Tips for Training Class

Tips for Training Class

This past weekend Loki started an advanced puppy class.  His first adult basic class (taken because I didn’t want him in group play with rowdy puppies) was a small class with 2 or 3 other students in it at any given time (though the first week had more).  His advanced puppy class is the complete opposite, it is filled with 7 other dogs, some of them are just out of a puppy class and are anxious to play with others (sorry pups, no play in this class).  With this many dogs who are staring, barking or otherwise enticing him to play/interact, it is a significantly more challenging class for him.  I realized some things from the perspective of a student that I felt might be helpful to others.

Loki laying on his mat in school!

Loki laying on his mat in school!

I spent that entire class focused on Loki and rewarding each and every choice he made to lay on his mat or otherwise focus on me.  I listened to instructions from the head trainer, and listened to questions from other students, but my eyes were on Loki the entire time so I could reward what I liked of his behavior (and keep him focused on me and not barking at the dogs staring him down).  When she was doing a demo,would glance up to watch while still treating Loki for good choices. I gave Loki the type of focus that I wanted in return from him during the whole class (see this post about giving your dog what you want to get from them).  I worked just as hard as he did during the class to keep him engaged with me and to make paying attention to me worthwhile.

This type of focus on my dog is one thing that would help other students greatly.  There are many instances where I see students not paying any attention to their dog.  The handlers are missing GOOD choices and are missing the warning signs to bad situations.  A dog sits there quietly staring at an owner who isn’t paying attention, and then the dog starts staring at another dog and ultimately barks.  The bark gets the owners attention and before you know it the dog has learned to bark to get attention because staring at the owner or laying down calmly were not reinforced but barking got some attention.  If you are in a class that has new topics that you are unfamiliar with and you’d like to focus on the instructor doing a demo, I highly suggest bringing a stuffed kong or a bully stick to give your dog to keep them occupied while you focus on the instructor.

Another helpful thing that going to class with Loki reminded me of was the importance for bringing a variety of foods to try at school and using each different value in different situation in class.  Everyone who has ever taken class with me knows that I pay as cheap as possible in terms of food rewards.  If my dog is willing to work for a nickel, I’m not going to pay with a quarter.  On Saturday, I brought red barn food roll as a medium value treat, peanut butter as a medium/high level reward, and turkey as a high value reward.  When we first started class, as the other dogs arrived, I was using peanut butter for Loki to settle on a mat. When a particularly barky (and very friendly/flirty) dog arrived, I had to bust out the turkey to keep Loki from losing his mind.  When we started working sits and downs, I went down to using the Red Barn food roll.  I was constantly evaluating his focus, stress level, and level of distractions and was choosing the reward I would used based on that information.  When we started moving around the room, I busted out some more turkey so I could have him successful with the other dogs moving around, the human distractions near some of the stations, and invitations to play from other dogs who weren’t paying attention to their handlers.

One of the struggles I had was that it was an early morning class and Loki hadn’t gotten any meaningful exercise before class which lead him to be an absolute lunatic the first little while.  Fortunately I got to WPHS early and being a trainer there has some benefits-one being keys to the closet with the flirt pole inside.  I was able to run Loki around for about 5 minutes before class which took the edge off a bit, without making him too tired.  Exercise before a class is a double edged sword.  Too much exercise and you have a dog who might be more frantic than normal, harder to focus, unable to easily pick up the new skills, or may be reluctant to participate.  Not enough exercise and your pup full of energy, frantic in finding things to do, easily stimulated, easily distracted, and a challenge to get to control their bodies.   Finding that sweet spot with the right amount of exercise is really helpful–it often takes some trial and error, but it’s worth trying to find that optimal level.

Don’t forget to snuggle your dog (or otherwise do something they really like!).  I try to remember to play with Loki or give him from playful pets a few times every class.  Yes, the food is amazing, but I also want Loki to see that I am fun during class.  I want to work on building our bond and our relationship outside of yum.  I give more than a “good boy” pat and really focus on having a playful moment with him–maybe some low-key wrestling or other fun interaction.  Isn’t relationship building what it’s all about?

So, what are some things you do during group classes to maximize the experience?


  1. Great points here. Wish i could have seen this focus/calm exercise in action. Is this something you worked on at home? I started the idea of a mat with Luna the other day, but all she got to was standing on it with 2 feet and watching me. Do you then move to giving a sit or down command on the mat? or do you wait till they offer it. It is hard to keep her wanting to work sometimes as she gets bored and isn’t as free thinking as i would like. So i have to keep her engaged or she goes to her habits of barking or pawing.

    Any good vidoes for mat work?


    • Hi Anna,

      Two tips for getting the down on the mat without cuing it:

      When you are rewarding for being on the mat, drop the treats ONTO the mat and use a high rate of reinforcement to start. TREAT-TREAT-TREAT-TREAT. The repetition of having to drop their head to eat off the mat OFTEN gets them to just lay down to get their treats (LAZY BUMS!).

      Before you bust out the mat, spend a session working on down and jackpotting the position, so multiple treats for being in the down. “Down”–treat, treat, treat, “Down”–treat, treat, treat… build value for that position as the default…. then introduce the mat, rapid fire for any interaction and wait, since down just paid out, there is a really good chance that they will offer it on the mat and then you jackpot.

      I don’t have video of Loki in class on the mat (he required 110% of my focus in that class, it was HARD!) but here’s a video of how I taught mat work to former foster dog, Linus:

  2. Thanks for this post! It came at a great time, because we are about to start an obedience class with our confident, highly energetic new dog (a 6-month-old GSD rescue). Always appreciate your posts and your thorough, practical advice on dog training.

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