Dog Training Classes or One to One Consults? – Which one is best for you, and your dog?

Many dog owners are faced with the choice of one to one training, behaviour modification, or classes in a bid to help with issues such as recall, reactivity, and focus.
Classes are readily available and frequent. Offering owners the structure in training they might often need. An hour a week to focus on you, and your dog. Around other dogs. Often seen as the best way to “socialise” your dog around other dogs, and get focus under distraction.
Classes are ideal for owners wanting to further their skills as owners and, work in an environment that is consistent and progressive, but it can also be a confined mosh pit of pulling to get to another dog. Feeling like a failure as Max the Springer can’t do what Lola the Schnauzer can. Your dogs feeling of being trapped, dictated to and only learning to perform in the class, or at the worst reinforcing fear, anxiety and aggression as coping mechanisms.
Classes have their place, and should be a must for many dog owners, as they provide the supported structure that many dog owners need. Set times per week that you train with your dog, really needed in this day and age where we don’t always get the time we want with our dogs to train them. Classes are more than sit stays, they’re opportunities to learn new skills. Nose work, trick training, agility, fly ball, rally or disk dogs. They provide a way for owners to try new things, and push themselves out of their comfort zone. They also provide a social connection with other dog owners, meeting like minded people. Maybe those with the same breed, same goals or just similar personalities.
Classes create a way for you to push your boundaries and build your bond with your dog in a supervised way. Trainers instructing the class can spot issues as they happen, and see the progress each week. Classes can also provide a lot of conflict. Conflict when your dog can’t focus in such a highly enriching environment. Conflict when you can’t get your dog to do what others can. Conflict when your dog won’t perform the same out on walks. Conflict when you want more help but don’t want to ask, or feel like your’re not being listened to in a group. Conflict when the trainer can’t meet all the needs of the individuals in the group. Conflict when your dog gets worse not better. Classes are 90% not the place for dog-reactive dogs. Its like putting them in a mosh pit, or prison riot. Enclosed space; dogs being “friendly” when entering your dogs personal bubble, owners not understanding that your dog needs space; instructors often just leaving you to your own devises because they can’t accommodate you in the class environment. This often leaves the owner disheartened, the dog can also start to recognise the class environment as stressful, and begin to preempt the worry with stressful behaviour outside of class such as mouthing the lead, barking or urinating.  But some classes can suit the reactive dog, like tracking classes where there is space. Many halls are just too small to provide enough space, and the strong smells and noise affect the dogs greatly.
Training indoors is convenient, warm and predictable. But unfortunately life isn’t like that, and often dogs will perform beautifully in the training hall but struggle outside. Leaving owners baffled why their dogs are “choosing” to ignore them. While many venues might have a lot of smells and sounds, they are predictable. Dogs love predictable and can focus in a predictable environment. The walks in the fields, pavements or beaches aren’t predictable and your dog will get focused on what catches its attention most.
One to one training can have loads of positives that help dog owners succeed. Training alone is hard, but enlisting a trainer or behaviourist to help can mean tackling problems with support, knowledge, and the right tools for success. Training with someone on your own means you get 100% of their attention. A pin point focus on you and your dog, building the bond with the information tailored to you. Every dog and every owner has different learning styles, and in a class environment it is difficult to suit them all.
Experienced and educated one to one trainers will work towards your goals, using the right methods. This does mean finding a trainer who actually has qualifications or experience in teaching, as many don’t in the dog training world. Being good with only dogs, not people in some cases. A good one to one session will involve you starting with limited distractions then adding them in at your pace. Especially for dogs lacking focus. Focus needs to be reinforced and built up over time, classes can throw you in the deep end. Where as in a one to one set up, sessions can add in the distractions as and when you progress through the training. This helps you learn in your own time, keeps your dogs stress below the threshold and increases his/her learning capacity.
There’s no comparison in 121 training, no Suzie next to you with Polly Poodle walking to heel, while your Beagle still thinks it can smell food from yesterday’s WI meeting. It is individual to your breed, dogs personality and your learning style. You can ask questions, try different things and do it at your pace. Comparisons put extra pressure on you to gain certain things. Things that might be out of your grasp at the start but achievable after a little work. This pressure increases your stress, which can lead to you being erratic, moody and possibly lashing out at your dog. None of which are helpful to training. One to one training can spot and cure behaviour issues before they happen.
They are also perfect for dogs with dog to dog issues, or fear issues as they are working on a low stress basis and many good dog trainers have excellent stooge dogs for building dog to dog confidence. This kind of focused training means you can try out different techniques that might distract others in a class environment. Such as play toys, whistle training, squeaky toys or throwing balls. One to one training is obviously slightly more costly, but on the other hand you get one to one attention, and for personalised training it isn’t as much as it seems. Classes cost on average between £5 and £10 a class, where as one to one training is considerably more; however, you are paying for considerably more in terms of time, coaching, expertise and improvement.
Dog training classes are often run by people interested in dogs, such as a dog enthusiast, someone who has done a little agility training or attended up to Gold Level Obedience. They have knowledge, they have skills, but they are not really qualified or experienced to deal with teaching groups, all levels of experience and different breeds. Training classes can be run by qualified trainers and behaviourists, and you’ll generally see the price go up to match the skill level your receiving. Also they tend to be specialist classes such as for reactive dogs, problem solving or more fun classes like advanced clicker training. Invest in what suits your dog, not you.
Money might be a factor but we all find the money to buy luxuries such as a new pair of jeans or boots, that latest gadget. Investing in a little more than a months classes can set you up for a lifetime of enjoyment with your dog, instead of a limited fix to what could be a bigger issue.
In summary you will need to make your own choice about things and see what suits you, and your dog. Sometimes that takes a little trial and error, but it always come right in the end. Never stick with what you don’t enjoy or feel comfortable with.
Kathryn Jones FdSc AAB
A Clever Approach to Dog Training and Behaviour