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Group Classes versus Private Lessons: Which Is Best For You and Your Dog? (Part Two)

By Kathy Edstrom

I interviewed two highly skilled dog trainers, Dr. Linda M. Arndt of P.U.P.S Learning Center and Nancy V. from Renegade Agility. Linda’s specialty is working with family pets, primarily teaching puppies and their people. Nancy, who is also my agility instructor, is an avid agility competitor and specializes in teaching students skills needed to compete. Both of these instructors take a very positive approach with their students.

I've asked Linda and Nancy a variety of questions regarding tips on finding the right type of dog training as well as selecting a good, reputable instructor. Linda and Nancy will share their views on methods of training to achieve the best results for you and your dog, as well as sharing some tips on finding a qualified instructor to fit your individual needs.

In my opinion, if you are not interested in competing, it is not necessary to find an instructor who is an active competitor in the world of dog sports. There are many wonderful, reputable dog trainers who are not competitors that can teach you and your canine companion the necessary skills needed in today's society. I believe that it is only necessary to seek out an instructor who competes if your goal is to be an active competitor with your canine companion.

This article will be in an interview format. The questions are listed as “PC” for Paws-A-Tive Choice. I use Linda's and Nancy’s first names for the responses to the questions.

PC: If you were to recommend to pet owners methods of training to achieve the best results for their dogs, what would you recommend?

Kathy teaching Mojo the dog walk in Dr. Arndt's Advanced Puppy ClassLinda: I would recommend that owners find an instructor who believes in motivating a puppy or dog to learn a behavior versus an instructor that uses fear and intimidation to force a puppy or dog to do something. Most owners do not want to use physical force in the name of teaching their dog to do something. However, many dog owners are not aware of learning theory or how to go about teaching a behavior to a dog. Under the proper guidance an owner can become proficient in setting a puppy or dog up to volunteer a behavior of its own accord. An owner can be taught how to reward their puppy or dog for exhibiting an acceptable behavior. This type of owner/dog interaction goes a long way in creating a desirable behavioral habit in a happy dog and a dog that wants to learn more from its owner.

Nancy: I recommend both privates and groups if they can find those that complement each other.

Nancy of Renegade Agility instructing her group classes

PC: If a person does not want to compete, yet wants to participate in leisurely canine activities, what is the best way to prepare the owner and dog for these events?

Linda: A dog taught behaviors using a volunteer/reward method will be willing and able to learn anything the owner wishes to teach it. Whether headed for competition or other less demanding canine activities, all the dogs need to learn how to respond in a calm, reliable manner in the face of distractions and how to pay attention to our cues. The difference between teaching competition exercises and less competitive canine activity is the level of exactness that you require for a particular behavior to be rewarded.

Nancy: I recommend group classes. Private lessons can be too intense. You don't get the social aspects that group classes offer and group classes are usually less expensive.

PC: How does a pet owner decide when to join group classes and when to train privately?

Linda the Puppy Class instructor with Kathy and MojoLinda: This decision is based on the goals the owner has for a dog and the age of the dog. A young puppy's need to interact with other dogs may lead the owner to group lessons, while an older dog's behavior due to a lack of previous training may require private lessons. An owner's goals may indicate that a dog needs exposure to other dogs and many distractions (group learning setting) and yet those same owner goals may call for concentrated work on the dynamics of a particular set of behaviors (private lessons). Conversations with an instructor that the owner feels comfortable with is very important in deciding what teaching setting is the right one at this time in your dog's life.

Nancy: If they (the student) feel they are being held back in group classes, or they need help in particular areas, then the person should consider private lessons.

PC: What should a pet owner look for when seeking a qualified instructor?

Mojo's graduation from Linda's Adv Puppy classLinda: As a potential client, the owner should ask for or be offered information on the instructor's credentials and information on canine health requirements. While an instructor may or may not hold APDT certification, he or she may have some other type of education that lends itself to understanding dog behavior and how to modify it. And, as credentials can be deceiving, I encourage dog owners to watch several lessons held by an instructor they are considering before they sign up for a class. In addition, a qualified instructor should have several years of dog training experience to offer the client. A client should ask the instructor for several references, former clients, who would be willing to share their feelings about the classes that they attended. Any instructor that will not allow a potential client to audit several classes or receive the names of references should be avoided.

Nancy: (If you are looking to compete) Go to shows and watch them (instructors) compete.See if you like their handling style and their relationship with their dogs.Go watch some of their lessons to get a feel for how they deal with people, the dogs and any problems that might occur.Inquire if they keep up with current training methods and are willing to work with many techniques.

PC: What characteristics should a pet owner be aware of with non-qualified instructors?

Nancy teaching one of her students, Sheryl Henry, in a group classLinda: Any instructor that accepts too many puppies/dogs in a single class should be avoided because they will not be able to give each owner and puppy/dog the attention they need to learn. Any teaching facility used by an instructor that is not clean and large enough to accommodate the number of puppies/dogs in a class should be avoided. An owner needs to feel comfortable with the instructor's communication skills as well as the training methods used by the instructor. Without good communication skills, the instructor cannot make the methods clear and the reasons for the methods understood. And, without question, any instructor that makes a puppy/dog perform a behavior by using physical force or intimidation should be avoided.

When a person is considering group classes, first, look for classes that have no more than approximately six puppies assigned to them unless the instructor has assistance in teaching and managing a larger number of attendees. Second, make sure the facility offers enough room for each participant to stand far enough away from each other so the puppies/dogs can be prevented from interacting with each other. Look for visual barriers that can be used if a dog/puppy needs to be prevented from seeing other puppies/dogs. Some puppies/dogs can only begin to learn if the surrounding environment does not distract them.

Virgo's agility lesson - Jan. 31, 2004Nancy: Avoid an instructor if he/she has an unwillingness to listen to your questions, and if they have a blind devotion to only one-way of doing things. The instructor needs to have a good understanding of what your goals are.

A note from Paws-A-Tive Choice: I'd like to thank Linda from P.U.P.S. Learning Center and Nancy from Renegade Agility for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise as dog training instructors with my web readers. It was a pleasure and a privilege working with both of these fine dog trainers.

Published March 2004