The benefits of training your dog in public

The many things training your dog in public prepares you for are endless. By the same token, there are some things you should prepare for when you venture away from familiar grounds and decide to take your dog training to the next level.

I offer a limited-entry Basic Obedience group class in Westminster Maryland several times a year. They are a bit different than the ‘usual’ group class offerings in the area in both duration and style.

Lionheart K9’s group classes are ten weeks long because I don’t feel that it should take a “beginner’s”, an “intermediate” and an “advanced” set of courses to get your dog to the point of learning how to walk politely on a loose leash before you introduce distractions, and quite frankly, after that much training, your dog should be ready to qualify for more than a simple C.G.C. test.

The style is different simply because the group class environment has a tendency to get pretty stale after the basic commands of heel, sit, down, stand, stay and the recall are introduced. People tend to drop out after week five in a regular group class not because they have gotten what they think they need, but because it no longer offers any challenges! We practice these skills in different locations publicly so our dogs can learn how to conduct themselves appropriately in any setting, at any time, under any form of distraction. The additional benefit of having our hard work recognized and admired by total strangers is certainly appealing as well.

After the introduction of all the basic commands are taught (usually week 5), we start Guerrilla Dog Training by traveling to different locations in the greater Westminster area to help you with training your dog. During the longer days of spring and summer, we have the advantage of using several highly trafficked public parks during daylight hours, but during the winter months we are inclined to meet in public venues; near the well-lit commercial centers of Carroll County, and in the precious few locations that actually allow the presence of dogs.

This fall, weather and misfortune have conspired against us and I had extended our training for an additional 3 weeks as a result. What should have been finished before Thanksgiving week is now pushed until the second week of December.

We have met at the local PetCo and worked the area both around the store, and inside the store. We have worked our dogs at Home Depot and last night, at the PetSmart shopping center right on route 140.

Dog training is not static. It is dynamic, and in order to provide your dog with the necessary skills to make him reliable under any circumstance, it is important to expose him to a variety of stimulating environments that include different sounds, scents, and situations.

Working at night affords several advantages, as does working in public, and working in different, socially appealing settings. Night training in the winter time loses its allure for some handlers because of the weather. For that matter, it’s difficult for any employed individual with lives and jobs and families to be coerced away from the comfort zone of a static environment and the habits such environments encourage.

It does require the handler to become more acutely aware of the principles they are being taught, to become cognizant of their relationship with their dog and the greater world around them. The chief benefit is the absence of the instructor “safety net” and the confidence it affords them as they encounter and overcome each new set of challenges.

Since my philosophy is to use obedience to both control and predict behavior, the chaos of a large shopping center at rush hour during the height of the Holiday shopping season is a natural choice, right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because it’s a great opportunity to assess your skills and those of your dog. Remembering that successfully training your dog is a product of your efforts can be a source of great pride or uncertainty, as both are easily reflected in your public performance. If you have achieved the level where your dog is truly ‘ready’ for public appearances then by all means, you are limited only by your modesty. Leave  fear at the door and show off your hard work!

No, because you are at the caprice of your venue; the traffic, the noise, the lack of familiarity with your surroundings and the wholly inappropriate behavior of total strangers.

It’s not all bad. The same reasons that make these ideas seem terrifying are the same ones that make them the perfect choice!

There are a few rules you should endeavor to adhere to if you choose to venture out in public, especially during the winter months:

1) Make sure your dog is well aired before training your dog in any public venue. Nothing makes your presence more undesirable than a dog that soils public areas. Please pick up your dogs’ waste and dispose of it properly! Nothing destroys access to these precious and dwindling resources faster than a sloppy dog owner who is too lazy to see to these basic principles of common sense!

2) If you are entering a store that normally does not allow dogs, please be courteous and ask the merchant if you can bring your dog in. It is only polite, and most local business owners are more than happy to oblige the owner who is well-represented by a mannerly pet.

3) Be prepared to give deference to (which is a nice way to say avoid) other patrons, especially if you are in an area that usually does not permit dogs.

4) If you are entering a store, be prepared to buy something as a show of good faith to the merchant for allowing you the privilege of entering their store with your dog. Pet box stores are no exception, even though they permit dogs, they usually do not ‘permit’ the training of dogs unless it’s through one of their own classes. Respect that, and be subtle.

5) Dress warmly! There are occasions where you may find yourself working on a particular skill that prevents you from progressing indoors. A startling event at the threshold of a store may mean that you stay outside and work through that problem before moving indoors.

6) Avoid conflicts! Focus on training your dog. Get and keep his attention. If it is too much for him, then move off to a quieter area to work on building that skill instead of overly correcting your dog for something that could be avoided easily. If he is not quite ready for that venue, pick a less distracting one and continue to build on your success by returning to the more challenging one at a later time.

7) Avoid overzealous spectators who smack their lips and make kissy noises, try to lure your dog’s attention away from you, or move inappropriately towards your dog, politely! Simply move off and work elsewhere, or control the situation by saying something like “If you would like to pet him, let me get him to sit first, but you can only pet him if he is calm!” Most people will cooperate, but occasionally, there will be an individual who is too oblivious to take a hint. Just politely ignore their poor manners and move along. I have had people actually follow me, so be prepared to leave if necessary to avoid conflict, especially if the whole purpose for your trip is to socialize your dog to the behavior of people.

8) If you can, agree to meet with other group class members so you can practice group exercises on different surfaces. Macadam, concrete, linoleum, wood and other man-made materials are great mediums to practice stationary commands, or to familiarize the dogs to working on different substrates than usually not found in a home or yard.

9) Behave as you would as naturally as possible. Your nervousness is transmitted right down that leash to your dog! Wooden movement and monotonous commands make your dog suspicious. If you are too nervous to work publicly, practice elsewhere until you are comfortable and confident!

10) Practice safety first and always! Whether subjecting yourself and your dog to the unknowns of an entirely unfamiliar place to train, be aware of where you are, and what is happening around you. Most recently I was almost run down by a rather obnoxious driver of a large vehicle who had the temerity to be driving in the wrong direction down a stretch of parking area reserved for exits. He knew what he was doing and thought it was funny to see me wrestle a very young, inexperienced dog out of the path of his oncoming vehicle. The dog recovered, and the police have a picture of his license plate.

Training your dog in public has many great advantages. It changes things as slightly or as dramatically as you wish, depending on your selection of venues and your level of confidence. It is the next logical progression in your training, whether you are preparing for the obedience ring or just want the dog that everyone admires. It is a great way to polish precise skills, or to show off your hard work to an admiring and grateful audience of people who may not otherwise have a chance to see what a truly well-trained dog looks like!

Lionheart K9 has suspended our group training classes for the remainder of 2012. We will resume our schedule after the first of the New Year and hope to see you there!