We’ve all seen YouTube videos that promise quick and easy solutions to common dog training problems. Professional trainers provide information with flashy graphics about how to teach loose-leash walking, stop unwanted barking and coming when called. Amateurs set up tripods in their living rooms and film how their dog learned sit, down, stay and other obedience basics. Though fun to watch, these short videos are no substitute for the long-term benefits of focused, personalized instruction.
Over the past decade, a number of professional dog trainers have begun offering interactive online training classes. Improved technology has made it easier for trainers to create step-by-step instructional videos within their own websites or via a private Facebook group. It’s also made it easier for participants to share with the group.
Students with a working—i.e., full-service—spot who want feedback from their instructor and classmates use their smartphone or tablet to record homework videos, then upload them to the cyber classroom. If they choose a less-expensive auditing spot, they may observe the course and possibly ask questions, but cannot post video. Diane Poole, who lives near Madison, Wisc., found that auditing was the best fit for her needs. “I knew I would not be able to keep up with the class schedule —filming myself and submitting video in a timely manner,” she explains. “By auditing, I could go in and look at the materials on my own schedule, and catch up.”
Professional dog trainers, behaviorists, dog-sports competitors and curious dog lovers can also further educate themselves via online lectures and single-topic webinars. Typically, the former address general dog behavior, learning theory and applied science, while the latter focus on how to solve a specific behavior problem or refine a training skill.
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Subscription or membership based services are another option. In this arrangement, a trainer’s entire online library of lectures, videos, courses and more is available 24/7 for either a monthly or a yearly fee. (This often proves cheaper than taking classes or webinars piecemeal.)
Perennially popular basic obedience training courses are offered through websites like E-Training for Dogs and Udemy. However, dog sports are where the true explosion in online dog training can be found. In-person seminars can be costly, and tough to get into if the instructor is in high demand. Online learning is less expensive, more convenient and allows for more participants.
There are some downsides to taking online classes. Barb Krynski of Rolling Meadows, Ill., can’t justify the time to set up a camera and film her sessions, especially if she’s training alone. “I’m not motivated enough to do the exercises by myself,” she says. “I enjoy actual classes and workshops more.”
Kristen Nelson of Anchorage, Alaska, was disappointed with one of her online courses, even though the instructor had a solid reputation and offered a wealth of material. “Student support was close to nil,” says Nelson. Despite paying more than $1,000 for the course, she waited three weeks for the instructor to respond to her question. Classmates had offered feedback, but she thought at that price, she should hear from the instructor directly.
Unfortunately, instruction or the quality of material can be hit-or-miss, as Claire Putman of Sycamore, Ill., found. “I had several that were somewhat disappointing. The instructors seemed a bit unsure as to flow and content. I learned toward the end of class that they were using the current class to obtain feedback and information to then refine the class to offer later. I was not happy that I paid full price to be used for their information-gathering and perfecting process.”
While there are many excellent online dog-training courses, it’s important to ask questions and seek recommendations. Make sure the course structure, materials and method of instruction fit your needs. For example, is the class size-limited? What’s the time frame—is the course six weeks long like a traditional in-person training class, or longer? Will the instructor provide direct feedback to each student, or is it self-study with only classmates commenting on each other’s work? (Some instructors include online coaching calls to the group, or one-on-one consultations for an additional fee.)
Are you required to have specific equipment and/or a certain amount of space? Will you be able to complete the assignments in a timely manner? Will the instructor give you a grace period if you fall behind? (Many online students complain about homework catch-up. Work or family responsibilities can take a toll on an online training schedule.) Also, if a person or dog is injured, will you get your money back or have an opportunity to take the class at a later date?
Some have considered and reluctantly embraced the online option. As Karen Schneider of Geneva, Ill., says, “I don’t like having to be on a computer after being on one so much with my work … For most of us, online classes provide great supplemental information and insight but do not replace in-person training.”
As a professional dog trainer, dog-sports competitor and online class junkie, I’m biased when it comes to the value of online dog training options. I rarely get to be a student, so online opportunities give me a chance to learn new skills or refresh old skills. They also remind me of the student perspective, and how I can better communicate as a teacher and coach, both in person and online.
However, for those with little to no background in dog training, I recommend the in-person option. The instructor can answer your questions immediately, demonstrate training with your dog and give instant feedback on your mechanics. It’s also helpful to observe fellow classmates work with their dogs on the same exercises and see different ways of achieving the same goal.
I know of many students who started a class together, graduated to the next level and became lifelong friends. A cyber-community of dog lovers can be informative and motivating, but sadly, at times, polarizing. Making real friends in class and seeing your dog socialize with her buddies are priceless and lead to treasured lifetime memories.
So, what’s the verdict—online or in-person? Like so many things in life, the answer is, it depends. An honest evaluation of your level of expertise, available time, tech skills and learning style will help you decide. The good news is that help is available in both the analog and the digital worlds.