“The perfect training program or instructor, like the perfect dog, does not exist. However, with continual evaluation and continued education, constant improvement can be achieved to offer the community the best training program possible.” Herb Morrison, NADOI member # 257
My best guess is that long-time member Herb Morrison wrote the above around 1975 or so. I spotted his statement while reading through some “vintage” NADOI Notes articles. The date really doesn’t matter, as his statement would be true in any era, and never more so than today. The modern obedience class instructor is not only expected to offer a wide range of programs to entice dog owners of every sort, we are presumed to stay up on every new advancement, idea, and training tool. We like to think we are running the best training programs around, but how do we really know? What are some good ways to test ourselves and how we are doing? The excellent instructor will always want to find the weak spots in her curriculum, and will want to improve even more on what she is doing well.
We’d like to think that poor training programs would simply die a natural death, as no one would want to use them. While it is true that many businesses fail because they just don’t offer what the customer wants or needs, or aren’t able to produce a satisfactory finished product, the sad fact is that many poorly run obedience schools and businesses continue to exist year after year. Absolutely horrible trainers and instructors can continue to bring in enough new clients that they can stay in business, despite bad results and bad reputations. Sometimes just being the best in your area of operations is not enough; you have to continually improve in order to rise above, and resting on past accomplishments can be risky.
Any businessperson knows that, in the end, the only one whose recommendation matters is the customer’s. Finding a way to canvass your clients and get honest opinions about your classes is important. Many instructors will simply pass out evaluation forms on the last class lesson, have the student fill them out, and collect them for study. Others find that sending an evaluation form home with the students and encouraging them to complete it and return it works better for getting more detailed information, and doesn’t take up class time. If you do this, you might want to provide a pre-addressed, stamped envelope, as you will get more of them back that way. If you maintain an e-mail database on your students, it is easy to send out class evaluation forms this way, and you will find many students will take the time to fill them out and e-mail them back to you. Just this year, I started a web-based discussion group for my class students. It has been useful in many ways, and getting feedback on their class experience has been one way I have used it. Naturally, if you have time, it is always good to talk to your students one-on-one and in person and get their opinion of their training experience. Human nature being what it is, however, you usually will get your most candid comments in writing, and sometimes anonymously (which is okay; you just need the info).
While client evaluation of your training course is important, professional input can be invaluable. Most of us in this business are people I would call “assertive” and “confident,” at the very least, and many of us are downright “alpha!” It takes some courage and the ability to admit that you might not know everything to ask a peer to critique what you are doing. It is amazing to me what another pair of trained eyes can see that has been in front of our faces, sometimes for years. Other class instructors, because they are in the business, can cut through layers of your old tried and true (and old and humdrum) ways and give you many fresh approaches to look at. Don’t be hesitant to invite your training buddies from adjoining towns to visit and give you ideas. As long as you aren’t in direct competition, you may find them very willing to help evaluate your programs.
A relatively new resource that can help us improve what we do is the business coach. Business coaches, though not necessarily trainers or even in dogs, can take an unbiased look at your entire set-up and offer concrete ways to maximize what you get out of your business. Their expertise, taken with your knowledge of what to offer, how to write a curriculum and how to instruct it, can make for a powerful team.
Of course, you can be your best evaluator. Be painfully honest as you ask yourself, and answer, these questions:
1. Do I still love what I do? (Burn-out is a constant threat and will negatively affect everything you do).
2. Do my students enjoy my classes? Do they return again and again?
3. Is the drop rate acceptable? How many of my classes graduate 100 percent?
3. Am I getting personal referrals?
4. Do I supplyadequate ways for students to communicate with me outside of class, and do students make use of those avenues?
5. Do I attract, train, and keep good instructors and assistants? What is the turnover rate for my helpers?
6. And, of course, the most important evaluation tool of all – when I look at my students on the last week of class, do I see that they have they completed the required commands and exercises? Are they happy with their accomplishments and with their dog?
Would you send all your students home on the last class with a t-shirt that read, “I TRAINED MY DOG WITH_____!” If not, maybe you should do some evaluation of your program and make needed changes.