The Business of Curriculum

Frustrated at classes that end with fewer students than you started with? Disappointed that more clients don’t sign up for the next round? All the more perplexed because your class evaluations are glowing, your rates competetive, your reputation strong, and your class schedule full of choices?

More often than not the problem is the curriculum.

The best classes focus on human decision making, not dog performance, and curriculum should be designed with this in mind. Concern over whether every dog in a class can do a five-minute ‘down stay’ by the end of the course misses the point: What a dog can and cannot do in the classroom is not important—he doesn’t live in the classroom.

The key to reducing recidivism and increasing subsequent class sales is the real-life impact of your classes. No matter how much fun students have had, no matter how much they like their instructor, now matter how successful their dog was in class—if they don’t see useful change in their own lives with their dogs they’re less likely to return.

What every trainer wants—for the sake of her clients and her business—is for the learning and the results to manifest outside the classroom. In other words, clients must learn to make decisions in real-life situations that will help them to a successful outcome with their dog in any particular moment.

Real-Life Success, Not Classroom Performance.
With a curriculum that focuses on the aforementioned five-minute ‘down stay’ in the classroom, that is precisely what the client gets (if, that is, she is very successful): A dog able to do a five-minute ‘down stay’ in the classroom. That isn’t very useful. By contrast, if the client learns what motivates and distracts her dog, and how to accurately read a situation, she will be able to make decisions that set her dog up for success out in the world.

Say a student walks with her dog to a nearby café on a Sunday morning to get a bagel. She wants to eat her bagel on the café patio in the sunshine. A student taught decision making would look around for potential distractions and challenges for her dog in this environment. She would then decide a) whether it is realistic for her to sit and enjoy the sunshine, and b) if she thinks it is, where she should sit, what she needs to watch out for, and what she is asking her dog to do. Is it reasonable to ask her dog for a ‘down stay’ or will she accept a ‘sit’? She would also decide what she is going to reinforce the dog for and at which frequency, what it is reasonable for her to expect from her dog if a distraction enters the environment, and how she will react. Are there circumstances under which she will get up and leave—that is, before a problem arises or she asks too much of her dog?

Rather than insisting on a five-minute ‘down stay’ at the café, this client is making a realistic assessment of what her dog can do in a specific environment so her dog can be reinforced for that. She has learned to assess her dog’s level and work within it so she can expand it, rather than constantly insisting her dog perform an arbitrarily determined behavior based on what was done in class.

To be able to do this, our student had to learn the following: Situational awareness, real-life problem solving, and to work at her dog’s level (criteria setting, essentially).

To teach clients these skills, all curriculum design should be based on two precepts:

1.    Contextual learning. Meaning, don’t teach behavior just to teach behavior. Every classroom exercise should be built around a real-life purpose; no more behaviors taught in a vacuum.

2.    A focus on teaching clients real-world decision making and problem solving. If a client cannot apply what she is learning in class to her life outside the classroom, the class has failed her. From a business perspective, so has the trainer or manager giving the class: When learning has no impact out in the world, people often fail to finish the full course and far fewer come back for another.

Process, Or Fading The Prompt…
Whole books could be written about the process of teaching this type of class. Briefly, here are two keys to success:

A scaffolded approach. A good dog training analogy for scaffolding is fading the prompt. Initially the teacher tells the students what to do. As they pick up the foundational learning, the trainer begins to create opportunities for them to apply their knowledge to new situations, keeping it simple and easy at first. Say the students have just learned how to use a lure to teach their dogs to sit. The instructor might then ask them to consider how they would apply the same technique to train ‘down.’

Or imagine the teacher has explained the principle of ‘nothing for free.’ Instead of giving the clients every example she herself can think of, she gives only a couple and then asks students to find examples each from their own lives.

Gradually, the challenges become larger and more complex, and in the process become increasingly entwined with real-life situations until eventually, the trainer might place the clients in an actual or pretend situation such as a café (or a trip to a pet store or vet office, a mock living room with a ringing doorbell, etc.) and ask them to make the decisions faced by the woman in our opening example. By the end of class, the trainer should not have to tell a client whose dog is easily distracted by other dogs where to sit in this café scenario to create the distance that will allow her dog to be successful. At that point the trainer has faded the prompt and the student is able to do it herself. Failing to fade the prompt greatly decreases the likelihood the client will make good decisions out in the world.

Self-Contained Lessons. One of the biggest challenges facing any teacher, whether they instruct kindergarteners, high schoolers, grad students, or people with their dogs, is handling the widely varied skill and knowledge levels of their students. Do you teach to the middle? Reward the more advanced students with extra time so they don’t get bored? Give the struggling students more of your attention? These questions often spark lively debate, but it’s a false dilemma, because a well-designed curriculum does away with the need to choose.

If we don’t require that all dogs attain the five-minute ‘down stay,’ bell curve grading can be put to rest. Lessons and activities can be designed to allow everyone—humans and dogs—to succeed and improve, regardless of where they currently are.

For example, an alternative stay lesson might consist of a particular distraction set up in an area of the classroom. (Perhaps a guest dog working with an assistant, the instructor bouncing a tennis ball, a student’s teenager rolling a skateboard.)  Students are told to practice stays in the midst of the distraction. The challenge? The students have to decide where in the room to practice. They have to read their dog, judge how he’s likely to react to the distraction, think about how well his stay is coming along, and then decide: Should I get up close and go for short duration? Give myself ten feet? Work in the farthest corner (or even the hallway)?

If their decision is wrong in either direction, they’ll soon know. Early on in the course the instructor might prompt an adjustment: “Fido seems particularly entranced by the skateboard. What might make this easier for him?” This instruction will help the student learn to take action as needed. Again, if we make the mistake of telling the client what to do (“You might want to move farther away from the distraction”) instead of cultivating their own problem solving, the learning is less likely to transfer outside of the classroom.

This lesson allows people and dogs at all levels to participate successfully because success is defined individually. And when I work at my dog’s level he’s able to get it right, which means I can reinforce him, which means he’s going to get it right more often.

The Bottom Line
We often talk about training really being about teaching humans, not dogs. But few training classes realize this conviction. Too often class curriculum is treated as merely a list of behaviors to teach; which keeps the focus on dog performance, not human learning. It’s also not curriculum—it’s a list of behaviors. Curriculum focused on the human learners, by contrast, is built around problem solving and decision making applied to real-life contexts.

We tend to judge the success of our classes based on 1) whether people enjoyed themselves and 2) whether the dogs were able to perform the prescribed behaviors. But a much better yardstick would be how our classes make people’s lives with their dogs better or easier in some way—because that’s what will get them to come back. And that’s good for them, their dogs, and for business.

A Few Additional Tips for Selling Subsequent Classes:

1.    Don’t wait until graduation to tell students about the next class they should take. Instead, talk about upcoming classes and next steps in the penultimate class. This gives students time to think ahead and not feel rushed into a decision. They’re more likely to remember to bring their checkbook or credit card and to be ready to pull the trigger. For an added personal touch, give each student a branded postcard with your personal recommendations for which class or classes would be a great next step for their dog.

2.    Give a discount for registering for a next class at graduation. The discount doesn’t have to be large to work– something as small as 10% or $10 will do the trick.

3.    Focus on the benefits of taking the classes. Talking about what will be covered is fine, but telling people how it will help them—that’s the key. Will the class make life at home calmer? Help them enjoy taking their dog out into the world? Make them feel more in control? Give them an enjoyable way to spend an evening out at half the price of dinner and a movie?