Dog training programs typically fall into one of the following categories: group classes; board and train; and private lessons. There are two significant obstacles which prevent making significant changes in a dog’s behavior, and these are best overcome through a private lesson program.
LOCATION: The first obstacle is where the dog lives. Where a dog lives greatly influences how a dog is going to behave. The inputs of the environment aren’t going to change unless the owner moves into a completely different location. The layout of the home, the types of neighbors, the distractions in the neighborhood, sound levels, homeowner’s association rules, weather extremes and such won’t change.
I met a student about 2 years ago with a large, 1 ½ year old male Sheep-a-doodle. The owner lived in a first-floor apartment facing the community pool. She set up a lesson because he didn’t walk well on leash and would lunge to greet people and other dogs on the walkways. He was a nice dog, but the lunging was intimidating to strangers and strange dogs, and he was almost too strong for her to control. The second issue was that he was starting to push the blinds aside and watch passersby and people in the pool areas through the window. The stage was set for him to begin barking and engaging in watchdog behavior through the window. That type of situation could then bleed over to the leash walking, causing him to eventually confront strangers on walks.
Group classes and boarding programs are highly controlled environments and can’t reveal how dogs will respond to novelty in their own home and neighborhood. In most group classes, they could work on the leash pulling. But they would not be equipped to do proper training set ups at the home location to deal with actual people and dogs living near home, or to even notice or address the window guarding. Group classes aren’t set up to observe budding environmental problems at home or in a neighborhood. Since I was able to observe the dog at home, I could see the entire picture. The owner didn’t even realize an additional problem was brewing, and didn’t realize that some of the lunging might be partly motivated by a growing suspicion of strangers and strange dogs. With respect to a board and train program, there would be a different approach. First, the dog would be taught to walk on a leash. That is standard stuff for such a program. The guarding behavior wouldn’t be noticed since that dog wouldn’t have displayed that behavior on the strange turf at their kennels, and he would come back home and keep learning to guard the window and distrust strangers and strange dogs that passed near his territory. Window guarding teaches dogs to become vigilant protectors of the home and owner. Lastly, board and train programs never work with the owner at their homes to ensure that the training, and training knowledge, transfers over to the new owner. Most times, people are sent home with a leash, an electric collar, their dog, and an offer to do some tune up lessons at the boarding facility. Punishment is prescribed for most misbehavior, and the owners don’t have the skills and understanding to do otherwise. You should not punish a dog for guarding behavior and expect that to work out well in the long run. Either the dog will break down, or the dog will break through the punishment and guard the property even more intensely.
During the private lesson, not only did I show her how to work with her dog to teach him how to walk nicely on a leash, but I also addressed the brewing watchdog problem. This dog was starting to guard her apartment, and possibly the area and sidewalks around the entrance to her apartment. He was an Old English Sheepdog X Standard Poodle, and the watchdog behavior is typically part of their behavioral script. I’ve worked with Sheep-a-Doodles and they all became watchdogs when they became adults. I asked her how long her apartment lease was, and I recommended that when it expired to get a different unit that didn’t face a walkway or a community pool. Her lease was for another year, and so I recommended steps she could take in the meantime to prevent a neighbor or management complaint, and to factor his watchdog script into the leash training program. He was a good dog, but he was being put in an unfair situation because the location was triggering and rewarding some undesired behaviors.
THE PEOPLE: The second obstacle is who the dog lives with. Attempts to change a dog’s behavior will not be successful if you can’t get the entire family on board with with the program. Sometimes lessons are more like family therapy. Yes, sometimes the tears flow and the tissues come out because part of the dog’s behavior problems developed out of a family tragedy. Yes, sometimes people need to be confronted in a family setting with the trainer acting as the referee and family counselor. And yes, sometimes the trainer needs to be there to do the confronting, even at the risk that one of the family members is going to get angry when it is all brought out into the open.
A dog isn’t going to improve if the dog is hated by one or more of the people who it lives with. A dog can’t handle family strife. A dog can’t handle being neglected. A dog can’t do well if the people read it wrong and then don’t support better behavioral solutions. I can give countless examples of where training failed because someone in the home wouldn’t change how they interacted with the dog. On the other hand, using private lessons, you have the best opportunity to get the family’s trust, to see what is going on, and then help everyone develop a good relationship with their dog. People aren’t going to talk about their family issues in front of a group of strangers in a group class. At their home, the trainer can see how the dog greets people, where the dog lives, how the dog is actually treated, the potty area, food bowl placement, how people interact and how they interact with the dog, and a million other things that will never be revealed in a group class. Board and train programs aren’t set up to deal with family relationship issues that involve the dog, so a lot is missing.
If an owner doesn’t learn alongside the dog, then what is done with the dog in class, and between lessons, deteriorates. Every interaction all day long is training. Many dogs, sent off to board and train situations, come home and after a few weeks the dog acts as if it has never been trained at all. The owners didn’t know how the dog was trained, they haven’t changed their bad habits and attitudes, and they can’t maintain whatever was done.
The biggest downside with private lessons is that you are coming in as a novice, and that can feel intimidating. It is important, however, to realize every novice at anything feels insecure at first. I know what it is like to be a novice. Over 20 years ago, those first weeks in a Brazilian jiu jitsu dojo were intimidating. It took time to feel safe, to fit in, to not feel like I was not making it, and to get to where I wasn’t feeling like puking because of the intense level of cardio work. But I also knew one thing about BJJ: it takes 20 years to get a black belt. Two years in, I earned a blue belt and 2 stripes, yet I remember telling my instructor (they are called “professors”) that sometimes I came in and did well, others I felt like I was a beginner. He reminded me of what it took to get good, “sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes the bug.” That was good advice. Dog training can be that way, too. You are going to start out not knowing as much as you thought you knew, you’re going to feel clumsy, and you’re going to see that you don’t have as good of a relationship with your dog as you thought you did.
But you’d never get that experience with most group classes or board and train programs. It is unusual for a group class to give you the kind of insight you’ll get with one-on-one training. When I was starting out to be a professional, I did group (and dog club) training. That was what was available. But the good stuff came afterwards when I was able to talk with the trainers and others about what I had seen and done. That kind of training rarely happens in group classes. The instructors usually aren’t that good. With board and train programs, there never is the dog training theory discussions and you aren’t there to watch what was done with your dog or any of the other dogs at that facility. In other words, maybe your dog gets better, but you don’t. And when your dog comes home, you’ll undo whatever good was done in that class or boarding program. You’ll revert to your ignorance of dog behavior and your dog will go along that route with you.
Private lessons with somebody good… with a trainer who is good with dogs and good with people… are hard to find. But if you can get into such a program, it is well worth the investment. What I learned over the years from the one-on-one talks was more valuable to me, and to my dog, than what was done in the classes with my dogs. I got a fuller picture. I see this with my students, as well. The ones that do multiple lessons over time get the chance to learn things that they would never hear about in any other type of program. The dogs benefit because when the owner knows what they are doing, the training result is complete and more effective.
I have offered group classes. I love doing them. But I have also recommended that these same students also sign up to do private lessons with me. I currently have a student who is involved in a group agility dog program, but is also doing private lessons with me to fill in the gaps. I used to offer board and train programs, but I stopped those altogether. I didn’t like the results. Even though I offered private lessons, and even group lessons, for the owners to supplement what was done, most people took the dogs and I never heard from them again. I knew that the dogs wouldn’t get at home what I gave them during boarding. Board and train customers don’t typically value the relationship building aspect of dog training, and when I came to see that, I didn’t feel I could offer that type of program in good conscience. Good dog training always promotes a superior dog-student relationship as its primary foundation. So, after many years of experience, with my dogs and all my students and their dogs, I believe the first, best results come from private lessons.