A good dog training class is a worthwhile investment in the future of your life with your dog. The time and money you spend on a class or two are a small fraction of what you will spend over your dog’s lifetime, and they will no doubt save you time, money, and more than a little frustration over the years. A class environment provides for some of the socialization your dog needs and teaches him to respond to you even with exciting distractions all around. A good instructor will help you become a more effective trainer and will point out mistakes that you don’t even know you’re making.
The trick, of course, is to find an excellent class and instructor. The dog training industry isn’t regulated, and anyone can claim to be a trainer or obedience instructor, so it pays to check around before you sign up for a class. It’s bad enough to waste money on a poor class, but your dog is also vulnerable to being frightened or even injured by the wrong person. If possible, observe a class or two before you sign up, and meet or observe your prospective instructor.
Here are some questions to ask when checking out a class or instructor. The answer to most of these questions should be yes…
Does the instructor have experience training dogs? If possible, observe the instructor with her own dog or dogs. If she has an adult dog, is he well behaved? Does the dog usually obey? What does the trainer do when he makes a mistake? If she has a puppy, is she patient but persistent when handling him? Yelling, hitting, shoving—rough methods in general—are a red flag. And an instructor whose adult dog is poorly behaved probably can’t help you train a good canine citizen.
Does the instructor have experience teaching obedience classes? Long experience isn’t necessarily a sign of knowledge or good teaching skills, but your instructor should have some experience either teaching a class or assisting another instructor.
Does the instructor seem to be knowledgeable about dogs and dog training? Has she attended seminars, workshops, and advanced classes? Does she read to keep up with the ever-growing body of knowledge about how dogs (and people) learn? Can she apply the knowledge she has or just spout theory and drop names?
Does the instructor communicate well? Does she listen carefully and respond clearly? Does she offer help when someone has trouble getting a dog to respond? Can she get her own dog and the dogs in her class to do what she wants without resorting to extreme measures?
Does the instructor seem to really like dogs, people, and teaching? Does she reward her students with praise and encourage them to do the same with their dogs? The last thing you and your dog need is someone who doesn’t enjoy teaching you.
Is the instructor flexible? A good trainer adapts to the individual dog and will help you figure out what works with your dog.
Take a look at the training facilities as well:
How big is the class? If the class has more than ten people and dogs, will the instructor have a qualified assistant? Will you get individual help when you need it?
Are the facilities adequate? Is there enough room to accommodate the class safely and comfortably? Is the place reasonably clean? Is the footing good so that you and your dog won’t slip? Is the outdoor potty area reasonably clean?
Are policies in place to protect your dog’s health? All dogs should be required to show proof of proper veterinary care and to be reasonably clean and free of fleas.
Are policies and procedures in place to keep you and your dog safe? If a dog in your class is aggressive toward other dogs or people, or if an owner cannot manage an overexuberant big dog, instructors should be ready and willing to take steps to keep other class members from being injured or frightened.
No matter how accomplished your instructor, always remember that your dog relies on you for his safety and well-being. If you are uncomfortable about doing something you’re told to do, explain your concerns and ask for an alternative approach. In addition, be cautious about who you allow to handle your dog. Many obedience instructors like to demonstrate techniques with dogs in their classes, and most of the time there’s no problem. But if you have any reservations about allowing an instructor to take your dog from you, just say you’d rather not. And if you are uncomfortable about the instructor’s knowledge, attitude, or methods, find a new class. Again, even if you walk away from part of the cost of the class, that’s better than damaging your dog’s trust in you and other people.