Manners classes aren’t right for everyone…
I’m the first person to suggest getting a dog into a training class. I think it can be incredibly valuable for learning basic manner or a specific set of skills, for teaching a dog to work in that type of environment, and to hold guardians accountable for doing training work with their dog. Anyone who has been in one of my group classes knows that I work really hard to create an environment where many dogs can be successful. We use barriers for dogs who need less visual stimuli or who are too reactive with all the other dogs around, and partial barriers for dogs who are just a bit too excited. However, even these modifications are not always enough to create an environment where a dog can be successful.
For as fantastic as I think group manners classes are, they really are not the solution for all dogs. Group classes are no substitute for quality one on one training with a skilled trainer for dogs with serious behavior problems. Reactivity, aggression, prey drive issues, and fearfulness are not things best served in a group manners class. There are specific group classes for reactive dogs, aggressive dogs, or fearful dogs but a typical manners class is not the place to work on those issues.
Many trainers who teach manners classes are not skilled enough or educated in dealing with behavior problems. They may be fantastic with teaching manners and running a quality class but behavior modification is just not their area of expertise (and that’s okay). Having a dog with serious issues in the class is doing a disservice to not just the dog itself but the class as a whole. The dog/handler team working through issues may not be receiving the best possible advice and the dog may be experiencing undue stress/anxiety/fear levels from participating in the class. Plus the stress levels often rub off on all of the other dogs in class.
I’ve written about it before many times but any behavior that is practiced will get stronger. Reactive or fearful dogs in class who cannot be settled or who cannot relax are not doing themselves any favors. During class they may react repeatedly (even with visual barriers) and are only going to rile themselves up into a tizzy (or shut down because they are so overwhelmed) which continues to elevate their cortisol levels. When their cortisol levels go up (among other body chemicals), the dogs become more on edge and more likely to react another time. It also sets them up to suffer effects of continually high levels of stress if every week they are pushed over the edge. If a reactive dog can settle, focus on their handlers, and work through most of the class, a manners class can be a great option to start building communication but stress level of the dog has to be of the utmost concern and handlers need to recognize that a manners class will not solve reactivity or fear or whatever special need the dog has.
The reality is, unless the class is specifically designed for reactivity, aggression, fear, or other behavior problem, the instructor often will not have the time to specifically address a dog’s special needs within a manners class (and many trainers simply don’t have that knowledge base to help beyond management). As much information as I try to offer the reactive dogs in class, and as much as I try to make sure the owners/handlers are getting some helpful information, it is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the work, information, and skills the team can learn through one on one training. Some dogs, if under threshold, can benefit from a class but their work will be in solidifying their basic manners behaviors, not necessarily working on their behavior problems (working on the basic manners can help set up for a nice transition to working on behavior modification but it won’t, in and of itself, fix the problems in most cases).
Group class may seem like the better ‘value’, in that you get 6 classes for the price of 1 or 2 private lessons but the reality is in a class, you may get 5-10 minutes of one on one time with the trainer. So you’ll get maybe 60 minutes (at a maximum) of one on one time with the trainer over the course of the 6 weeks of class. Most of those minutes will be spent talking about things specific to the work in class, not necessarily devoted to the special needs of your dog.
The moral of the story? While group manners classes are fantastic options for some dogs, if you have a dog with behavioral challenges, hiring a trainer for one on one instruction is absolutely invaluable. It may cost more upfront, but you will get hours of one on one help working specifically on the problems at hand and that type of focused attention is just so valuable in resolving behavior problems.