Meditations on Group Dog Training Classes

 

 In this article we’ll be looking at group obedience classes; however, much of what is discussed can certainly be applied to other types of classes as well as private consultations. In a follow-up article, I’ll address issues I’ve been considering about working with owners.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about group classes and why they aren’t as successful as we would like them to be. I think there are a lot of reasons – and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of those reasons are our own fault!  As with training dogs, if it isn’t working, we need to step back and figure out why; we can’t blame the people we’re trying to teach, even though it sometimes seems that client-bashing is our favorite sport!

What We Know

Let’s start with what we know about group classes – and that’s actually quit a bit! 

  • The first and most important thing we know is WHY people enroll in a class. The three most common reasons for seeking training are:
    • jumping on people (and other unruly behaviors),
    • doesn’t come when called, and
    • pulls on leash.
  • Owners don’t do homework.
  • Owners wait too long before seeking training for their dog.
  • Group classes have a high drop out rate.

What We Think We Know

  • Owners are extremely busy and have a hard time fitting class into their schedules.
  • Owners can only handle one class per week.
  • Dog training is not a high priority for most owners.
  • Most owners want a quick fix.
  • If a client gets too far behind, they will drop out.

Inherent Problems of the Traditional 6-8 Week Group Class   

  • There’s too much information and not enough time.
  • We teach too many superfluous behaviors – group class is a “one size fits all” format.
  • We’re working on the trainer’s agenda rather than addressing the owners’ needs.
  • People who do well are held back, and people who need extra help don’t get it.

What Can We Do?

Why don’t owners do their homework?  I’m going to jump out on a limb here, and say that I don’t think it’s because they don’t have the time, they want a quick fix, or it’s not a high priority in their lives; they’ve already demonstrated that it is a high priority and they have dedicated valuable resources (time and money) to the problem. I think it’s because they don’t know what they are supposed to do.  Trainers totally understand the concept of setting the dog up for success. Why don’t we do the same for our owners? 

If we look at a more successful model of adult education, namely the university system, we see that everyone knows what’s expected, when it’s expected, and how to do it.  On the first day of class, students receive a syllabus!  In that syllabus, they have a schedule of events, a list of assignments, when the assignments are due and exactly what is expected for each assignment.  Perhaps owners need a detailed syllabus.

Perhaps another reason owners don’t do homework is that they haven’t worked it into their routine, not that they don’t have time.  Perhaps on our enrollment forms, we should have a section that helps them plan out when they will work with their dog, and then at orientation (I’m a proponent of orientations) we help them by addressing individual issues.  If they think it out and plan logically ahead of time, perhaps they will be more successful.

As for the drop out problem, it seems to me that owners drop out for one of two reasons:  1) they’ve already received what they need from the class, or 2) they have not received what they need from the class. 

If it’s the first, then we shouldn’t worry about it:  they’re satisfied.  However, if it’s the second, we have a big problem.  In addition to class structure issues, a lot of owners enroll in class to resolve problems that the class doesn’t address.  We should probably be more stringent in our screening and also make sure that owners understand what’s involved in an obedience class.  If we give the owners realistic expectations and the tools they need to be successful, the drop out rate should go down.

Perhaps we should set high standards and get the owners invested in those standards.  We tend to work to the lowest level, but perhaps that does a disservice to the majority of the students. It also seems that with the positive reinforcement trend, we have moved away from the idea of accountability.  Should there be consequences for poor owner performance? 

Perhaps performance should be graded?  At the end of the course, students would get a report card specifying what they need to work on, be it a particular behavior, or finding time to work with the dog, as well as what they excelled at. 

When I was in school and knew that I had to get up in front of the class and demonstrate my knowledge, I wanted to do a good job and consequently worked harder.  Perhaps we could have the owners demonstrate what they’ve worked on during the week at the beginning of each class.  Now, when we do that, it tends to be voluntary.  Obviously we won’t force someone to perform, but if they know in advance that it is a requirement of the class, they’ll probably do it.  If they didn’t do homework that week, then they are graded accordingly.  There are consequences for our actions – we could leave it at “the owners don’t have a trained dog,” but in many ways that is letting us off the hook, as well as the owners.  And the dog is the one who pays the price.

What about class structure?  I really think the standard 6-8 week model is a rut we’re stuck in and it’s holding us all back.  For those who have limited access to training facilities, it is the most logical format.  But if we have some flexibility, we should consider other formats.  What about twice a week?  Or, what about every day for one week?  It’s been my experience that too much time between sessions results in homework not being done – procrastination!  Again, if we go back to the university model, we generally have class twice a week.

The new levels classes are a great example of thinking outside the box!  In a levels class, you have stations and the students go to the station that is appropriate for their level of expertise.  They can work at their own pace and are able to perfect a behavior before moving to the next level — there are a variety of variations on the levels class.  I would like to take the levels concept even further. This is an idea I’ve been toying with for some time – I haven’t had the opportunity to try it out, so there are undoubtedly flaws in the system; but, I really like the concept and am throwing it out here.  If anyone decides to try it, please let me know how it works for you.

Let’s assume you currently hold an 8 week one-hour-per-week course and charge $100.  The cost of this alternative format will still cost $100.  The first hour will be an orientation addressing logistical issues such as how the class works, cleaning up after the dog, etc.  The second hour will be a owner-training class (no dog).  During this hour you will familiarize owners with training concepts and equipment. 

The remaining 6 hours will be broken into 20 minute segments (i.e., 18 segments).  Each segment will address one behavior.  Each behavior will have three or more levels:  kindergarten, beginning, intermediate, advanced, Ph.D., etc.  Some behaviors will have a pre-requisite behavior; i.e., the owner must have a demonstrable, advanced down before they can go to kindergarten roll-over.  Owners can pick the behaviors they want to train. If their dog already has a good “sit” they don’t need to pay for that behavior.  They can go to “jumping up,” “Loose Leash walking,” etc. or whichever behaviors they feel they need.

Because we know which behaviors owners want help with, we can weight the behaviors according to popularity.  For instance, we might teach three times as many classes in LLW as we do in “stand,” and twice as many classes in “stay” as we do in “stand.” 

The classes will be scattered throughout the week and will not be held at the same time each week to accommodate owner schedules.  Beginner classes will have fewer students than more advanced classes. This will allow you to give more one-on-one time to the beginners. (I would recommend no more than 4 owners in a beginning class.)  By the time they are in more advanced classes, students will need less help, so you can make up for the loss of income from small beginner classes by having large advanced classes.

Owners will have to sign up for classes (if you have a web site, it can be done there), and if they sign up and don’t show, it will count as a class, just as if it were a regular 8 week course.  Obviously, you’ll need to experiment with classes, but it shouldn’t take long to know what your students are interested in. If one class is consistently filled up, you need to schedule more! 

Other advantages are:

  • Owners can go at their own pace.  I would put a limit of 6 months for completion so you don’t have students trying to come in two years after they originally enrolled.
  • If the owner wants to continue classes, it’s very easy to sign them up for another 5 or 10 sessions. They don’t have to wait for another class to start.
  • You can teach everything you ever wanted to teach!  You just weave those classes into your schedule and the students that are interested will take them. You don’t need to wait until you have a full class enrolled, and you don’t have to take away from your money-generating basic obedience class.  You can even weave puppy classes into this schedule.

The truth is that most owners have no idea what to expect from a basic obedience class.  Perhaps some of them have attended a class in the past, but most have not; and most of those that have did it so long ago that they wouldn’t be surprised by a different format.  I truly believe that the traditional class format is as outmoded as traditional training methods.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.