Being a responsible pet owner includes making sure that you teach your dog some basic obedience to ensure that you can keep him or her under reasonable control in public places. Reward based training also helps to build and strengthen the relationship between you and your dog, and makes being with your dog a more pleasurable experience. There are lots of different sorts of training classes, and lots of instructors with different qualifications or memberships, (but remember – a long list of letters after their name is no guarantee that the instructor is suitably qualified or experienced!), so choosing where to go with your dog can be very confusing. Finding a trainer who is accredited with a professional organisation that has a code of practice, insurance and assessment procedures for membership will help to ensure standards. For example, The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) in the UK accredits trainers who have been assessed to ensure their competence, and who sign up to a code of conduct which includes an undertaking to not use coercive or punitive techniques and equipment. There are a number of similar organisations in the US, for example the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which requires applicants to complete theoretical and practical assessment prior to membership, and whose members sign a code of conduct and attend continuing education events.
It is always a good idea to attend a training class without your dog first, so you can assess the type of training that is being used, see if you feel relaxed with the instructor and assistants, and would be happy to bring your dog into that environment.
Some of the things that you should look for include:
- Observe the behaviour of dogs in the class. If this is the first night of a course some of the dogs may be anxious until they have settled in. How do the instructors and/or assistants help the anxious dog and their owner? If this is the second or later class the dogs should be relaxed with wagging tails and be interested in their surroundings. Be wary of classes where lots of dogs appear to be cowered, have their tail between their legs, or do not make eye contact with their owner or trainer.
- Look out for the types of training methods used. You should not consider joining the class if instructors/assistants are recommending techniques which rely on inducing fear or pain, such as prong collars, or where they rely on shouting at dogs, or hitting them with hands, feet or the lead. There is no need for such techniques to be used in the training of a dog. Check that dogs are motivated to show the desired behaviours through the use of rewards such as food treats or playing with a toy, and not through fear of the consequences.
- Check whether there are an appropriate number of dogs and owners for the situation. For example, the APDT (UK) recommends no more than 8 puppies in a class with an instructor and one assistant. Lots of dogs crowded together in a hall can create problems, and too many dogs makes it difficult for the instructor to clearly see what is happening, and be available to help owners.
- Observe whether the class is calm and quiet – lots of shouting (by owners) and barking indicates that people and dogs are finding the situation stressful. Except in an emergency, there is no reason for an instructor to be shouting – at dogs or owners.
- See if the instructor recognises that each dog is an individual and may be motivated by different things (such as food, play or toys), and is likely to progress at different rates. For example, check that the instructor or assistants do not force anxious dogs to participate in activities before they relax and are ready to take part. If your dog becomes anxious during training sessions, or is not keen to enter the training class, then group training may not be appropriate for him or her at this stage and you should speak to the instructor about one-to-one training.
- Are the instructors and assistants friendly and do they welcome you observing their class? A good instructor will be proud of the service they are offering and will be pleased that you are taking the trouble to find out about classes before enrolling your dog.
- You should also check that the instructor is not giving advice beyond their level of knowledge or qualification. For example, you should be wary of instructors who give advice about serious behavioural disorders, such as aggression, or medical disorders within their training class. Owners should be advised to seek advice from their veterinary surgeon in such cases.
- Before or after the class, ask some of the other participants about their experiences of the course, and how successful they have found it, as it is difficult to assess how well dogs progress with their learning when attending a single class. If possible, go to the first night of a course and then go back to the same class a few weeks later.
Further information about finding a suitable trainer is available from The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour.