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Dog Training for Life
A six-week obedience class isn't enough
dog, training, sit, stay, obedience
My dogs look forward to a lifetime of training.

When I started teaching agility and obedience classes, it became clear early on whether someone was training their dog for life or not. Students who asked questions, practiced homework and came to every single class were hooked. If they’d had a tail, it would’ve been wagging!

The time they invested in their dog lead to quicker progress and more successes. Many of those "lifers" are still training with me today, five years later. They go to fun matches and shows together, and socialize outside of class.

At the other extreme (and yes, I do believe that those of us who compete in dog sports are extreme), the occasional student acted like he didn’t want to be there. Some were downright rude and disruptive, as if they thought they had signed up for a private lesson, not a group class.

One couple told me they preferred a different training philosophy, but I was the only one nearby who offered puppy classes. Despite my best efforts to engage them, they spent the six weeks ignoring my suggestions, and paying more attention to fellow students than their puppy. Sadly, it came as no surprise that I never saw them again.  

Only once did I have to ask someone not to return; she was a family member of a student and argued with me so vehemently that I was concerned she might get physical. I rightly guessed her behavior had nothing to do with dog training and everything to do with a personal issue at home.

She called a few days later to apologize and explain. While I empathized with her, it was not fair to the other students and their dogs to share class time with someone who was not committed to making the most of it.

The people I couldn’t figure out were the ones who seemed to enjoy class with their dog. Perhaps they weren’t as passionate as the lifers, but they were good students. They might even complete a few sessions before dropping out.

In some cases, finances were an issue, and I would offer options to make classes more affordable. Some said work or family obligations made it impossible to attend regularly. Again, I would do my best to accommodate them, by offering a drop in option, private lessons or organizing the class of their choice on a day that best fit their schedule.

Others told me they accomplished their goals and were happy. Their dog no longer needed training. This answer floored me; how could you not want to continue? Your dog could do any number of activities or sports, from agility to nose work to rally. Would you and your dog really be more satisfied just going for walks and lounging on the couch?

This is when I would get “the look,” a reminder that I am extreme when it comes to dog training. For perspective, I asked my mom – who loves dogs, but doesn’t have one of her own - why people would successfully complete a six-week obedience course, thank me for being a good teacher, then never step foot in the classroom again.

She gave it a lot of thought and said that for her, once her dog successfully completed the class, she had done her part as a responsible dog owner.

I find this perspective so difficult to understand. Dog training is not a color by numbers exercise. It’s fluent, dynamic and creative. To me, a graduation diploma is a sign of what’s to come, not what’s done.


Julia Kamysz Lane, owner of Spot On K9 Sports and contributing editor at The Bark, is the author of multiple New Orleans travel guides, including Frommer’s New Orleans Day by Day (3rd Edition). Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets and Writers and Publishers Weekly.

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Submitted by Anonymous | November 1 2012 |

For my family and our dogs, we haven't found a trainer we clicked with. We worked with two different trainers that we did not want to work with again, and I'm a little turned off on the expense and time investment involved.

But just because we don't take our dogs to a trainer doesn't mean we aren't working with them at home.

As for sports and activities, you have to live in an area with those options, or have options that aren't offered by trainers you already don't like. Also, I am an extremely non-competitive person with no interest in sports leagues and am always turned off by talk of trials, certificates, regulations, and awards. However, I would love to find activities to do with my dogs that aren't set up along competitive sports lines.

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | November 5 2012 |

Hi Anonymous, thanks for sharing your insight. Bummer you haven't found a trainer you like. That connection is key, especially if (as you mentioned) you are investing a great deal of time and money with them.

I love your comment: "But just because we don't take our dogs to a trainer doesn't mean we aren't working with them at home." If everyone was like you and could assure me that their dogs were still getting adequate mental and physical exercise, I wouldn't worry anymore.

Unfortunately, not everyone does, and I get the phone call months or a year later when their dog ran away (or worse) because s/he didn't know come or they want to rehome the dog because they decided they don't have time for him/her or their "bad" behaviors.

Typically, these were the students who skipped classes, didn't do homework and played with their phone in class. I'm still trying to figure out how to connect with these folks when they were in class so I don't get the upsetting phone call later.

Good point about dog sports and locale. If you just want to spend non-competitive time with your dog, what are your favorite activities? How does your dog play a part in your choices?

Submitted by Anita in Concord CA | November 1 2012 |

This touches on something that has been frustrating for me. I started taking my 2 dogs to various classes when they were 6 months old, and continued for years - you name it: manners, agility, nose work, flyball, treibball, clicker training, more manners. I asked questions, practiced homework and came to every class. Yet, I was not hooked because I had no intention of competing. Agility and flyball require equipment (I made agility equipment from websites and PC pipes, and no longer use it much)and nose work was only mildly embraced by my dogs. I am constantly looking for stimulating activities that we can do together. I don't want to sit on the couch with them all the time. Yet, the classes that are offered are so often the same old thing, not offering much that is new for the money. I would love to take them to fun (not competition) lure coursing or herding places, but there aren't any within 100 miles.
I don't think the answer is that 'Training is Life-Long' - I think it is more that 'appropriate stimulation' should be life-long, and would love it if trainers would find more creative ways to engage people who aren't interested in sitting around at a dog event all day waiting for their 10 minutes of action that they spent all those hours training for.

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | November 5 2012 |

Thank you, Anita, your last paragraph hits the nail on the head! I wish everyone would provide adequate mental and physical stimulation for the life of their dog. How do we encourage that?

When I wrote this post, I almost titled it "Dog Sports Aren't for Everyone," because I agree, not everyone is interested in competing, and the hours of down time at a dog show beg the question: wouldn't my dog rather sleep on the couch at home than in a crate at a noisy event?

I am seeing a bigger divide between competition minded performance people and recreational pet people. Consequently, I'm seeing trainers who only teach classes for people who want to compete. Often, this means they are excellent in their specific sport, but lack basic knowledge of dog behavior and learning for a variety of breeds and personalities.

Since I got hooked on competition, in recent years, I find it harder to relate to the average dog owner. This really bothered me. I took a step back to evaluate why I was a teacher. Did I want to help students build a stronger relationship with their dog or did I merely want them to learn how to collect 25-cent ribbons on any given weekend? How do I help students whose only motivation is the latter? Is there anything wrong with that?

Goals motivate people. Competing in dog sports or striving to attain titles automatically gives you those results driven goals. However, if you want to enjoy quality time with your dog, that goal can be achieved in so many different ways.

This Fall, I founded the Fit Fido Walking Club, a free weekly group walk at a local park. Every week, I walk my own dogs with an ever-changing pack of old friends and new ones. It's a fun social gathering that makes people smile and tails wag. I also found a Meet Up group in our area that organizes free group dog walks at various locations. Maybe you could start one in your area!

Submitted by Carolyn | November 7 2012 |

Julia, great discussion with so many great comments. I'd be interested in hearing more about your Fit Fido Walking Club. I have joined a new "dog club" in rural central Michigan. The main focus is developing a dog park. Fenced yards are not allowed in this community so people are interested in exercising their dogs in a fun safe social setting.

We are a long way from developing the dog park (especially with winter setting in)and I'm looking for fun ways to get together. I'm big into training my new recently adopted dog but so far, I haven't identified others that are. Could you fill in some of the details about your group? Tips for starting one? I have a small dog who is nervous of big dogs and we are surrounded by big dogs. How would you handle that in your group. Hey, this would make a GREAT blog post !

Submitted by Dave | November 12 2012 |

For what it's worth, in Buffalo,N.Y. there was a dog park built.It was 1 dog park for all sizes of dogs.However, after an unfortunate incident when a Newfoundland dragged its owner across the park and inadvertently killed a smaller dog. There are now 2 dog parks ,one for smaller dogs and one for larger dogs)

Submitted by Frances | November 2 2012 |

I'm afraid I am probably one of those people you find it hard to understand! I took both of my dogs to several puppy and intermediate classes when they were young - brilliant for socialising them, and good experience for both of us. I did an introduction to agility class with both of them - Sophy hated jumping but enjoyed climbing, Poppy liked it all, especially having me all to herself, and it was a huge confidence booster for her. But to continue meant turning out on a regular evening or morning, regardless of what else we were doing or what the weather was like, and leaving one dog at home or crated while working with the other. The same time, effort and money gets us long walks in beautiful places, meeting dogs and people and sniffing for rabbits and mice, or fun games at home when the wind and rain are wild.

The classes we took set my dogs up for a happy life as polite, friendly companions and taught me the principles of reward based training, and I am very grateful to the instructors, and will still do the occasional one day course if it looks like being fun for all of us. But I was never a great joiner-inner and have no interest in competing or trick training - my dogs and I just have lovely days together, with a mixture of Good Stuff for Dogs and Good Stuff for Humans, chosen according to mood, weather, and who happens to be around. It works for us!

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | November 5 2012 |

Frances, you helped me understand - thank you! Sounds like you appreciate every moment with your dogs, no matter how it's spent, and you are all the richer for it. I love your philosophy: "my dogs and I just have lovely days together, with a mixture of Good Stuff for Dogs and Good Stuff for Humans, chosen according to mood, weather and who happens to be around." It's so simple & brilliant!

Submitted by Leanne | November 2 2012 |

I am what you call a lifer in agility. We attend a regular class every Monday evening with several other lifers. None of our dogs are typical agility breeds and most of us do not compete but our dogs love the activity. We take turns bringing snacks and wine to share,it is a great way to start the week with friend,food and playing with our dogs.

Submitted by Katy | November 24 2012 |

I'm somewhere in between the lifers and the occasional trainer you mention. I love training my dogs and learning new things together. I have loved the agility and rally classes that we have taken - but I do not enjoy the competitions and it seems that many assume the whole point of classes are to better compete and earn titles. For me, competitions involve too much driving, too many expenses, and dealing with a dog who has separation anxiety when in new locations.

In education, we describe some people as "life-long learners" and I think of my dogs the same way. But like me, they don't always have to be in classes to be learning.

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