Educating Bowser


For canines as well as humans, proper schooling is fundamental to a happy and successful life. Dogs don’t intuitively know how to live in a human world – after all, they are members of another species, and they definitely don’t speak English!

Most of the time when we are frustrated with them, it’s because they simply don’t know what to do or how to behave in order to please us. This is why education is crucial.  

I have been in the business of educating canines for over 10 years. Here are some of questions I am often asked.


What should I look for in a dog training class?

Here are some basic pointers:

Your instructor should explain things well, demonstrate behaviors with the dogs in class, and provide individual assistance.

Classes should be small enough that dogs and people are not crowded and attention is provided to all. My classes are limited to 6 to 8 dogs per class, a number I find optimal for providing individual attention, good socialization opportunities (for dogs and people), and just enough distraction to allow dogs to learn to behave reliably in many circumstances.

Training techniques should not be harmful or distressing to dogs – no creature, human or canine, can learn well when under stress or feeling threatened. Reward-based training will make your dog a happy, motivated learner.

Trainers should be active in the profession of dog training – pursuing continuing education, attending seminars and conferences, and seeking certification from independent, national organizations like the Certification Council on Pet Dog Trainers. You want to be sure their knowledge is current and that they are dedicated to the profession and professionalism.

Health and safety should be a top priority – appropriate vaccinations should be required of all dogs and the safety of all participants, especially children, should be ensured. 


How old should my new puppy be before I start training him?

A puppy is never too young to be taught good manners and appropriate behaviors. Your new puppy is learning every moment and it is your job to be his teacher – to guide him to appropriate behaviors and reward those behaviors so he comes to value them, too. If you teach him how to get it right at a young age, he won’t develop bad habits you will need to work extra hard to undo later on.

Most Puppy Kindergarten classes enroll dogs that are 3 to 4 months old. But even before your pup attends school, his education can, and should, be active at home. There are some excellent books for new puppy parents. One of my favorites is Ian Dunbar’s “Before and After You Get Your Puppy.” I also love the “Ultimate Puppy Toolkit,” which includes six manuals that address many of the important topics for getting pups off to a perfect start. And in-home lessons with personal trainers who are knowledgeable about positive ways to shape a puppy’s behavior are worth every penny of the coaching fee. After all, the early months in a puppy’s life are the most vital. Your teaching and his learning during this time will shape your relationship with him for a lifetime.


Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Dogs of every age can learn. I have had dogs up to twelve years old in my obedience classes, and they have done beautifully. It is true that when behaviors are practiced many times over they become habits, and that habits are hard to break. But new behaviors absolutely can be developed, particularly when old dogs realize that there are rewards to be earned in the process.


Should I take my dog to a class or get private lessons?

Dog training classes are a great way for your dog to get exposed to other canines and humans. This socialization experience is an important part of your dog’s education. However, group classes are not for everyone. If your dog is uncomfortable with unfamiliar dogs or people, a group situation may be too stressful for him to effectively learn. Also, if your dog has special needs or you want to work on specific behaviors that go beyond the scope of a general curriculum, private lessons may be in order. Although private lessons are generally more expensive than classes, they offer the major advantage of individualized attention. But you lose the opportunity for them to perform reliably, even in the presence of other dogs.


What about sending my dog away for training?

Sending your dog off for training (typically called “board and train”) can be a helpful way to jumpstart his education, but I do not typically recommend this approach. Ultimately, how you live with your dog day-to-day is the biggest influence on his behavior, and turning the teaching over to someone else ignores your ongoing role in guiding his behavior. Also, going through all the steps of positive training with your dog can really help build a wonderful bond.

If you do send your dog away for training, be sure to carefully assess the trainer, his or her techniques, and the living conditions provided. Also, be sure the trainer offers coaching sessions with you when your dog comes home.


Once I am finished with basic dog training, will my dog stay trained?

Training is like a fitness program; it needs to be kept up every day throughout your dog’s life. For this reason, many dog owners find it useful to repeat an obedience course or to take more advanced classes to push their training skills to a new level.

Most important of all, training should be fun for both you and your dog! Keep your attitude playful and positive and your dog will learn that doing what you ask brings pleasure and bonding. That’s the secret to a happy life with your canine companion.

Sarah Richardson is owner/operator of The Canine Connection in Chico, California. She graduated from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant as well as a Certified Pet Dog Trainer. For more information, visit or call 530-345-1912.


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