The first meeting of a beginner’s obedience class can set the overall mood for the entire course. An orientation session provides an excellent opportunity to motivate and inspire the class as well as to demonstrate training techniques and gain your client’s confidence.
Since some dogs can be noisy and out of control during their first experience in a class situation, dogs should not be invited to orientation. This will allow handlers and instructors alike the freedom to concentrate on the presentation. The handlers can gain much knowledge in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, then return home to apply a few newly learned principles in the dog’s accustomed environment.
After greeting your clients as they arrive, direct them toward the registration desk. Pre¬registration or plenty of manpower at the registration desk helps make orientation go smoothly. A display of complimentary literature on a variety of canine subject areas can be made available to your clients on orientation night. Dog food companies are a good source of free pamphlets. Be sure to review all literature. To help your clients become aware of dog-related activities in their communities, try to include local information such as copies of your area’s animal ordinance, fliers for upcoming fun matches, shows, seminars, or perhaps copies of kennel club newsletters or humane society bulletins. You should explain that this literature is not required reading, but encourage them to pick up anything that is of interest to them.
Much material can be covered on orientation night. It is up to the individual instructor to decide what is important, and what might better be introduced during an actual class session. A lot will depend on the availability and completeness of a student handbook; however, a handbook can never take the place of a live orientation session. Some instructors prefer to distribute handbooks after orientation, to be read as part of that week’s homework assignment and to be used as a reference throughout the course.
Begin your orientation with an introduction of yourself and your background with dogs in general, dog obedience and class instruction in particular. Assistants should also be introduced at this time. Introduce your demo dogs, explaining a little about obedience degrees as you do so. To break the ice, you might then call roll, asking each student to tell a little about himself as he responds. This can start a camaraderie among the students which always makes obedience class more fun. Try to have plenty of live demos, videotapes, slides, charts, etc. Intersperse these aids with the less graphic material to help keep your lecture from becoming dull.
A very important element of an orientation is a discussion on equipment. Stress that the job will be easier if they use the proper tools. Let your clients know your preference in equipment, and how much latitude they have in selection, while still meeting your class requirements. Some instructors carry a line of equipment and, as part of the registration fee, provide a properly fitting collar and leash to each student. Others will have equipment on sale at class for an additional fee. Another option is to have a list of area shops which carry the proper equipment, or you might locate a pet store proprietor who will agree to bring his merchandise to class and make it available for purchase at the training site.
In explaining the use of the equipment, make no assumptions about your students’ knowledge in this area. Not all people walk into class knowing how to form a slip collar, much less the proper way to put it on a dog. Even though a slip collar might not be used with all students, let the entire class know that a slip collar can be deadly and explain in great detail its use as well as giving examples of its misuse. This piece of equipment should not be referred to as a “choke collar”, as it is not used to choke a dog. Refer to it as a slip collar or training collar. Analogizing the collar with the letter “P”, show the class the right and wrong way to put it on a dog, what happens when you tighten the collar in each instance, and equally important, how to properly fit the dog with a collar of the right size. Go into detail on training leashes and how to select a good one: length, width, material, type and size of snap, proper hand positioning on the leash, examples of proper use and misuse. Again making no assumptions, ask if all dogs are “leash broken”, being careful to explain what you mean.
Before demonstrating specific exercises, be sure to give the class your philosophy and approach to dog obedience training, why you do things the way you do. Explain that you are training people, not dogs, and that in most cases they will get out of the class what they put into it, touching on their homework commitment. At this point it might be well to outline the principles of canine behavior. Briefly explain the differences in temperament. Talk about the social hierarchy and how the handler can assume the leadership role. Open the door for communication here. Ask to be informed before the next session if a client feels his dog is overly shy, distrustful, or aggressive toward dogs or people. Has he ever been in a dog fight? Has he ever bitten anyone, this includes the owner. Discuss the learning principles and how they relate to dog obedience training. While it’s probably inappropriate to get into the psychology of learning in great detail, you might at least want to paraphrase Thorndike’s Law of Effect as a way to stress positive reinforcement: “When a response is followed by a pleasant state of affairs, that response increases in frequency.”
Give the class clearly defined goals. Demonstrate, with a trained dog, the level of achievement you wish them to attain. Perhaps your assistant can perform the demonstration while you narrate or vice versa. While your class may judge your expertise on the performance of your demo dog, it is more important to use an animated, happy worker than to strive for precision in your demonstrations. If you are demonstrating AKC exercises, explain this to the class, indicating that these are also the very exercises needed for an enjoyable companion. Competition need not be stressed at this level. The majority of the typical beginners’ class is not interested at this point and emphasis on competition may alienate some individuals, particularly those with mixed breed dogs.
Having seen your demo dog perform the exercise, your clients will next see the steps involved for them to attain the same results with their own dogs. Place your demo dog where all will have an unobstructed view. If there is more than one demo dog available, position each dog/handler team at a different angle to the audience and repeat the demonstration to give the class different views of the same exercise. Reassure your class that you will repeat the demonstrations next session when their dogs are present. Explain to the class that dogs and their handlers are both individuals and some teams will be more successful with a different approach to an exercise. Demonstrate alternative methods or assure them that you will be closely monitoring their progress and may suggest a different technique after evaluating their dog’s temperament and the handler’s capabilities over the next several sessions.
Ask to be informed by the next session if any of the handlers suffer from a physical handicap. A bad back or trick knee may simply require a different approach to some exercises, but a handler who is hearing impaired or in a wheel chair may require extra one-on-one assistance from a volunteer. Knowledge of this can allow you to make plans and arrangements before the next session. Also ask about the physical condition of the dogs. If there is a lameness or other known problem that might interfere with the training process, it helps to know this in advance.
This is a good point for a break. You can accomplish this and continue your instruction at the same time. Position your class around the training site as if it were the first night with dogs. Have the class imagine their dogs at their left sides, on leash. Go through the exercises in great detail, having them work with their imaginary dogs on tone of command, praise, leash handling, prompting the dogs into the proper positions, footwork and other details that the handlers may not be able to concentrate on while coping with their dogs on the first few nights of class. Keeping this very upbeat, you will not only give the class a break, but a few laughs and valuable “hands on” experience at the same time.
When the class is again seated, refreshed and ready to listen, you might explain some of your class policies: where to park, where to exercise the dogs, how to prevent as well as clean up “accidents”, how to avoid conflicts between nervous dogs. Review your policy on family participation, spectators, smoking, food treats, bitches in heat. Remind them to wear non-slip shoes and comfortable clothes they are not afraid to get dirty. Your previous experience with questions most often asked by clients will help you prepare this section of the orientation.
You might also want to give your class a brief demonstration of a few of the advanced obedience exercises. To see a dog drop on recall, retrieve over the high jump, perform the signal or scent discrimination exercise can motivate as well as entertain your clients. Sit and Heel will seem like less of a task by comparison. If your demo dog can perform a few tricks, this can also be a crowd pleaser.
Conclude your orientation by giving a simple homework assignment, explain in detail what it will accomplish and demonstrate exactly how to do it. The remainder of the class can be a question and answer session.
A positive orientation can do much to carry your clients’ interest through those often frustrating first sessions of working with their dogs in a class situation. An obedience class instructor is in a position to influence a very important human/animal relationship – a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
©1984 Terry Ryan