The Dog Training Class Revolution

Many years ago in my previous career, I taught learning theory and curriculum development to teachers and graduate students pursuing their master’s degrees in education at one of the top-ranked education programs in the country. My students’ biggest challenge was learning to translate theory into practice. It’s one thing to understand how people learn, and how typical education practices fail to use that knowledge. It’s another thing altogether to think outside the typical models of instruction we’re all familiar with, to create new ways of teaching informed by what we know about how people learn.

I see this struggle in our industry. We’ve become enamored with alternative class structures such as open enrollment, levels, and modular programs, but we’ve largely failed to adapt curriculum design to meet the challenges a non-linear approach to education brings. It’s not enough to change how we schedule people into classes or to give them choices about which behaviors they wish to teach their dogs and in what order. These are merely structural changes. Curriculum is about not just which subjects are taught and in what order; it is about how they are taught, and to what ends.

Non-linear classes demand an entirely different approach to teaching; without this, classes all too easily devolve into mini-privates as the instructor runs from student to student trying to provide individual instruction to each, resulting in a disjointed experience for students and instructor alike. This attempt to adapt our old explain-demo-practice curriculum model (a poor model to begin with) to a more one-on-one approach will not create the real change we are seeking.

When we at dogbiz designed our Open Enrollment Puppy Curriculum and Open Enrollment Basic Manners curriculum packages, we employed several innovations: self-contained lesson planning, a heavy focus on teaching humans the skills and concepts they need to improve daily life with their dogs, and a real-life thematic weekly structure.

A Non-Linear Approach
Allowing students to join class at any time means you can no longer rely on building one session from the next. You can’t break things down over time — duration and distance stays before distraction stays, for example — and you don’t always have the luxury of teaching behaviors in the order you’re accustomed to and comfortable with — a Sit before a Down, Sits and Downs before Stays and Recalls. You have students just getting started mixed with students who have been with you for one week or many.

We created the concept of self-contained lesson planning to address these challenges without giving up a cohesive group experience. Classes should still feel like classes, not a collection of mini-privates. The simplest explanation of self-contained lesson planning is that it builds skills and experiences over the course of each one-hour class session instead of from week to week, while also using the learning from previous weeks. The trick is activities that allow each student and dog to tackle the same challenges as their peers, but at their own level of experience, knowledge, and skill.

And isn’t this exactly what we should be teaching? How can we hope to change students’ daily lives with their dogs if we don’t teach them how to handle the real world at their dog’s level? It’s not enough to talk at students about criteria setting — we need to teach them how to do it in real-life situations.

Teaching Humans, Not Dogs — For Real
As an industry we give too much lip service to this concept without enough substantial action. We’re fond of talking about dog training being about teaching humans more than dogs, but I’ve rarely visited a dog training class that adheres to this philosophy in actual curriculum and instructional practice. The basic explain-practice-demo model is good for one goal only: to teach a dog to perform a behavior in the classroom.

If you tackle curriculum development by deciding which behaviors to teach, you’re already on the wrong path. It’s largely irrelevant whether a dog can do a Stay in class, or for how long and at what distance. What’s important is the student’s ability to read the environment and figure out how to help his dog respond successfully — what behaviors are reasonable to ask for, and what needs to be done to get them (adding distance, blocking view, increasing rate of reinforcement or the value of the reinforcer, etc.).

In short, a dog training class curriculum should largely be focused on teaching students the basic problem-solving skills trainers employ without thought — situational awareness, criteria setting, reinforcement strategies, making adjustments as needed. These are the things that will result in pet dogs with reliable behaviors in the real world. And talking about them won’t teach these skills — our classrooms have to set people up to actually use and practice them in circumstances designed to mirror daily life with dogs.

Weekly Themes: Real-Life Context
One of the innovations we built into our Open Enrollment Puppy Curriculum and Open Enrollment Basic Manners is the use of weekly themes designed to place students in a real-life framework. One week in puppy class, for example, might be devoted to learning how to successfully navigate a visit to the vet’s office. Sit/Stay and handling exercises are designed to teach criteria setting, getting and keeping a dog’s focus, and body language awareness. These are further practiced during puppy socialization play sessions. And then these budding skill sets are applied to a mock vet visit in which students decide where in the lobby to sit, how long a Sit/Stay to ask for, what reinforcement rate to use. They are also asked to report on any body areas their pups seemed uncomfortable having touched.

Similarly, our basic manners class teaches students to master working at their dogs’ level via criteria setting, reading their dog, and reading the environment, all within real-life-based weekly themes such as relaxing at home, entertaining guests, or taking a walk in the park. Students apply the concepts first to help their dogs learn behaviors key for manners and impulse control, then to a real-life challenge such as helping their dogs relax on their bed or mat while they check email or watch TV, or to the proper greeting of strangers, or to ignoring the types of outdoor distractions one might find in a park. Each student tackles these same challenges at her own level, with longer-term students applying previous lessons to the challenge as well.

Placing students in real-life situations breathes life into the skills, concepts, and behaviors being taught, giving them real-world context and increasing the likelihood students will use what they’ve learned outside of class, where it matters.

Viva La Revolución!
As a long-time advocate for school reform, I’m excited about the revolution going on in dog training classrooms. I’m excited to see our industry thinking outside the box, realizing that classes don’t have to look the way they always have. We’re throwing out the old rules, deciding that classes don’t have to always be six weeks, that students don’t have to all start on the same day, that we don’t have to teach behaviors in a pre-set order, that we don’t even have to teach in a strictly linear fashion with each week relying on the week before.

But these changes have to run deeper than mere changes in structure. They require changes in how we think about curriculum development and teaching, too — this must be the next step in our dog training class revolution if we’re to see meaningful change in the lives of dogs and their people outside our classrooms.