While instructors have the occasional student who enrolls to enhance their relationship with their dog, the majority of students enrolling in obedience classes are there because they are having problems with the family pet. In many of these cases, a poor match between dog and family contributes to the problems. Pet owners often select unsuitable breeds, usually because less thought is given to adding a dog to the family than to buying a new car, but in some instances because he or she was misinformed about the traits and characteristics of the breed. Regardless of the reason(s) a particular breed or dog was selected by the owner, it is the instructor’s job to teach the owner how to handle and train their dog and to maximize the relationship between the two.
Teaching a good obedience class is not as easy as one might think. Although the fundamentals of learning behavior apply to all animals, the disposition, physical characteristics and innate temperament of a dog will have an impact on whether a particular training technique is successful. In a class situation it is not possible to teach a different technique to each dog/handler team. At the same time it is not always realistic to expect that every dog/handler team will be successful if only one technique is taught. A good class instructor starts with a technique most likely to be successful for the majority of students and then assesses the progress of each dog/handler team individually in order to ensure that the handler is able to use the demonstrated technique to achieve success. Different techniques can then be demonstrated and explained to students who may be having difficulties.
To avoid having students feel singled out, these can be used as learning examples for the entire class if the instructor takes a few minutes to explain breed differences to students and how training is easier if the handler can work with, rather than against, the dog. While understanding how their dog differs from other dogs in class may help lessen the frustration a student is feeling, care should be taken not to give the student a reason not to continue training. Too often people use breed characteristics as a reason not to spend the time and effort to train their dog. For example, dogs from the herding and working groups are generally perceived to be “smarter” and easier to train. Selective breeding in the past has developed herding and working dogs which are usually more biddable than dogs in the hound and terrier groups where it was not as important that the dog work with a handler. This difference usually translates into a dog that is more attentive to its handler. Dogs without a natural tendency to show attentiveness to a person have to be taught to pay attention. Without an understanding that some dogs need to be taught a behavior that comes naturally to other dogs, students are likely to feel that their dogs don’t love them or are somehow inferior to other dogs in the class.
It is easy for both instructor and student to fall into the trap of believing a dog can’t be trained because of its breed. For instructors, this happens most frequently when an instructor only knows one technique to train a behavior and is unable or unwilling to consider other approaches. Instructors need to be able to teach students how to motivate their dogs, regardless of breed. Although breed characteristics may help identify those dogs who will learn faster and better if a different training technique is used, it is critical to remember that not all Goldens (or Siberians) are alike. Assuming that a dog should behave and react in a particular situation as another dog of the same breed would is setting the stage for failure.
For students it is often easier to use the excuse that their dog is not trainable because everyone knows Siberians can’t be trained to come or that greyhounds can’t sit. In some instances, the owner truly believes this because he or she has have been told this by the breeder or other people considered knowledgeable about dogs. In other instances, the owner wants to believe this because he or she doesn’t want to invest the time and effort it will take to train their dog. It is therefore the job of the instructor to educate the student that while it may not be as easy to train a Siberian to come when called or a greyhound to sit it is not impossible and then to provide the student with the tools to accomplish this task.
Appreciating breed characteristics is also crucial to an instructor when dealing with behaviors identified by the student as being problem behaviors. If a student has a dog which is chasing the cat, whether the dog is a Golden or a Greyhound will have a huge impact upon the advice given on managing this problem. Advice on how to stop inappropriate digging will differ if the dog is a terrier versus a border collie. Students who are given accurate information about why their dog may behave in a certain way in a certain situation are usually more willing to work on modifying or managing the behavior. Without this information the student is likely to believe their dog is stupid, stubborn, hard-headed or spiteful. These types of labels are not only unfair to the dog, but also cause damage to the dog/owner relationship.
Instructors often walk a fine line with students of providing the encouragement to continue working with more difficult dogs without giving the student an excuse to quit altogether. So while the breed of dog should never be used as an excuse for not training, it should always be part of the teaching and training equation.