Classes, private lessons or board & Train?

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By Zazie Todd, PhD

Choosing between classes and private dog training lessons?
Maybe you already know the answer to the question of whether you would like to attend dog training classes or have private lessons, but there are several things to consider.

If you have a puppy, then puppy class is usually the best option. Some trainers offer one-off puppy parties, but in the only study that looked at this, they found that a six-week puppy class offers better results in the long run. So if you want to go to puppy parties, it’s probably better to sign up for several, to get more socialization and play with other puppies.

A puppy class must be exactly what it says – for puppies only, no adult dogs.

Puppy class will include socialization as well as basic obedience exercises. Your puppy should have some opportunities to play with the other puppies, and a good class will separate the shy puppies from the boisterous ones so that no one becomes overwhelmed. Unfortunately, many puppies miss out on puppy class and also on socialization opportunities. If you have a puppy, see what to look for in a puppy class.

Some dog trainers offer private sessions for puppies. These can be a good choice, but because socialization is so important for puppies, you need to ensure either that the trainer will include socialization as part of the package, or to make sure to do it yourself. A good trainer will explain this to you.

Classes for adult dogs usually cover basic obedience and can continue through to more advanced levels, including Canine Good Citizen certification.

Some dog trainers also offer classes for reactive dogs; if you have a reactive dog and are tempted by this, check that the class is small, and that your dog will not be ‘over threshold’ during class (in other words, find it too difficult due to other dogs being too close by). These classes can work well, but some reactive dogs will need private sessions instead.

Many people enjoy the social atmosphere of classes, and the opportunity to meet other dogs and their owners. Make sure you are happy with the size of the class, because small classes are generally better. Classes will usually have at least one assistant to help the trainer and maybe more, depending on class size.

Classes are also available for a whole range of fun activities including agility, tricks, nose work, Treibball, flyball. etc. There may be opportunities to try these out with your dog or to observe them before signing up for a whole set of classes. Some people enjoy these activities so much they go on to compete or to become a dog trainer themselves.

Private training involves the dog trainer coming to your house for a lesson. In some cases, they may have an office that you go to instead or arrange to meet you in a public location such as a park.

Private lessons are best for behavior problems, because the trainer comes to you and sees the dog in his or her usual environment. They will develop a plan for your dog, and will do some training whilst at your house and coach you in how to deal with the problem. In between times, expect to be given some homework.

With private training, you have time that is dedicated to you and your dog instead of having to share the trainer with others like in a class. Many trainers will also provide support by email or telephone in between sessions, and they will tell you what to expect.

If you attend a class but it turns out your dog has behavior problems that are beyond the scope of the class, don’t be surprised if your trainer suggests private sessions instead (or as well). That’s because they can work with you more easily to resolve the problems that way.

If your dog has a behavior problem, it’s generally better to try and do something to resolve the issues early on, instead of waiting for the problem to get worse before you seek help. This is especially important if you think your dog might bite someone (or indeed if your dog has already bitten someone). In these cases, make sure to ask how you can keep everyone safe until the appointment. (For serious behavior issues see below, what if my dog has a behavior problem?).


Who should I hire if my dog has a behavior problem?
While dog trainers can deal with many issues, there are some behavior problems that need more expertise. Also, some dog trainers only take certain kinds of cases. For example, they might work with reactive dogs but not with fear and aggression cases.

Some dog trainers are able to work with dogs with certain behavior problems, and will know if and when they need to refer you (e.g. to a veterinary behaviorist). Some dog trainers even specialize in certain kinds of behavior problems, such as fear or separation anxiety.


What about board and train?
Another option is board and train, where your dog goes to stay with the dog trainer for a period of time, usually several weeks, and is trained while there. This can work well for some issues, such as house-training, but not so well for other issues.

This may also be useful if you are planning to go away and need somewhere to board your dog, and would like your dog to get some training as well.

Even though the trainer will be doing most of the training, you should still expect to have to do some work yourself; the trainer should keep in touch with you about your dog’s progress, and will schedule at least one session to ‘transfer’ the training.

After all, even if your pooch has learned lots of new commands, they won’t be much use if you don’t know what they are; and if you aren’t prepared to keep practicing them, your dog may forget them.

With board and train, you need to take even more care to select your dog trainer carefully and check references. Because they will be training the dog away from you, you won’t be able to see the training they do – so you need to be sure they really will be using food to train your dog, and not an aversive method such as a shock collar.


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