Dog training: what you need to know


Dog training image 1Considering the tough economic circumstances of recent years, you might think that dog training would have been one of those areas that had suffered as a consequence of people cutting back financially. However, this has not been the case. Some people held off from bringing their puppies to training classes at the height of the recession; however it was a delay rather than a stop. Dog training classes were still full, but the average age of the puppy went up by 4-6 weeks from 12 weeks to 16-18 weeks.

In fact, back when Sara Whittaker founded WitsEnd in Leicester in 1997 and started dog training classes in 1998, there were hardly any dog schools in the area. Now there are quite a few, with at least five having started in the last two or three years. Dog training classes are full and demand is growing with people looking to be on classes three months in advance. In fact, the pet industry as a whole is now very much a growing market. So why is this?

We believe that people are becoming more aware of issues surrounding their pets, want to improve the quality of life for their dog, and in particular want to get the very best out of their dog. For most people, a dog is more than just a pet; it is a friend, a companion, someone to talk to and go on walks with, someone to sit with on the sofa on cold winter nights. In effect, to a lot of people, their dog is another member of their immediate family, and not just a luxury which can be forgotten about when times get tough.

Why is dog training needed?

Dog training image 2Dog training is the answer to many dog owners’ biggest needs. They want their dog to listen to them. They want to have some control over their dog, but they also want to have a good relationship with their dog at the same time. They want their dog to behave nicely around other people and other dogs in all situations, to not pull on the lead when they go for a walk, to come when called, sit, stand and lie down, stop jumping up, and to leave when told to do so. Training is the answer to these issues. It helps the owner to get the very best out of their pet.

Training also provides socialisation. A well-socialised puppy that has interacted with dogs in its own age group matures into a confident and happy dog. Socialisation teaches a dog how to behave in any social environment, including simple tasks such as meeting and greeting other dogs and people in a calm manner.

Human training as well as dog training

Dog Training Image 3Different people will train dogs in different ways, but we believe first and foremost that dog training is as much about training people – the dog owners –as it is about training the dog. Sometimes you will encounter quite a bit of nastiness in the dog training industry; some dog trainers are good with dogs, but not very good with people, with some belittling and talking down to their customers. However, we believe that you have to train the owner in order to train the dog, so if you don’t treat the owner well, they will not learn what to do.

A crucial part of dog training, therefore, is how the trainer treats the owner. So, it is important to be open and friendly, kind and caring, and to relate to the dog owner. It is important not to judge people or be judgemental of any methods they may have used to train their dog in the past. People don’t like to be told off, and they won’t stay around to be spoken to like that.

If owners look worried, it is important to talk to them about why. Generally, if people are worried at dog training classes, it is because they fear that something will go wrong, that their dog will get hurt, or that their dog will attack someone else or someone else’s dog. It is important to have a good relationship with the dog owners, to greet each one when they arrive for classes, to talk with everyone rather than just the particularly chatty dog owner, to make them feel included, drawing them out if necessary, rather than treating customers like they are on a conveyor belt.

Of course, as well as being friendly and caring to the owner, it is important to be friendly and caring to the puppy or the dog as well, and to ensure that the classes are working for them. Sometimes they aren’t – dogs can get scared because they are in an enclosed space with lots of activity, and what works for one dog won’t necessarily work for another. If that is the case then it is important to find something that does work, for example one-on-one training. Trainers need to ask themselves, what does this individual dog need?

The importance of structure

Dog training image 4We know that one of the most important factors when it comes to dog training is structure, so our dog training courses are well structured. Why? Experience has taught us that when people bring their dogs to training classes, they tend to be quite anxious and nervous. If the owner is anxious, nervous and and stressed, the dog will feel the same. Structured classes help to relieve and contain the anxiety of both the owner and the dog.

So, we don’t offer classes where you can just “turn up”. Instead, people have to phone up to book a place on one of our dog training courses, and will not be able to join mid-course, but will have to wait until the next course starts. Everyone on the course will therefore be at the same level. We believe that it is important to have lesson plans for all of our courses, which ensure that everyone is doing the same thing.

We only offer small classes, so that the owners and the dogs on the course soon get to know everyone else there, and so feel less anxious and worried. They know who else will be there each week. People on the course get to know each other during the first week, and by the third week they are all relaxed and best buddies, and classes start to become a bit of a social event as well as a training session.

Each of our classes is structured as follows: 40 minutes of training, a 10 minute coffee break (our kettle is always hot!), and 10 minutes of playtime at the end. Both the dogs and the owners know this structure, they know the lesson plan, they know exactly what is coming next, and they know that nothing random will be thrown at them. Although some dog trainers may prefer to have “roll on, roll off” classes where people just turn up as and when and everything changes each week, we don’t feel that this is best for the owner or for the dog.

Signals and food for dog training

Using really clear signals is an incredibly important part in dog training, as they let your dog know what it is you want or don’t want them to do, and how you want them to behave. So you use words like “good dog” to show that you approve of what the dog is doing, and use the same words so that your dog understands what you are communicating.

Food also plays an important part in dog training, but you have to use it as a reward, not a bribe, with the dog only getting the treat after they have done what was expected and asked of them.

Relationship building, not bullying

Dog training image 5

Dog training has very much evolved over the years, and is something that is constantly changing. We are very self critical and sit down after each training session to consider what went well, what didn’t go so well, and how something can be improved. Dog training today doesn’t really bear any resemblance to dog training when WitsEnd was founded in 1997, and certainly doesn’t bear any resemblance to dog training 30 years ago. Back then, for many trainers dog training was all about choke chains, slip leads, pinch collars, bullying and force. Thankfully, we have moved on from those days.

When training a dog, it is important not to bully, as bullying a dog causes fear. You can quickly tell by their body language if a dog is scared of their owner, as they will be submissive when called. A bullied dog won’t be resentful, as dogs don’t do resentful, but it will be fearful. A bullied dog will also behave, do as it is told, and toe the line, but it won’t be able to think for itself or problem solve. Bullying a dog takes its personality away and squashes its spirit. We have found over the years that most people want a two way relationship from their dog, rather than a one way relationship where the dog is told “you will do this”. People who want that from their dog don’t tend to come to WitsEnd, and if they do, they tend not to stay. Instead of talking about “master and dog” we now talk about good parental behaviour and being a good parent. Training your dog is about being clear, being firm, being friendly and having a relationship with it, but not bullying it.

Training takes time and it’s not an instant success. It is vital that you practise with your dog outside of the classes. You cannot just train a dog as a puppy and then it is done – they need to be kept on track. Training encourages a dog to think and learn, and it is important that they go on learning throughout their life. WitsEnd offers five different types of dog training classes – for puppies up to six months, puppies aged 6-12 months, dogs over six months with no training, advanced classes and one-to-one classes. For more information about our dog training classes, please visit https://www.witsend4pets.co.uk/ or call us on 0116 244 2455.

About the author

Dr Shahad Mohammed
Veterinary Physiotherapist
National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists