If you instruct beginner classes, you know the most difficult part can be getting your students to understand that home practice is what trains the dog. Despite it being repeated to them many times, some new handlers will just assume that coming to class each week will somehow magically turn their rowdy adolescent dog, shy puppy, or out for trouble mature dog into a model canine citizen. Since we can’t follow our students home each week to check on their work, we have to somehow find ways to make practice more doable and more fun.
Good instructors always provide plenty of ideas for teaching and utilizing the basic exercises in the daily routine of their students. Sit and stay are logically practiced before the dog is allowed to go to his food bowl, allowed to go through the door to go outside or come in, go through the gate of the yard, or loaded and unloaded from the car. Down and stay is really useful when loading dog food into the cart at the pet store or writing your check, waiting in the veterinarian’s lobby, or when stepping off the path at the park to allow a mom with kids and a stroller to walk by. Calling the dog for food, play, or a walk outside are great ways to practice a fast recall. Go to your place is naturally going to be used for settling down at home or loading into the crate.
Of course, the more ways you can suggest to use the basics the more enthusiastic your student will be. However, the truth is that some “drill” is useful, especially in the beginning. Some time set aside each day for “formal” practice allows for the repetition needed to really get the exercises in the dog’s mind and muscles, and to help create good handlers. As the dog and handler team gains confidence, practicing in locations away from home can be really beneficial. Not only are the exercises proofed around new and different things, dogs are socialized to new people and places, and learn what is expected no matter what the venue.
A great way to get students excited about “taking the show on the road” is to suggest a social class. This simply means your student and his dog arrange to get together with other handlers and their dogs and meet someplace to train and socialize. A workout at the local park followed by cool water or treats for dogs and humans at the picnic table is fun for both. Meeting at the local pet store, or any business that allows dogs, is also a possibility. Perhaps just exchanging houses or front yards might be an idea that would work. A “social walk” through a large field, even if you have to do it on lead, can be beneficial to dogs that need to learn to get along better with other dogs, for shy dogs, and for building handler leadership in all dogs.
City dogs sometimes have ways and places to meet and greet that suburban dogs don’t. Cafes and coffee shops that have dog-friendly patios are springing up everywhere in urban settings and supply wonderful opportunities to get out in a group and work on everything from heeling properly through a crowd to downing quietly, and of course how not to beg at the table! If your neighborhood as a well-run dog park, this may be another good option, particularly for young dogs and the more social breeds. While some dog parks have signs posted that warn of “no obedience training,” you can always run through your workout before you go into the off lead area.
If your community athletic fields, tennis, and basketball courts still allow leashed dogs to come along with spectators, encourage your students to arrange to have some of their trainer buddies meet them there. The opportunities for training, socializing, and just seeing new stuff are abundant.
When you encourage your students to set up a social class outside of your structured class, you may be surprised how quickly they start exchanging phone numbers and making plans. But if they don’t seem to want to get started, you can always do the planning for them, set up a time and place, let them know you’ll be there and that they are welcome to join you. If you feel this scenario is just running a free class, make it a time when you can work your own dog around distractions. This way you are getting the benefit of the outing as well.
Dogs and handler teams that practice outside of class obviously will do better than those that don’t. They make your whole class look good, and that success helps everyone to try harder and do better. The social class also has the potential of building good practicing habits in your students, helping them to enjoy their dogs in the real world, helps to build those basic skills quickly in practical situations, and is just plain fun! A wonderful side benefit is that the general public is exposed to dogs that are under control and safe, and sees responsible dog owners. Of course your students will tell everyone where they train! If you encourage your advanced students to come out sometimes as well, they not only can inspire the beginners, but do some wonderful public relations for you. Encouraging or setting up a social class to go along with your training program can be a win-win for your business, your students and their dogs, and your community!