The first question instructors should ask themselves when they ponder the question of how to motivate students is, “Why does the student come to class in the first place?” Most students register in dog obedience classes because they want a well-mannered pet. Many of the dogs are going through their “terrible teens” (puberty) and developing obnoxious little habits which were easier to overlook when the dog was younger and smaller. The students want a “cure” for their problems, and they want it NOW! Other people come to obedience class to have an evening out with their dog, or to get away from the kids or the husband, or just to get out, period. What instructors should understand is that not many students are prepared for the enormous amount of dedication and work required to make that dog the well-behaved pet which the students envision when they hand over their money. Students will become bored, lazy, frustrated or preoccupied with something else, and often drop out of training all together. This usually makes the instructor wonder if he or she is doing something terribly wrong to lose so many students. Hopefully, this is not the case. However, there are several things an instructor can do to help increase the motivation factor for the students and make them care enough to be dedicated, do their homework, and produce a well-trained pet.
The first thing an instructor can do is take an interest in the students. Take the time to learn their names and greet them with a smile and a “Hi, Jerry!” each week. Nametags can be worn like armbands with dog and handler’s names written in large block letters for high visibility. Taking roll each week will help the instructor place names with faces, also. Nothing is worse than seeing a “hopeless” student suddenly getting it together and doing the exercise perfectly, then not being able to remember the student’s name to call out to them with some positive reinforcement. Hollering, “Hey, you!” somehow just does not have the warmth you want to convey in giving positive reinforcements.
The positive reinforcement is a necessary ingredient to turn out motivated students. Praise is something people just never get enough of, and it should be given out at every opportunity. Even students with dogs who just don’t seem to get anything right need praise. If nothing else, praise their good attendance or the fact that they are always early for class or the fact that they are doing better than they were last week, even if that is still pretty poor. Everyone delights in attention and praise, so look for and find something to say about each student. Another way to reinforce achievement is to give out little “awards” for extra good behavior. Staging sit contests each week is a good way to reward the students for their performance. These can begin the first week after they learn sits at the halt, because you are testing the student on how well he makes the dog sit and not on whether or not the dog will sit on his own. The “prize” could be anything from a dog bone to a dog pamphlet or dog magazine (pre-read, or course). You can offer a tidbit for the person who trained their dog all seven days of the previous week. This is based totally on the honor system, but will hopefully encourage the daily homework practice which is needed to succeed.
Another big help with novice students is to put everything into small “bites,” so that the students can comprehend and master the maneuver a little at a time. For the beginning dog trainer, some exercises can be just plain overwhelming. Not everyone has an aptitude for dog training, and something that a skilled instructor would think so simple a child could do might very well be beyond the comprehension of the average neophyte pet dog owner. By breaking each exercise into small steps, or sequences, the task is much more easily mastered by the novice student.
Along the same vein, I have found that weekly tests have been very helpful and motivational for the students. As each “small bite” is learned, and each new level or sequence of training added, the students are tested on this material before moving on. Just a few moments before class each week is all that is needed to spot weak areas before they become problems. If the student is doing all the exercises as instructed, giving proper commands, correct technique in modeling or reinforcement and well-timed praise, they receive a little gold star for their dog’s forehead. It might seem silly to you, but the students are VERY proud of those stars they earn. The testing also prepared the student for what lies ahead – graduation. Some students haven’t got a clue as to what they will be required to do at graduation. The weekly “quizzes” sort of break it to them gently.
Lastly, the instructor should try to keep the students interested in coming back a week at a time. Don’t worry about the supreme goal of no dropouts for the entire eight weeks. Just keep them interested enough to keep coming back for one more class. Each week at the end of class, the instructor should give a little 30 second commercial for next week’s lesson. Make it sound like something they just can’t miss. You might say, “Okay, folks, next week we will be teaching our dogs the all important ‘come when called’ command. This is the one you’ve all been waiting for, so be sure to come and bring lots of enthusiasm for this exercise! See you next week.” This kind of “advertisement” will keep them excited about the weeks to come – one at a time. If you run out of exciting obedience exercises, promise the students that in the weeks to come they will get to see a grooming demonstration and a flyball demonstration. They surely won’t want to miss that!
©1988 Lonnie Morgan (Olson)