“I don’t need a trainer. I trained my dog myself.”
When I tell people that I’m a dog trainer, I typically get one of two responses. I’m either pumped for advice about a dog I’ve never met whose behavior I haven’t observed, or am told how well-trained the person’s dog is.
It always makes me so happy to hear about well-trained dogs whose owners love them. Since I’m most frequently called when things are falling apart, hearing about these special relationships never fails to warm my heart. It’s so wonderful to hear about devoted owners taking time to work with their dogs and teach them how to be the wonderful pets we all desire.
I have to admit to being somewhat surprised at how many people train their dogs themselves, though. Here’s the thing: I’m a professional trainer, and I would never dream of training my dog by myself.
My dogs attend training classes. Not just one class, but several. This is because I know that doing so is the very best way to help them become wonderful companions. I can (and do!) teach my dogs all of the basic obedience they need at home. Sit, stay, come, and polite leash manners are simple enough to teach. However, there’s so much more for a pet dog to know that just can’t be taught at home, and that’s where classes are so very vital.
My dogs attend training classes for socialization. It’s important for dogs to be exposed to new people and dogs in a safe, positive manner, and training classes allow me to do this. In class, my dog learns to focus on me around unfamiliar people and dogs and how to greet these new friends politely. He’s exposed to people and puppies of different ages, genders, sizes, and types. He learns to associate new people with pleasant things (hot dogs! training class!) and to control himself in their presence. He also learns that just because he can see another dog, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to get to act like a maniac, but should instead check in with me.
My dogs attend training classes to learn how to focus around distractions. It’s hard to produce lots of novel distractions at home, because my dog’s used to that environment. If I only ever trained at home, my dog wouldn’t understand how to listen to me at the vet clinic, the pet store, or the neighborhood park. A sit-stay in my living room is very different from a sit-stay in training class with its new sights, smells, sounds, people, and dogs. I want a dog who will respond to me regardless of what else is going on, which means that I need to teach my dog how to do this.
My also dogs attend training classes so that they’ll listen even when they’re excited. When the pizza delivery guy comes to the door, company visits for a barbecue, or fire trucks and paramedics rush to my elderly neighbor’s house, I still need my dog to respond to me. If he’s only ever been trained in the quiet of my home, he’s not going to have the impulse control and focus necessary to deal with excitement appropriately.
Finally, and most importantly, my dogs attend training classes so that I can learn too. Even though I work full-time as a professional dog trainer, that doesn’t mean I should stop learning. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I still need to learn. Every dog I train has something to teach me, and every class I attend likewise expands my knowledge base. Furthermore, the value of an extra set of eyes is indispensable. It’s easy for my relationship with my dog to cloud my judgement and make it harder to see what’s going on clearly, both good and bad. The class instructor can also give me valuable feedback on my own mechanical skills. Are my timing, expectations, or reward frequency hindering my dog’s progress?
Regardless of your skill level, training should not be limited to your home. In addition to all of the practical reasons to take your dog to a training class, a well-run training class will also be enjoyable for both you and your dog. Many a friendship (human and canine!) has begun in training class, and it’s quite common for my students to decide which classes to enroll in next based on which classes their classmates plan to attend next (especially in Reactive Dog classes, which really tend to form tight relationships).
Which classes have you most enjoyed taking with your own dog? What did you find most helpful about the training class? Please let us know in the comments!