Group classes can be great – practice with high distraction levels, learn new tips and techniques, usually save a lot of money vs private training – but some people and dogs really struggle with group classes. Too much downtime, not getting clear information, the group is at a much higher or lower level than your dog is… all of these can really interfere with the group class experience. Here’s how to get the most from group classes!
1) Look at your dog. 100% of your focus should be on your dog, at least during early classes. This means no chatting with other owners. No petting other dogs. When the instructor is talking directly to you, he or she will not mind if you do not make eye contact with them because you are instead looking at your dog. You can listen to the instructor and look at your dog. They will not mind!
2) Have a plan for downtime. Most group classes are about an hour or so. There is no way that a dog can be completely focused and “on” for an entire hour! Your dog will experience downtime while the instructor explains or demonstrates new techniques. You may have some downtime if you have already mastered an exercise and the rest of the class has not. What are you going to do while your dog is in downtime? If you do nothing, your dog will likely get bored, start looking around, and then maybe start barking or growing progressively more interested in things other than you. So have a plan! You could consider bringing a stuffed Kong or chewie, or bringing a tug toy for a play break (make sure your play remains fairly calm so you don’t disturb the other dogs), or going on a short sniff-walk (again, not disturbing the other dogs.)
3) Bring more treats than you think you will need. Be more generous with the treats then you think you need to be. Training class is not the time to be stingy with treats, and other than very specific exercises which are specifically for weaning off treats, it is not the time to wean off treats.
4) Attitude first, then skills. The most important part of class is almost never the actual skills of lie down, sit, stay. What’s most important is the socialization, the practice paying attention to you instead of other dogs, the dogs ability to focus and follow instructions in class. If your dog can’t do the sits and downs and stays because of the distraction level, don’t worry too much. Practice those at home.
5) Feel free to take a break. Every time you take a break with your dog, you’re giving him a chance to rest and process what he’s learned, and likely he will come back stronger! If you do not give any breaks, the dog will get tired and possibly bored. Many handlers also benefit from breaks. Trying to manage their dog and ensure that it is learning and remaining under control can be very tiring – not to mention that you are also going to be learning. Again, sniff-walks or play breaks (taking into account the need to not disturb others) can work. So can just sitting down and petting your dog! If the instructor asks, just say you’re taking a minute to process – he or she will understand!