Why Every Dog Should Go To Obedience Class
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
The last few weeks have been a seemingly endless stream of stories about dogs that are both frustrating and heartbreaking, including dog bites, re-homing requests, and frustrated owners with 8 month old puppies who are still not house-trained. Sadly they all have a similar theme because all of these could have been prevented or could be fixed by one thing: training.
I have talked to a lot of people who have never taken a class with their dog or who look somewhat confused when I suggest that they take one. There is also the response “Oh, I’ve had dogs my whole life, I don’t need to take an obedience class.”
I think that sometimes there are misconceptions about what an “obedience” class is all about and what an owner can gain from attending a class with their dog, especially for people who have had dogs before or feel like they have a lot of knowledge about dogs. Actually, until Jackson was born I had never taken one either, having grown up with dogs who came to me rescued and pre-trained like my late Babe, or who were trained by my father.
Dogs have been companions to humans for so long that it seems like it should be second nature for us to live together. The reality, though, is that no matter how harmoniously we are able to live together, at the end of the day they are still another species and we can both use all the help we can get at learning how to understand each other and communicate across our separate and very different species.
Dogs are very different from humans. Their bodies are different, their minds are different, their communication methods are different, their learning requirements are different, even the structure of their brain is different as they are blessed with a whole extra area to analyze scents. Things that are acceptable in our world are rude or aggressive in theirs, similar to someone from another country in another part of the world. Just like trying to speak to a fellow human who speaks another language or has different social norms than we do, we need to learn how to speak in a language our dogs understand, learn how to understand what they are saying to us without words, and understand their cultural norms.
However, despite my analogy comparing your dog to someone from another culture in a different part of the world, a dog is also an entirely other species than we are. They are a very special, precious species that deserves to be treated well, loved for all the days of their life, and considered to be a family member, but they are not a small furry person.
Dog obedience school or dog training classes are first and foremost about teaching humans to teach their dogs the rules of life in a human household. In most beginner obedience classes you will learn to teach your dog how to sit, come when called, look at you when you say their name, stay, lay down, settle and start to walk nicely on a leash. Usually around six to eight weeks in duration, the beginner obedience class is just the very tip of the proverbial training iceberg!
When you find a really good dog trainer, you learn so much more than how to teach your dog how to perform those commands. Don’t get me wrong, those are the must-know commands that can literally save your dog’s life, particularly the stay or come command. But the best dog trainers teach owners about how a dog’s mind works, the importance of repetition and patience, the benefits of positive reward based training, and how to understand your dog despite being two very different species and get your dog to understand you.
The first night of my Basic Obedience class with Jackson the trainer spoke to us with made-up, random words that might not have even been actual words. Her words made literally no sense at all. There were no dogs in the room, the first session was a human-only orientation.
She said it again, only louder. Then even louder. Then with a raised voice and anger, and asked why we could not understand her, she was speaking English! What was wrong with us that we could not understand what she was telling us?
As you might expect, this exercise was to show us what it is like to be a dog with humans randomly saying words to them and growing impatient when they do not instantly understand. It may sound silly, but that was one of the most impactful moments of all of the classes in which I participated and is something that has stuck with me during every moment working with and living with our dogs.
Different trainers have different nuggets of information and different methods that will stick with different people. Add in the fact that every dog is slightly different in terms of what motivates them, how easy or difficult they are to train, with different backgrounds and life experiences, and you arrive at the same suggestion for all dogs: that every human needs to take every one of their dogs to at least one training class and ideally several additional classes after they graduate from beginner.
Dog training classes are really about training owners to teach their dogs. Most of the class time is spent learning from the trainers, and most of your actual training time with your dog is outside of the classroom. In fact, when you do practice the commands in the classroom it is the owner who the trainer is really watching and correcting rather than the dog because the class is to train the owner how to train the dog.
When you find a good trainer you will understand how to take your training beyond basic obedience because you will know the concepts behind teaching your dog. Once you can teach her sit and stay, it’s not a far stretch to teach her other commands, to teach her tricks, to teach her games. Learning about how your dog learns will help you with socializing her, with teaching her not to bite (bite inhibition), with a variety of situations that you might encounter during your dog’s life.
Not only will you forever have the skills to teach your dog and future dogs, but you will have a go-to resource should something pop up in the future. I often wonder how many dogs would not be re-homed if their owners had a relationship with a trainer so they could easily reach out when a life change happened like a new baby or the introduction of another dog into the house.
Training your dog can be a lot of fun for you and the dog as long as you are patient and realize that the fun part is for you and your dog to be learning together and to build an incredible bond together. In fact I often look for additional classes to take just for fun and I am strongly considering joining a local dog training club so that one of the dogs and I can go once a week and practice their skills, be around other dogs and dog owners with similar goals, and to continually learn from some of the amazing dog trainers that we have in our area.
If you are looking for a professional dog trainer, check with your veterinarian for recommendations.
Also check out these websites:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers (ADPT): https://apdt.com/about/trainer-search/
Karen Pryor Academy: https://www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer