Successful Dog Training Classes

What criteria do you use to judge the success of your classes? Trainers often say they feel good about an hour spent teaching when they see students laugh and smile. When they see dogs performing. When everyone seems to be having a good time. They feel good when their lessons have gone as expected. When they haven’t made a verbal gaffe, and feel they’ve spoken well. And nice evaluations can confirm these feelings, or even assuage any doubt they have been harboring.

But these criteria — a good time, dog performance in the classroom, positive evaluations — are misleading indicators at best. Yes, you absolutely want your students to enjoy their time with you (and vice versa). It’s fantastic to see dogs “getting it” in the moment. And who doesn’t want a positive eval? But you need to ask an entirely different set of questions to really determine whether your classes are successful.

Are students engaging?
Are students diving into exercises or waiting for step-by-step instructions? Do they try an exercise a few times and then wait for one-on-one feedback, or are they continually working their dogs? Do they apply lessons and concepts without being prompted? For example, asking their dogs for a wait at your door when you aren’t working on wait. Or treating their dog for not barking when another dog does because you’ve been working on catching dogs getting it right, or rewarding what you like.

A successful classroom is one in which students actively participate in learning, rather than waiting for each instruction. A strong curriculum creates an atmosphere in which students learn to apply recently acquired knowledge and skills to new situations. Too often dog classrooms — much like school classrooms — are focused on the instructor. Students are taught to always follow a lead, and rarely do they learn to stand on their own. In effect, trainers forget to remove the luring and prompting, leaving students unable to act effectively without us.

Are students problem solving?
Are students given opportunities to encounter new situations and make decisions about how to respond? Because they’ll encounter situations in the real world every day, and you won’t be there to tell them what to do. Too many dog training curricula adhere to the old explain-demo-practice model. And when trainers do give students an opportunity to encounter a more real-life practice scenario — say, putting some treats or another distraction on the ground — they usually undermine any benefit by telling them what to do: “Walk to within five feet and then tell your dog ‘leave it.’”

But students must learn to make their own criteria decisions and be able to handle real-life distractions. Their world is full of them. When I put some treats on the ground I don’t care if the dog leaves them; what I want to know is: Does the student notice them? Does she make a proactive decision about what to do? I don’t care if she lets her dog have the treats, tells him to “leave it,” tells him “come” or “let’s go” or “watch,” or chooses to give them a wide berth. My definition of success is that she reads the environment, judges the right criteria for her dog, and chooses a course of action that works for her. Explain-demo-practice drills, or even a collection of fun games, will not teach students these life-with-dog skills.

Problem solving is also about making adjustments. Can a student recognize that something isn’t working and make an unprompted change? For example, to notice her dog has become distracted by another dog having moved closer and adjust the length of the stay they were working on? Or increase her rate of reinforcement or switch to a higher value treat or body block or use some sweet talk? Or, for that matter, move farther away from the other dog? Again, I don’t care what the student’s solution is — only that she recognizes the need for one and tries the positive tools taught in class until she gets her dog refocused. For this to happen, I must resist the temptation to stand at her elbow suggesting each move. I also need to allow for individual criteria setting and success rather than asking the class to all work on a two-minute stay, for example.

Are students carrying the classroom with them?
One of my favorite tactics to judge my own success when I taught training classes was to position myself inconspicuously somewhere outside the classroom before and, if I could sneak away, after class. I liked to watch my students outside of class when they didn’t realize they were being watched. Not to check up on them — to check on my own efficacy. What did they do in the parking lot? How did they interact with their dogs? Were they carrying the skills and concepts from class into the world outside?

I was watching for those tell-tale moments: A dog noticing and beginning to pull toward a buddy from class. A McDonald’s wrapper on the sidewalk. (Sometimes deliberately placed there, I’ll admit.) A gaggle of parading pigeons. Did my students notice early enough to be proactive? What decisions did they make? Did they make adjustments when what they tried first didn’t work? Because if the classroom experience isn’t even making it out into the parking lot, it’s pretty unlikely it’s changing behavior (human or dog) at home.

Are they coming back?
Life is busy and students will miss a training class here and there. But very nearly all students should complete their first class, even if they missed a week somewhere along the way. Dropouts are a clear sign that a class, regardless of how enjoyable it might be or how much the students like the instructor, is not feeling relevant to life outside the classroom. Students may love an instructor, but if what is being done in class is not translating to beneficial change outside of it, it’s all too easy to disengage and put limited time resources elsewhere.

Retention from course to course is critical as well. From a business perspective, repeat business is the number one indicator of success. No class program can boast 100% retention and of course numbers will decline from class one to two, from two to three, and so on. But the more a curriculum is built around students learning skills and concepts and learning to apply those to problem solving for real life, rather than around achieving specific dog behaviors, the more likely students will come back for more. They come back not just because they enjoy class, but also because class makes a difference at home and in the world.

(See Increase Class Program Retention With Topics Classes for ideas on how to use shorter classes to improve student retention from one course to the next.)

Are you asking the right questions?
Questions to ask of students. Trainers often rely heavily on gut feelings and student evaluations to determine how they’re doing. But gut emotions can be misleading — even irrelevant — and we rarely ask the right questions on evaluations. For example, the common question, “Which behaviors were most and least useful?” misses the mark entirely. Trainers often insist that dog training is about teaching people, not dogs. Though we advocate for a move away from this notion in private training, we agree with it wholeheartedly in a class setting; it really cannot be otherwise. But to say that dog training is about training people and then to build a curriculum based on teaching dogs behaviors is a glaring disconnect. If the classroom is about teaching people, why ask about behaviors on evaluation forms?

Instead, ask questions that get to the heart of the matter: What’s going on at home? For example, “Which concept that we’ve learned in class have you most used outside the classroom in day-to-day life with your dog, and how?” Or, “What has been the biggest change you’ve made outside the classroom?”

Questions to ask of ourselves. In gauging class success, try to replace “Are they having fun? Did I perform well? Did the dogs do the behaviors in class?” with “Are my students engaging? Are they problem solving? Are they behaving differently outside my classroom?” Because yes answers to these questions will certainly mean a yes answer to the central business question: “Are they coming back?”