For most pet-owners, the answer is that they want a dog that they can take out with them safely and without undue embarrassment (if you want a life free of embarrassment, do not even consider an Irish Terrier as they will get you some day!) They want a dog that comes when he is called and can sit and stay for short periods and refrain from hurling himself at every new friend he meets. For others, they wish to participate in a specific activity, such as agility, showing or obedience. There are specialist classes for these kinds of activities and details can be found under the relevant sections.
Details of general training classes can be found in vets’ surgeries; on the internet and via professional bodies such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Classes can also be recommended by word of mouth. Attending a class is just the beginning! Once you have found a club that appears to be popular and within a reasonable distance, you enroll with your dog, the dog gets trained and you live happily ever after, right? WRONG!
No training class will train your dog – not even the best in the world. The best any class can do is to teach you the means to train your dog, by enabling you to practice the exercises in a controlled environment. The rest is up to you. As rescue advisers, we take several calls a year from desperate owners whose dogs have been up to all kinds of mischief, some serious and some less so. Almost every time, we hear the same refrain ‘he/she did so well in training class!’
To train a dog, you need to practice and you need to ensure the dog is never set up to fail. For example, a recall in class is reasonable straightforward: someone else might restrain your dog, while you wave a treat and call ‘Come!’ in your best, happy voice. No matter how well your dog does in class, you are totally wasting your time if you then let him off in a busy park and spend the nest 10 minutes balling yourself hoarse because he has found a new friend and won’t come back. This is because if the only time you train is in class, the dog will only obey you in situations that are as cut and dried as class i.e. when he has nothing better to do. If you give a command in a situation where you are not in a position to enforce it, the dog has learned that it is okay to ignore the command and almost inevitably, ignoring your calls will bring an even greater reward (like chasing a sheep, or mugging a passer-by for his bag of chips).
How do I pick a good class?
There is nothing to beat going along to watch a class. Most instructors will be happy to let you sit and watch, as long as you are quiet. Never, ever take your dog with when you are going to watch a class. Your dog may distract other people and dogs, but more importantly, until you know the class is a good one, you are putting your dog at risk. Just as importantly, you need to feel the class you pick is one where you can feel at ease and enjoy yourself. If you arrive at a class and immediately feel intimidated, or really don’t like the way the dogs are treated, it can be hard to be decline politely if a very pushy individual insists on taking your dog’s lead from your hand and doing a bit of ‘training’. Furthermore, you need to visit the class armed with questions and you need to remember to ask them all! If you spend half an hour explaining your puppy is an Irish Terrier and waiting for everyone to stop talking to him and actually talk to you, there is a good chance it will be time to go home before you have even had chance to ask how to enroll.
A good class will last no more than half an hour and have no more than 6 to 8 dogs in it. Very few instructors are able to really get to know more handlers than this. Note, I wrote ‘handlers’ and not dogs. Instructors can usually train dogs (that is why they are instructors) Most have a passion for dogs and can spot a nervous dog, or a very forward dog, or a dog that is aggressive through lack of confidence etc. What you must search for (the Holy Grail of training classes) is an instructor who actually likes people too and can put them at their ease.
Do the handlers look like they are enjoying themselves? Do they smile at one another, or do they look as though they are lost in their own private torture?
Find out if the classes aim towards any awards, such as the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen awards, or the club’s own set of awards. This means there are set goals to reach for.
What does ‘Reward-Based Training’ mean?
This type of training is based on the principle that dogs learn faster if they are rewarded for doing the right thing, rather than being punished for the doing the wrong thing. Some dogs find food more rewarding than toys and others prefer a little game with a toy. It is up to the handler and the instructor to find out what best motivates the dog.
Does it work?
Yes, it does IF the handler develops a good sense of timing, so that the reward is either given the instant the dog obeys the command, or the handler is able to give an indication that the reward is forthcoming, by a clear ‘good dog!’ or ‘yeeessss’ or similar. The same affirmation must be used every time: consistency of tone and words is vital here. This is why some handlers prefer to use a clicker, because this device produces the same sound every time and can be operated quickly. Personally, I prefer to use my voice, because the human voice can sound far more excited and happy than a click, but many people find them invaluable.
However, a good class will stress the difference between a bribe, a lure and a reward. We start to teach by using a bribe. This is where we show the dog the reward up-front. We also use lures, which is where, for example, we want the dog to lie down, so we hold the treat under a chair, making him lie down to get it. A reward is where the dog is not shown the treat up-front, but has developed confidence in his handler, through repetition, to complete the task because he knows there will be a reward.
Once training moves from the basics in class, to being applied outside of class, it may be necessary to start back at the bribe stage and work towards the reward stage all over again.
Today, many successful competitors in obedience, agility and working trails use these methods. In fact, they are really nothing new, as following WW1, Lt. Col. Richardson, who ran the war dog school observed that one should always have biscuits in one’s pocket! Equally, many handlers fail because they never get past the bribery stage. Why do some classes ban choke-chains?
Many classes ban chains because some studies have shown that they can cause damage to the dog’s wind pipe. There are professional handlers whose sense of timing is near perfect and who can use chains to apparently great effect. In the hands of people with a poor sense of timing, the dog can end up pulling against an ever-tightening chain and actually pull more as it tries to escape the pressure around its neck.
Some very confident dogs are have been trained very well, with no apparent ill-effects. This is not always the case though. I have seen a dog that appeared ‘cured’ of pulling after a very experienced trainer used a choke on him. All was well until the next time a stranger put his hand down to stroke the dog. The dog wasn’t taking any chances and bit him! No wonder, the last strange man to bend over him caused rather a lot of pain!
In short, there are kinder and more effective methods than choke chains and while they are not guaranteed to damage your dog either mentally or physically, only you can decide if you want to risk it.
The Culture Clash – Jean Donaldson The Perfect Puppy – Gwen Bailey
One Final Warning…..Remember ALL television programmes are edited. Don’t spend hours watching other people’s dogs – watch YOUR dog: find out what makes him tick and get out and enjoy him!