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Finding the Right Puppy Training Class

29/07/2013 12:49 BST | Updated 29/07/2013 12:49 BST
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As part of my Canine Behaviour coursework, I have been studying and visiting puppy classes covering various different methods of training. Dogs are as different as people, and there is not one catch all method of training at any level, but smaller classes are certainly to be encouraged. Groups of 4-6 seem ideal. Too many puppies can easily become an over excited barking mass which causes anxiety and disobedience. A bad experience for a pup can be scarring for life, so it's worth asking how big the class is before you arrive.

For first time owners and new dogs, I would recommend Kennel Club training. For a dog that was having difficulty with basic training and understanding instructions, I would recommend some clicker training. Either work as a good solid foundation that will get a very clear system set up for dog and owner. For an owner particularly keen to teach multiple tricks, clicker training is great, but if you want a dog to just be safe and obedient, I'd think the kennel club method was far simpler. Many owners find carrying a clicker around inconvenient.

I would not recommend dominance training for family pets. I think it makes many dogs anxious and stressed. Additionally, it is difficult for some members of the family to enforce, ie. the elderly or young, which leaves them vulnerable to challenges.

The class should be enjoyable and small enough that everyone gets one to one attention and a calm environment. If you aren't enjoying it or it is overcrowded, leave and try somewhere else. The Kennel Club is a good place to ask. Pups early experiences are very important. Praise and consistency are crucial, you cannot ask a dog to walk to heel sometimes, and allow him to pull ahead at other times, and then expect him to do what you want when you want. Unless of course you have trained commands for both.

Dogs are keen to please and keen to work for treats, a good rule of thumb is that whatever you pay attention to, you get more of, and whatever you ignore, you get less of.

Additionally, most breeds have a traditional "role". I would encourage all owners to find a way for their dog to use their special skills. Working dogs need jobs or they find self employment, usually causing humans trouble. Most problems that trainers are called out for, are simply a case of dogs exhibiting their breed behaviour in a human environment that doesn't suit it. Ie the border collie that herds children.

So what is your dog's job? Fly ball and agility can be very effective for border collies who are very smart and active. Retrieval games crossed with hide and seek, work the minds of Hungarian Vizslas. Huskies and other running breeds love to be in a running harness, and CaniX training will give dog and owner fulfilment and fitness! Every dog should be able to do something along the lines of what he is bred for, whether he be a mongrel or not, his areas of special interest should be apparent with some research.

I would discourage anyone from using negative corrective methods. The citronella spray collar, for example, when used to prevent dogs behaving in a certain way, can actually cause fear aggression very easily. It is far better to work towards a positive, calm and consistent solution, although a qualified professional should be consulted on any dangerous problem behaviour.

Animal behaviourists have shown that using dominance to modify behaviour can suppress the behaviour without addressing the underlying cause of the problem. It can exacerbate the problem and increase the dog's fear, anxiety, and aggression. Dogs that are subjected to repeated threats may react with aggression not because they are trying to be dominant, but because they feel threatened and afraid.

In the classes that I went to, I noticed that you could predict a great deal of the dog's later behaviour by looking at the families. The diligent tidy families who had consistently practised at both clicker and kennel club methods, week after week, had noticeably calmer and more obedient dogs than those who were more disorganised, hadn't done much homework and ran late.

In terms of equipment, I would recommend a collar, a lead and any equipment required by the dog to perform its bred for role (i.e. a ball, a running harness, a rubber duck). Anti pulling harnesses and muzzles should be a last resort. A dog should be taught to walk to heel using either the clicker reward method or the kennel club reward method, where a dog is rewarded when it does not pull. If an owner is not going to consistently practice this until they have the dog trained at it, then I would encourage them to keep lead walking to an absolute minimum, as otherwise it is training the dog to ignore you!

Recall should be almost perfect before a dog is loose. In practising recall, lead walking and 'stay', more emphasis should be put on training outside the class room as initially other dogs can be too distracting for young pups.

Owners should also be very careful about taking puppies to the right puppy classes. Many are overcrowded and slightly out of control. One bad experience can leave a puppy nervous to certain situations for life. If a class makes you uncomfortable, it is ok to leave! The APDT or Kennel Club should be able to help you find a suitable alternative.

Additionally, it is important to set ground rules for a new puppy in the home - and, be consistent! If you don't want him on the sofa, stick to the rules, initially anyway, until he is old enough to understand that you can sometimes invite him, and sometimes boot him off. Dogs like consistency. They look for patterns. A happy dog knows his routine.