My first experience in a dog training class was in 1968 in Southern California. We were to teach our dogs to sit, stay, heel and come from ten feet away. From a Sit/Stay. That was it. A lot of energy was put into perfect heels (using leash jerks of course) and long Sit/Stays for no discernible purpose except blind obedience. Most training classes were based on obedience competition, as if family dog owners cared about perfect heel positions and long sit/stays. But an “obedient dog” was defined by “obedience competitions”. (For more history of training classes, see this interesting article about the evolution of obedience classes.)
That was then, this is now, and it’s not surprising that things have changed. 1968, heaven help me, was 49 years ago, when we fixed typing mistakes with scratchy erasers that tore the paper, had “party lines” on our clunky black phones and thought “app” was shorthand for a red fruit. Well, no we didn’t; no one ever said “app”.
But what HAS changed? I got to thinking about this when we decided to put Family Dog Training on sale. (My staff threatened me with leash jerks if I didn’t say that book is on sale this week, Sept 11th to September 16th. Whew, okay, I’m done with that. Chocolate all around.)
The two most significant changes that I’ve seen in beginning family dog training classes over the years are in methodology (positive reinforcement versus positive and negative punishment) and in curriculum. It’s the latter I want to focus on, because I find it fascinating how what we think is important has changed over time. I’ll get us started, please chime in with the changes you’ve seen over the years, either as a trainer or class participant.
CURRICULUM: First, gone are the exercises that are important in a competition ring but not to most dog owners. One of the first things I did when my colleague Nancy Rafetto and I started offering classes through Dog’s Best Friend was to drop long SIT/STAYS. We actually encouraged people, if they weren’t going to compete, to let their dogs lie down when told to stay. Why not let the dogs get comfortable? STAY is still on the agenda of the classes I’m familiar with, but it is usually taught as a practical exercise that allows you to keep your dog out of trouble for a brief period of time, not the road to an endless, owner-absent SIT/STAY for no reason whatsoever.
Of course we continued to teach SIT, as I think all classes still do (yes?), it being a great way to get your dog’s attention, to set up the next behavior and to teach impulse control. In my experience what’s changed is how it’s taught and when it’s taught. Most classes (most I hope?) use positive reinforcement, and either lure the dog into a sit or wait for the dog to do it himself. That’s a monumental improvement from pushing down on a dog’s rump, or worse, pulling on a choke chain until the dog sits and then releasing the pressure.
In the 1990’s we added practical exercises like WAIT (pause please), because so many of our clients had dogs who bolted out the door. Dashing outside puts the dogs in danger of being injured and the owners at risk of ripping their hair from their heads because they are late for work and Frankie is running laps around the cul-de-sac. We also added SETTLE (“Please go lie down somewhere and don’t bother me for a while”) and LEAVE IT or, “Back away from the dead fish.” (The words “For the love of God” are implied here.)
FOUR ON THE FLOOR Most dog owners don’t want their dogs jumping up on company, so this exercise seems to be just as popular as it was 50 years ago. Of course, back then I was taught to kick a dog in the stomach to teach it not to jump up, a practice that feels like a kick in the stomach just writing about it. Now, at least in progressive classes, the focus is on what to do, versus what not to do, and dogs learn that keeping all paws on the ground leads to food falling from the sky. The reinforcement is well deserved, because our poor dogs are desperate to greet us politely by licking our faces. It’s not their fault our faces are in the wrong place.) I should note, however, that I don’t think most people care if their own dogs jump up to greet them. (Do you?)
Surely an important exercise in all family dog training classes is still HEEL, although many of us think of it as “Please walk politely on a leash.” Walking side by side is inherent to our social behavior, yet so completely alien to dogs (see The Other End of the Leash), that it’s no wonder we have to teach it to dogs like a circus trick.
NAME and ATTENTION are a big part of many classes now, right? I don’t remember when we first started teaching NAME and ATTENTION in our classes, but I think of it now as a fundamental set of exercises that should be at the beginning of every class series. Aimee Moore, the owner of Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, WI (the Training Director when I owned DBF and co-author of The Puppy Primer) tells me that her classes now include a class called Focus and Control, for dogs who are easily aroused and need to learn to focus when distracted. (She notes that these kind of dogs are becoming more common in classes. You?)
TRICKS and GAMES Many classes add this important component into family dog training classes, and yay for them. Family Friendly Dog Training has a section on teaching Fetch, Take It/Drop It, and Tug Games as a way to teach impulse control. Play is one of the things that uniquely bonds people and dogs together, so why not teach owners how to play constructively with their dogs?
TYPES OF CLASSES: What a smorgasbord of classes there are now! Agility, Nose Works, Feisty Fido, Focus etc etc. This is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen over 50 years. If I remember correctly, there used to be a class for “family dogs” and the next classes were all about obedience competition. Anyone remember different types of classes 40-50 years ago?
CLASS STRUCTURE: Another interesting change is in the structure of classes. Most class progressions start with Puppy or Beginning Family Dog Training for 6 or 8 weeks, and then participants, if interested, take the next class in the serious. But here’s an interesting twist on the standard structure of family dog training classes, which I really like: The New England Dog Training Club’s Steps Classes set criteria for each level of class and allow people to progress at their own pace. Clients pay for 6 or 10 classes, and move through objective training goals at their own pace. Ex: Step 1 includes “Prompted eye contact for 2 seconds, handler smiling!” Step 2 includes includes “Down and sit on one cue, no lure.” Owners can repeat as often as they like until they are comfortable moving up. Love it!
Of course, the most profound change in training classes is in the methods being used–marking the desired behavior, positive reinforcement versus punishment, so any stories you’d like to share about classes you went to decades ago are more than welcome!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Just back from the Pet Partner’s Conference in Seattle, WA, and feeling optimistic about the state of Animal Assisted Interactions. I didn’t hear all the talks, but was again blown away by several of them. I’ll write about it more soon. Here I am honored to wish happy 85th birthday to Michael McCulloch, one of the founders of the field.
Today I’m between photos shoots with Nils Schlebusch, a photographer from New York who is doing a shoot for articles about me and the dogs (and my memoir, The Education of Will) for DOGS magazine in Germany. He’s great with the dogs, bless him, and has already taken at least 500 photographs. Lordy I hate having my picture taken! Too bad it can’t all be of the dogs. But he let me take a snap of him with the BCs. You can follow him on Instagram at @nilsschlebusch.
Maggie is getting spayed tomorrow (Tuesday the 12th). I wanted to wait until she was at least two years old, because many believe it’s better for dogs to have gone through a few heat cycles than not–see Dr. Chris Zink’s work on this). Then she came into heat early so I had to cancel, or sheepdog trials interfered, so I’ve finally found a good time to get it done. I’ll pretend I’m not a nervous wreck about it. I know…I’m a bit like the guy in the old jokes about childbirth: “Mother and child doing fine, husband sedated.”