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

By Kathy Edstrom

I work with a variety of clients in my business. The majority of them participate in some form of training, either private lessons or group classes. How do you know what type of training will benefit you and your pet the most? Both private and group lessons have advantages, but there are also some disadvantages that a person should consider when deciding what type of training to pursue.

I interviewed two dog trainers on this subject. Linda M. Arndt DVM has been a frequent contributor to the Paws-A-Tive Choice website. She has been involved with group classes as well as teaching private lessons since 1999. Linda’s specialty is working with family pets. Nancy, at Renegade Agility, is also my agility instructor and has been teaching group lessons for nine years and private lessons for seven years. Nancy 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 highly respect both of these trainers, as I’ve personally experienced how beneficial each of their private and group classes are.

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: What is your background in dog training?

Linda: As a veterinarian that graduated in the mid-seventies, I had little formal education in dog behavior. As a life long dog owner, former breeder, conformation dog show participant and dog groomer, and participant in dog training activities, I have accumulated quite a bit of knowledge based on personal experience over the years. Starting in 1996 I began attending dog behavior seminars and auditing different dog-training classes/trainers regularly and in earnest. After finding and personally experiencing the training method that I found to be most effective in teaching dogs appropriate behaviors, I created P.U.P.S Learning Center. I have taught group and private lessons since 1999.

Nancy: I became involved in agility while taking obedience lessons at a dog-training club. I then started teaching agility for the dog club we belonged to.

PC: What is your training style?

Linda: Based on my belief system, I teach class participants why dogs do what they do as well as carefully explaining what we can or cannot do about that activity. I demonstrate, as well as help dog owners practice techniques that can be used to teach a puppy or dog the behaviors humans deem appropriate. As a result, I find myself offering people a great deal of valuable information verbally as well as helping them, in a hands on manner, teach their canine companions the behaviors most of us humans want our dogs to exhibit.

In terms of teaching the dogs themselves, I believe in teaching a dog a behavior by giving the dog a visual cue and setting the dog up to volunteer the desired behavior. I use gentle management to stop the dog from leaving or exhibiting undesirable behaviors while it is deciding what to do. Once the dog performs the desired behavior voluntarily, the dog is reinforced with something it considers rewarding. Never is the dog physically pushed or manipulated by force. I expect the dog to think about its situation and offer the behavior on a volunteer basis. Only then will it be offered the reward it has earned. Once a dog offers a behavior voluntarily and learns that there is value in doing so, it will repeat that behavior, happily. Those desirable behaviors will become habits for the dog if repeated often enough.

Nancy: I build a positive foundation for the skills that a dog and handler will need to succeed in learning how to negotiate an agility course.

PC: From your experience as an instructor, what are the benefits of group classes?

Linda: In my opinion, group classes work best for young puppies and for maturing puppies that have been started in group classes at a younger age. Puppies that are 8 to 14 weeks of age are ready and able to begin to learn a great deal of appropriate dog behavior. Their quick progress is enjoyable to watch. The puppies' ability to learn in the presence of other puppies teaches the puppies that they can interact with other puppies when allowed to do so and ignore a distraction as powerful as another puppy as needed. Group dynamics are also very exciting in that people can watch each other, share their experiences and help one another understand that they often are contending with similar behaviors from their puppies. The owners come to realize that they are not alone. I also believe that, as a group, participants stimulate each other to do their homework and help their own individual puppies learn.

Nancy: Group classes offer distractions and the dog and handler learn how to perform when other people are watching.

PC: What are the benefits of private lessons?

Linda: Private lessons or semi-private lessons are extremely beneficial for the adolescent or adult dog and its human. These dogs often times need a quieter environment and fewer distractions, in order to begin to learn a behavior. The dog's owner wants to spend time teaching and learning, not trying to hang on as their dog searches out reinforcement from other dogs or people. Sometimes two dogs can be matched together and learning can still take place. The class can then be tailored or customized to what the people are specifically looking for or according to what the dog already knows. The instructor can spend the needed amount of time to ask questions, discuss situations and explain why learning a new behavior is more difficult to learn for a dog that has already practiced inappropriate behavior or exhibits an undesirable habit. The instructor's attention can be directed to the very specific and individual needs of both the dogs and their owners.

Nancy: You can work on the things the individual team needs. ("Team"meaning dog and handler.)

PC: In your opinion, what are the disadvantages of group classes?

Linda: My class time is limited to 90 minutes and I assign myself no more than six puppies in any given beginner puppy class (four puppies in advanced puppy class) because I, alone, teach each class. Given that amount of time and the material I wish to cover, I have little extra time to go into detail concerning one person's unique situation. Instructors are fortunate that most eight to fourteen week old puppies exhibit typical puppy behavior, which is usually addressed within the class itself. However, adolescent dogs and some puppies offer behavioral dilemmas that need individual discussion and attention to solve. That must be done outside of a group setting.

Nancy: A disadvantage of group classes is the instructor is not able to devote enough personal attention to each team’s individual needs. Often they are forced to work on those issues the majority needs help on.

PC: What are the disadvantages of private lessons?

Linda: Two things that are obviously missing from a private lesson atmosphere are people from outside the dog owner's family and other dogs, excluding the instructor's dog(s). During private lessons, once the dog and its owner are ready for such work, the instructor must create the distractions necessary for a dog to learn how to function in and around other people and other dogs. This, of course, may not be one of the owner's goals. But, if it is, the instructor needs to find a way to help the dog learn how to stay calm in the face of such distractions.

In terms of young puppies and private lessons, I believe the instructor must discuss the goals that an owner has for their puppy. A puppy's exposure to other puppies and dogs might be extremely important. Puppy play, if done correctly, can help build a puppy's confidence. While it does not guarantee that a puppy will grow up liking all other dogs, it can help a puppy grow up unafraid of other dogs. If a puppy is enrolled in a private lesson situation, exposure to other dogs may not occur or it will occur outside of the instructor's influence. Owner instruction on such dog-to-dog exposure should definitely take place, if the puppy is enrolled in private lessons.

Nancy: A disadvantage of private lessons is there are not enough distractions.

PC: Do you believe that one method of teaching is better than the other, i.e. group is better than private or vice versa?

Linda: For young puppies I do believe there is benefit to small group lessons and accompanying puppy play activities. For older dogs, adolescent dogs or young puppies with behavioral issues outside the norm, I believe private lessons are more beneficial when starting to teach these dogs basic obedience concepts.

Nancy: I prefer privates as you can progress at the individual dog and handler’s pace. There are run-throughs (practice matches) available to work on distractions.

PC: Have you noticed any training issues with dogs that were only trained in group classes?

Linda: If a dog was placed in group classes, was unable to handle the stimulation and was not able to learn in that environment, the dog would make little or no progress in terms of learning how to pay attention to its owner or calm behavior in the face of distractions. Private lessons would be indicated.

Nancy: Foundation skills are not worked on enough. Some teams are held back because other teams are not progressing quickly enough to move everyone along.

PC: Have you noticed any training issues with dogs that were only trained in private lessons?

Linda: The ability of a dog to stay calm in the face of unfamiliar people and dogs could be lacking, if the instructor did not address that facet of learning. The setting for a puppy to have positive play experiences with other dogs and puppies under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable instructor could be lacking in a private lesson setting.

Nancy: With dogs that are only trained in private lessons, they get very distracted or stressed in groups or at shows.

Please join us for Part Two. 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.

Published February 2004