Training day

Canines in Miss Sarah’s class

The first day of kindergarten is always a heart-tugging mix of excitement and anxiety. This semester was no different.

Harper arrived in a rush of curious excitement. He sprinted from the car, zoomed past the teacher (me) and headed straight for activity tunnels in the playground area. Billie was more hesitant, eyeing Harper as she clung to her mom’s legs, watching as the other students filed in one by one. There was Jack, showing off his favorite toy and eagerly trailing Harper; Bella, uninterested in toys but smitten with her new teacher; and Tucker, quiet and a bit possessive of the toy box. I ticked them off the attendance sheet looking around for my last pupil, Buddy. And then I saw him, too scared to enter, watching the others through the glass entry door. Gently, I coaxed him inside.

It took some time to transition from playtime to circle time but eventually, all my students settled on their mats. One pupil peed, one whined quietly and two needed to switch seats. Just your usual first day of school with one exception: My students are puppies. Throughout the year, I conduct classes for puppies and dogs at my training school on Long Ridge Road in Connecticut. Dogs, puppies and their people come to learn healthy social and communications skills as well as on- and off-leash training techniques.

The lessons I teach at my school are remarkably similar to those taught at the local grade school – tolerance, patience, respect and sharing. These lessons are not just for the dogs. My two-legged pupils learn to recognize the specific gifts and characteristics of their dogs so that they can understand and communicate easily and effectively with their pets.

Can dog school be fun?  Absolutely, if you find the right school.  Since your pup really has one shot at learning, take some time and find the right setting for both of you to learn. Here’s what to look for in a group or private dog-training class:

Communication and understanding

Your dog does not speak or understand English. So how do you reach him or her? Actually, it is a lot more fun than you think.  I teach my human students to speak and understand “Doglish,” the language of dogs. In a dog’s world, you see with your nose and you listen with your eyes. Dogs communicate with a subtle but easily recognizable display of body postures, eye contact and vocal inflections. A good dog school should concentrate on teaching you not only how to direct your dog, but to listen to him as well. Dog training is something you do with your dog, not to them.

Positive reinforcement      

Find a school that stresses the use of positive reinforcement training – praise, food and/or toys when introducing new commands and routines. While you don’t want to become treat-dependent, a happy approach to learning is contagious. Once your dog understands what’s expected, you’ll learn how to phase in a praise-only reward system. Avoid instructors who use techniques that involve pinning, bullying or other threatening behaviors. Dominance-based training does not create understanding, it creates fear.

Life is simply too short to be mean or threatening to anyone. We are judged by how we treat those who have no voice.

The trainer’s training

Look into the background of your instructor and the support he/she offers in addition to the class. Anyone can take an online course, or pass a certification. But it doesn’t insure good people skills or in-depth knowledge and experience. Look for someone who knows how to train people (preferably with positive reinforcement) not just dogs. In my class, I include one of my published training books (Wiley and Sons Publishing), an e-book of the six-week class sheets and a training DVD.

Size matters

Small is always better. Avoid classes that have open enrollment. More students mean less personal attention and more potential for misunderstanding. Find an instructor who values your personal relationship and offers more than a cookie- cutter approach.  I keep my class sizes to eight or less and ask each (human) student to fill out a questionnaire so I know each dog personally before he even enters the classroom.

Materials and equipment    

Every dog reacts differently to being socialized and trained.  Some struggle with distractions, while others are more calm or yielding. There are a staggering number of tools and techniques on the market. Look for a teacher who varies her approach from dog to dog.

Every dog is different, but each is trainable and eager to learn. I tell my students that some dogs are “oceans,” splashy, effusive and eager to make connections, while others are “brooks,” quiet, gentle and calm. Whatever your dog’s personality, take the time to understand and train him in a loving, positive way. Find a teacher who relates to both you and your dog and helps you to embrace the love at the end of your leash.

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