When I got my first dog, I had no idea what I was doing. I was completely ignorant of dog behaviour, how they learn and how to train them. At one point I became desperate and called someone I knew who was involved with dog rescue, for help. My dog was fearful of everything and fear aggressive towards people. The woman I called directed me to my first dog training class.
The class was put on by a local dog club and had a regular series of training classes available. The first class I took, my dog wouldn’t stop barking so the instructor asked me if he could throw a cup of water in my dog’s face. I said yes immediately and felt relieved when it worked. She stopped barking and we got on with learning. So I needed this class to help us even if it seemed kind of extreme.
By humane training standards, this was ridiculous. But, in order to help my dog, I would have had to know how to train with food rewards and desensitization/counter-conditioning which was not something that was prevalent at the time or easy to access. I wouldn’t have been bringing my dog to a training class. We could have learned what we needed at home.
After that, I took many training classes with several different dogs, for several different things. Canine Disc, Rally-O, Competition Obedience, and even a clicker training class. All of them were useful for me at the time. I was learning how to train my dogs.
In between taking these classes I did research – hours and hours of research on the internet on all aspects of dogs.
At some point, I automatically knew that I didn’t really need to take any more classes. If I was going to take a class, it would have to be for a specific reason such as working around other dogs for competition or if I had a puppy for socialization, but not just to go through a class because we’re supposed to.
What Are Classes For?
Dog training classes are actually especially for those who need to learn how to train. With the exception of puppy class, where the puppies need to be around other safe dogs at that early age, most of the training you will do with your dog is done at home. Coming to class with a dog who is unable to do behaviours at home and then expecting them to perform well in a highly distracting situation is not really fair to the dog.
Most training classes get you to do some work at home and don’t require the dog for the first class. After having run years of training classes myself, I have found that dogs that come to the first class green, have difficulty and many won’t even take food rewards from their handers. This shows that they are stressed and is a very unproductive way to proceed in a class. So dogs who have never been to training classes as puppies are not the greatest candidates for group classes.
I have done private, individual classes for the first four of six classes and then brought everyone together for the last two. This worked out extremely well and all the dogs were able to progress appropriately. Most of these dogs had never been to class before and were able to adjust to the increasing distractions well.
Group classes are make more sense if you are training with correction methods because when a dog acts unruly or improperly because of a distraction you can correct him and say that he is being”proofed”. When training with food rewards, it is beneficial to train away from as many distractions at first and then slowly add in distractions all the while training the dog do do a particular behaviour. This is why I question the importance of taking training classes for green dogs who do not have experience being trained around other dogs such as would be the case (but not always) in a puppy class.
If you are at a more advanced level of training, most often for competition, then training around other dogs is a good idea but again not absolutely necessary. It will often help when your dog is in the ring with other dogs, or when there are other dogs nearby.
YES or NO?
So, is it important to go to group class or not? Yes and no. It depends on you and your goals and it depends on your dog. Of course.
If you need instruction yourself and a group class is all that you have access to then you may want to do that no matter what the result may be. In this case it is always best to consult the instructor of the class. If you have access to a private, force free dog training instructor who will come to your house, that might be a better choice for your inexperienced dog.
If you have a puppy, you definitely need to find a puppy safe class to take him to, to be around other puppies and get instruction yourself. This gives the dog a head start in life. It doesn’t mean that your puppy will learn all the basic behaviours perfectly – because that depends on you and how you train. but it does help with socialization and puppy development.
However, I have seen many, many dogs who have never attended a puppy class and have turned out very well behaved. I have also seen many, many dogs who have taken puppy class and beginner obedience classes who have ended up with behaviour issues including aggression.
If you have been doing work at home and your dog is doing well at the basic training behaviours (sit, recall, leave it etc), a group class may be a good idea. Usually, dogs are evaluated by the class instructor before starting to make sure there are no behaviour issues that could disrupt a class first. It will depend on the organization doing the teaching.
The most important thing when considering taking a training class, is that these classes are mostly for the human to learn how to train, not for the dog to learn. Especially in beginner classes, most of the learning is done at home to start. You go to class to learn how to teach your dog.
Going to training classes can give humans the idea that nothing more needs to be done now that they are done the class. In fact, MORE and continued training needs to be done, especially throughout the dog’s teenage months, which is likely the period of time in which most people have taken their classes and stop working with their dog as much.
Even dogs who have been taken to early training classes can slide backward in the training and forget what they have learned, especially with regards to seeing unusual things and different people. I can use my own dog AJ as an example of this. She attended puppy and beginner obedience classes and I extensively socialized her and exposed her to many things as a young dog, but during the winter of her teenage-hood we hardly went anywhere and she developed a fear of novel things. This made her reactive to people and other dogs that she didn’t know.
However you choose to interpret the information in this post is up to you. The most important way to have a well behaved dog is to work with that dog as much as possible and take your dog out to experience as much as possible.