Obedience classes – not optional!

Lizzie had her first obedience class with the Dallas Obedience Training Club last Monday (I meant to blog about it during the week but have been busy getting Mal ready for a show in Fort Worth this weekend.) I know I’ve posted about her OTHER first class (puppy agility) but this one was still a ton of fun. She’s coming in already knowing all the stuff the class will cover (sit, down, a basic recall, not jumping, ‘go to mat’, walking on a loose leash), and her puppy agility class has given her a great basis for learning to focus around other dogs rather than spend all her time hoping to play with them. So why do obedience classes?

Just like humans, dogs are at their most flexible mentally when they’re young. It’s not that old dogs CAN’T learn (far from it!), but that when you’ve got a puppy, you’re pretty much working with a blank page. What that page is made of and what kinds of things will make marks on it depends on your dedication, training skills, and the dog’s own genetic proclivities. So, as a responsible puppy owner, you’re pretty much obligated to do your best with the time you have when the world is new and shiny and interesting. Statistically, people who take their pets to obedience class are much, much more likely to keep that dog. (Apparently, the best thing, statistically speaking, to do if you want to keep your pet for life is to take them to the vet once or more each year and enroll them in an obedience class- I think it’s less about the health care or training and more that people who care enough to do these things are going to find it worth the effort to stick with their pet even when it’s NOT necessarily convienent or easy- when the dog is sick, when they need to go out of town and find a petsitter, etc.) And lord knows a dog who has at least a FEW basic concepts (sit or down, come when called, drop it/leave it, and walk nicely on leash) is a MUCH easier critter to live with than a leaping, spinning, pulling dervish of fur and slobbery kisses. 😛 The latter is cute for an instant but wears on you pretty fast. The former is a joy to have around.

The main reasons I hear against it are

  1. Money – Classes put on by big chain stores are usually around a hundred dollars. Classes given by private individuals can range from half that to twice that. Classes given by non-profits such as Humane Societies and Obedience Training clubs average around $65-80 here in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and we even have a few groups locally that will let your new rescue attend classes at a steep discount. Even so, breaking it down by week, that’s not too bad for a 6-8 week class.
  2. Time – I *do* hear this one. But if you can’t make time in your schedule for an hour and a half (figuring in some driving time there), once a week for a few weeks, can you really manage a puppy? Especially given that on class nights, most dogs will come home and be ready to crash with a good chew bone. All that thinking is tough!
    On the other hand, there’s a distinct LACK of daytime/afternoon classes. If you work nights or evenings, it definately *is* a hardship to find classes that can accomodate your schedule (especially if you can’t attend classes on weekends.) There *are* some though!
  3. Availability – Some people just don’t know where to look. The internet is making it easier, but it can still be really tough to tell the good trainers from the bad ones, and we have several people marketing themselves locally who are unqualified at best and extremely heavy-handed at worst. These people use google ads and very shiny websites- so you need to be an educated consumer.  It doesn’t help that anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer- but at the same time, some of the best locally don’t have any certifications or professional memberships at all, just years of experience. Watch a class first, then sign up.

What I look for in a class – positive methods (clicker is great, but lure-reward is okay too- I will probably still use a clicker, but the more important thing here is a trainer that knows WHY it works, how to fade a lure and a reward properly, and who can explain it well), a flexible instructor (there are some things I want to do a certain way because of other things I’m planning to teach Lizzie later- for example, I don’t want her sitting automatically for people to pet her, I want her to remain standing until asked to sit), and a good space for classes (for me, it needs to be not too echoey or the teacher has to be willing to repeat themselves a lot for me- I have trouble processing sounds in certain environments). A lot of big-box classes promote puppy playtime, which can work well- or be a nightmare, depending on how well the instructor handles it. This isn’t a priority for me- I think it works better to set up doggy playdates for a number of reasons- but some people really like it.

In some areas, it can be tough (although this is a problem that is slowly going away) to find positive trainers who don’t rely on solely old-school methods such as leash pops or other types of corrections as a primary mode of training. These classes can still be valuable in that they’re a busy, different environment to train your dog in- but can be tough unless you’re stubborn and pro-active enough to protect your dog from well-meaning instructors who may wish to demonstrate the errors of your ‘permissive’ ways.  This isn’t much of a problem except in rural areas-it just takes a little bit of searching.

What about experienced dog owners who have the skills to teach their dogs themselves? I mean, Lizzie already knows the commands we’ll cover in class, for the most part (her stays are currently very short, and her leash manners are still a work in progress). And pups with really conscientious breeders with good training skills of their own may well come ‘pre-trained’ with all these skills. It’s important to take classes because dogs don’t generalize well (another post on why this probably is) and need to learn that the rules are the same in each new environment. Classes are a unique environment- highly distracting but controlled (unlike parks or pet supply stores on your own)- and the structure encourages you to practice regularly and keep up with a curriculum- something that it’s easy to skip on your own.

Lastly? Classes are FUN. I’m on the competitive side, so I like to see where Lizzie is, behavior-wise, compared to other pups her age. I’m not a brilliant trainer, and I’m blessed (or cursed :P) with bright, creative dogs who are more into having fun than doing obedience for the sake of obedience. (Which is okay- if I wanted Superdog, I’d get a Border Collie or a Golden- something genetically predisposed to find competition obedience’s precision and repetition enjoyable). Classes help me relax and remember that my dogs *are* progressing, *are* enjoying themselves- and most importantly, ARE building a bond with me that will get us through almost anything.

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