon for some shady trainers to straight-up lie to clients’ faces and falsify documents. Most organizations that certify trainers offer verification, so check their websites.
6. Visit and observe.
Once you’ve narrowed your candidates down to a few selections, it’s time to take a closer look at them. Visit the classes for more in-depth observation. Ask to sit in on a session or two to get an idea of what your dog’s training will look like. Most trainers should be happy to allow you to observe. There are always X factors that, while they may not mean the class or instructor is unsatisfactory per se, may not feel to you like a good fit. Consider the size of the class, the personality of the instructor and the general atmosphere.
7. Ask a lot of questions.
Write down every question you want answered about a school: its instructors, the training methods, credentials, equipment, facilities, etc. Most importantly, ask your questions and get answers. Don’t worry about being a pest or an annoyance; any obedience school that deserves students will be ready and willing to answer any questions that clients or potential clients have to ask them. Asking questions shows that you care about your dog and its training, so if a certain school or instructor has a problem with being asked questions, theirs is not a class you want your dog to take.
8. Know the red flags to watch for.
Some of the red flags to look for should be clear from earlier points. Be wary of classes that stress dominance, correction or negative reinforcement, or where you see dogs being yelled at or struck. Avoid obedience schools and trainers with bad word of mouth or missing/phony credentials. Walk away from trainers who dodge any of your questions. Also watch out for trainers who offer guarantees. Organizations that certify dog trainers disallow them from offering guarantees because it’s impossible to back them up, since training a dog involves so many unknowable factors that can affect the efficacy of the training. And finally, use both your own intuition and your dog’s. If any obedience facility or trainer makes you or your dog feel uncomfortable, there’s probably a good reason.
9. Set realistic goals for your dog and its trainers.
Before you send your dog off for its first day of school, remember to have realistic expectations. Neither your dog nor its teacher are miracle workers, and it’s not fair to either one for you to expect overnight results. Many owners give up too quickly and easily when their poorly behaved puppies don’t become perfectly obedient wonder-dogs after a few classes or even a whole course. Remember that training a dog takes a lot of time and effort. Be patient with your little student and praise it for its progress, no matter how small. Your support is an important part of the training process.
Next: How to Train a Dog
1o. Find out if a school offers additional one-on-one training.
It’s often a good idea for a dog to receive one-on-one obedience instruction, whether it’s because the dog isn’t responding well to a class environment or you just want to supplement the classes with some additional training. Either way, you may want to find out ahead of time if your candidates offer one-on-one classes. If you decide later that you want them, but your school or trainer doesn’t offer them, you’ll end up going through the search process all over again. Plus, whoever you find will be starting with your dog from scratch, which puts that trainer at a disadvantage compared to someone who already has worked with and knows your dog.
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