So, you’ve found a great trainer and are looking to start class with your dog soon. Congratulations! Enrolling in a well-taught training class is exactly what you need to gain the skills required to further develop your dog’s behavior at home.
Here are some points to keep in mind that will maximize you and your dog’s enjoyment on your first night of class.
- Bring a hungry dog to class! The classroom environment can be stressful and overwhelming for a “green” dog – new people, new dogs, new scents and sounds, new tasks. This can make it hard for dogs to focus. Bringing a hungry dog to class will help your dog focus on you and the task at hand. If you normally feed your dog twice a day, feed him only half his normal breakfast on class day and no dinner before class. You can feed him his dinner after class.
- Treats – there are two critical points to preparing your treats for class. A) Bring more than you think you’ll need and B) Bring really yummy, exception, special, “live” stuff. A) In the initial stages of training, a high rate of reinforcement will speed the rate of acquisition for new behavior. Your instructor should have treats on hand in case you run out, but nonetheless make sure you are well-prepared with at least three types of treats and bring lots of them. It’s better to have too many treats than too few, so be prepared! B) Yummy stuff – your dog’s kibble is great for training at home but probably will not earn you your dog’s focus in the distracting environment of the classroom. “Live” treats are best, meaning you are choosing treats which contain ingredients that have been “live” in the last few months – fresh food is best! Small bits of sandwich meats and cheese work wonderfully. Treats should be: small, palatable, soft, and ideally, smelly. Avoid pre-packaged grocery store treats as these are generally unhealthy and low quality.
- Your dog may not “know” some of the things you think she knows! Be prepared for the inevitable – even if your dog “knows” sit in your living room, chances are she will not “know” it her first night in the distracting environment of the classroom. Repeating a cue for a behavior over and over again as your dog ignores you devalues your cue. Have some impulse control and avoid asking your dog for behaviors. Aside from the exercises at hand, you should just focus on clicking and rewarding your dog for all desirable behavior (sit, down, “four on the floor” or stand, eye contact, no tension on the leash, etc.).
- Potty training – even a well-potty trained dog may have an accident in a new environment that smells like thousands of other dogs. This is no big deal! Ask your instructor in advance if she has cleaning supplies and if she does not, bring some of your own. If your dog has an accident, just clean it up. Do not fear – this does not mean that your dog will suddenly have accidents in the house. It is, however, a reflection of the fact that dogs don’t generalize well! Make sure you take your dog out for a potty break before class and during class if you notice signs that he has to go out (sniffing the ground, pawing at the ground, circling, squatting, etc.).
- Exercise your dog before class – Get your dog out for some nice, vigorous exercise before class. This will reduce his stress level and yours and reduce the likelihood that your dog will get too rowdy the first night of class.
- Bring your dog’s favorite toys! There will be times when your instructor needs to talk to the class to provide instructions. Having a stuffed Kong, bully stick, marrow bone, or tug toy on hand will help keep your dog occupied during these times and prevent him from getting bored and barking or chewing on your pant leg.
- Your dog may not eat – be prepared for the fact that your dog may not eat very much the first night of class. Tomorrow, I’ll share with you some of the reasons why dogs may not eat in class and possible solutions for each of these issues.
- Dress comfortably – you may be a fashionista, but five-inch stilettos are not appropriate classroom attire, particularly if you are walking a Great Dane with a leash manners issue. Dress comfortably for class and don’t wear your “Sunday best.” Dogs shed, drool, chew sleeves and pant legs, and sometimes, pee on your feet. (Which is why I love my terribly ugly rubber work shoes and a long pair of jeans) Avoid wearing heels, sandals, or open-toed shoes. These shoes can become a safety risk in class. Tube tops are also a no-no, imagine what the strategically placed paws of a jumping dog could do!
- Relax and have fun! Rest assured – nobody else in class has a perfectly behaved dog either. If they did, they wouldn’t be at class! Your dog is going to make mistakes, you will probably make a few as well. That’s ok – learning is never an error-free process, and your skills will improve with practice. Training is not a race – you are not competing with your fellow students. So what if their dog learns to “sit” a bit faster than yours? Your dog may be the fastest dog in the class when it comes to learning a retrieve, have the nicest play skills, or accept handling better than their dogs. Regardless, you and your dog will both get a lot more out of class if you go there with the mentality that you are just going to have fun with and learn with and from your dog.