How Online Training Supports Dog Owners and Dog Trainers
The virtual dog-training revolution is here.
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Since the pandemic lockdown, many aspects of our lives have switched over to online Zoom meetings and YouTube tutorials. Dog training has had a leg-up, because even pre-social distancing, trainers were starting to understand the upsides to online classes and some of them are great video editors. Professional dog trainers provide information with flashy graphics about how to teach loose-leash walking, stop unwanted barking, and coming when called.
But it’s not a perfect solution, since any amateur can set up tripods in their living rooms and film how their dog learned sit, down, stay, and other obedience basics. These can be very fun to watch as you eat popcorn and your dog runs wildly around the house, but they most likely don’t provide the long-term benefits of focused, personalized instruction.
With the improvement in interactive online dog training classes, however, they might be a great supplemental option in times when you are very busy, or there is a worldwide health crisis. Many trainers now offer step-by-step instructional videos within their own websites or via a private Facebook group. Those groups also make it easier for participants to build community and share tips with each other. Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering an online dog training course.
What are the benefits of online training?
One benefit of online dog training is flexible timing and lower cost. There are usually students with a full-service spot in the in-person classroom who want feedback from their instructor and classmates. They’ll often record homework videos, then upload them to the cyber classroom. Another person can choose a less-expensive auditing spot, observe the course online, and possibly ask questions, but they can’t post video for feedback.
Plus, it can be less distracting to watch a video while your dog is taking a nap and then work with them later, as opposed to managing your dog in a room full of dogs in front of an instructor with limited time.
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.
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 can be cheaper than taking classes or webinars one-by-one if you prefer a more general overview.
One of the most specific 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.
What are the downsides to online classes?
Making your own dog training content is not for everyone. Barb Krynski of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, 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, Illinois, 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.”
How to find the best online dog trainer.
If you’re still intrigued by online dog training courses, despite the potential downsides, here’s how to find the best program. 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?
And it never hurts to read reviews!
How to get the very most out of your online classes.
Like most things, what you get out of online dog training courses can depend on how much you put into them. First, make sure you read the content and watch the related videos before training your dog.
Consider having a family member watch you work with the dog and have them offer you suggestions for doing it just as demonstrated on the video. Make sure your dog is having fun, using their favorite treats and toys for active encouragement, but keep sessions of training short — 5 to 7 minutes is a good guideline for working on a skill. Consider if there’s a time of the day where they generally have more energy and focus. And don’t forget to practice training both on leash and off leash so your dog understands she should pay attention in both situations.
If you live in a bigger household, make training a family activity so everyone learns how to train the dog. In addition to planned training sessions, incorporate training into daily life. For example, ask your dog to wait at the door before going out on walks; have them sit before feeding or lie down before initiating a tug game.
Stay on a lesson for multiple days or weeks if your dog is still catching on, or go ahead if your dog has already mastered the curriculum for a particular week. That is definitely a nice thing about videos. They wait.
Online dog training might not be for you.
Some people are sick of being online for everything, which is very fair. For those with little to no background in dog training, the in-person option might be the best fit. 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.
It can also be a nice way to make new friends that the computer just can’t replace. Many students who start a class together then graduate to the next level and became lifelong friends. 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.
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Julia Lane, CPDT-KA
Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.