Jennifer Stile was apprehensive when she found out that training classes forher puppy Josie would be moving online because of the pandemic.
“Initially I said I’d wait till it’s over,” says Stile, who was taking a classat My Fantastic Friend in Ellicott City, Maryland. “But then I realized thatit wasn’t going to be over fast enough, and I knew I needed to train my dogand I didn’t have the tools to do that without help.”
So she took the plunge — and she’s glad she did.
“I’d been trying to watch YouTube videos and do it on my own, but I wasn’tgetting that instant feedback, knowing if I was doing it correctly,” she says.“Having that feedback from a trainer who was invested in me and my dog andgetting to know my dog, it was much more successful than I thought.”
In fact, many trainers are finding that holding classes and private sessionsonline via videoconference is more than a stopgap: There are advantages forthem, for their clients and for dogs.
One plus is that the setting is less distracting than that of the typical in-person group class that takes place in an unfamiliar environment with otherdogs around.
“People make progress more quickly, which I think is encouraging for them, andit’s more efficient,” says Kelly Lee of Dog Kind Training in Davis,California. “And many dogs who could never do an in-person class can come tothese, because they’re still in their comfort zone.”
Maura Knestout found that to be true for her terrier mix Mia. “An in-persongroup class wouldn’t have worked out for us, because she wouldn’t have beenable to focus,” she says. “Doing the group class online, I was able to see theother dogs, and see how their handlers were working with them, but we were inour own space, so she could focus better.”
It can be less distracting for the people, as well: They can focus on what isbeing taught without having to worry about wrangling their dog in anoverstimulating environment.
For certain behavior issues, online training may be the best way, pandemic ornot. Kate LaSala, who specializes in problems like pet fear and aggression,has been offering private sessions online for several years.
“I have found that doing these types of cases remotely is often easier on thedog, because they don’t have a stranger coming into the house,” she says.“It’s less stressful for the dog, and less stressful for the people.”
This makes learning easier, as Knestout discovered with Mia.
“We were actually able to speed up the process because we didn’t have someonecoming in our house and making her nervous,” she says. “Once we switched toonline, she zoomed through the private lessons.”
The ultimate goal of dog training, LaSala says, is to provide owners with thetools to work with their own dogs, not for the trainer to do it. And althougheach dog owner’s problems may feel unique, there’s usually no need for her tosee the animal in action.
“I know what food guarding looks like. I know what stranger danger lookslike,” she says. “I don’t need to instigate the dog to see that behavior tohelp the person or to help the dog.”
Technology also offers some benefits that would be harder to provide inperson. It’s easy to share video to demonstrate a technique, and rewind orslow-mo to focus on details. It’s easy to record class, so some trainers sharevideo to help you review what was covered. And looking at video of yourselfworking with your dog can let you see more clearly what your trainer istalking about when she gives you feedback.
There are some downsides to online training for puppy classes, wherepracticing good dog-dog play and providing exposure to strange people andsituations is a big part of the curriculum. But experts stress that doingpuppy classes at the right age is critical, and online classes are stilleffective.
“It’s easy to do a video session to address normal puppy behaviors like playbiting and jumping and mouthing,” says LaSala. “All that can be done remotelyand be very successful.”
In addition, your trainer will give you exercises to socialize your puppy tothe environment. Stiles says the advice worked for her.
“She gave us really great ideas, like sit on your front lawn and watch thebikes go by and the garbage truck and the UPS person. Go on walks so they cansee other dogs, and give them a treat so they have a positive association withthe world around them,” she says. “My dog is so well socialized — she can walkacross any surface, she can hear any noise, the doorbell rings and she doesn’tbark, and she’s really great with dogs and humans.”
And as we’re all learning these days, online can give us some of the otherthings we need as well. “I got to see my dog friends every week and see howthey were progressing, and that was fun,” says Stile. “And especially in thisweird pandemic time, it gave me something to look forward to, and a goal eachweek.”
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