Is Virtual Dog Training Here to Stay?
By Nancy M. Kelly, B.S., CPDT-KA
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, dog trainers had to cancel group classes and were not able to meet clients in person because of safety restrictions. At the same time, pet owners acquired more pets and needed help with training. So, dog trainers had to find a safe way to help people train their pets. Thank goodness for Zoom!
At first glance, dog training seems like an odd service for a virtual platform. However, well-known trainers who have clients all over the world have been using virtual check-ins between in-person sessions, video submittals for review and shared online documents for a good while. Partnership video reviews in which trainer and student discuss the student’s techniques have been well-used in training for specialty dog sports and other training applications. Now these methods and others are enhancing the learning of pet owners, students training their own service dogs and many more.
Many people think of dog training as handing over a dog and getting back a somewhat different animal after someone else pushes a few magic buttons. Those who take their dogs to classes or work privately with trainers may not realize they were the ones training the dog all along while the trainer coached them. When pet owners understand their own role in training their pets, they discover virtual platforms allow trainers to coach just as well—perhaps even better—than in-person.
When dog owners attend traditional group classes in person, they are attempting to teach new behaviors in a new environment. They practice what they’ve learned in their home environment and things generally go pretty well with their education. However, this is not usually the case for those with stressed, anxious or fearful dogs. These dogs may spend most of the class time responding to the new environment and the other dogs and humans whose scents, sounds and visual presentations are assaulting their senses. A dog’s tactile sense may join the assault if people mistake their stiff, still body language as acceptance and pet them while they are terrified.
Pet parents are often stressed from managing their dogs on the trip over, getting them into the training area and handling their dogs as they try to learn something new about training themselves. Even friendly, social dogs may be a handful in a training class when they don’t have the skills to maintain self-control around a group of dogs and humans. In addition, training classes are traditionally an hour long. This is partially because it doesn’t seem worth it for dog owners to load up and drive over, only to load up and drive home after a few minutes, even though a shorter class would benefit beginner dog/owner teams.
No Travel Time
With virtual training, travel is not part of the equation, so dogs who become anxious or nauseated in the car can avoid it until they have gone through a training process to help them relax during a car trip. The lack of travel also relieves pet parents of what may have once been a three-hour process because a virtual class requires only the class time itself, which may be only 30 minutes.
Virtual classes can be short enough to prevent overwhelming pet parents and their dogs with a session that lasts so long their self-control is challenged. And shorter, more frequent classes allow trainers to keep students on track. Correct practice can be monitored through videos students take on their phones and submit to a shared online class folder, making trainer review simple. If mistakes happen, trainers can catch them early and coach students to change things before bad habits become ingrained. This leads to successful training outcomes.
Comfortable Learning Environment
A major benefit of virtual group dog training classes is that both dogs and owners learn new things in the environment most familiar and comfortable to them—their own homes. Professional trainers who embrace behavior science know that the best behavior changes are implemented quickly. Preventing unwanted behaviors from happening allows a smooth training process using positive reinforcement to build the desired behavior.
Much like we provide a quiet, inspirational learning space for children, learning for dogs and their owners happens best in an environment where both are relaxed. Once they learn a behavior very well, the team can begin to practice it in the presence of an increasing number and level of distractions, and in a variety of locations. The comfortable association of the environment in which they learned accompanies the behavior into other environments in which the owner needs the dog to perform it.
Separate Social Time
It’s a myth that dogs benefit from learning new behaviors in the midst of a group of dogs and humans in a live, in-person dog training class. The belief that social time with other dogs should be part of the training process has been widely embraced, but social time should be separate from behavior training. Dogs need to be taught and to practice good social interactions, but foundational skills are better trained in a quiet, isolated environment before adding distractions like the presence of new dogs and people to those new skills.
Virtual training is tailor-made for beginner teams. Just as they transition their new behaviors from their home environment to other environments, they can transfer their ability to learn new things into a new environment where other dogs and humans are present. Dog/owner teams are ready to practice learning in the presence of other teams when their basic foundational skills are solid. It makes sense to ensure dogs have the necessary skills to manage themselves in a situation before putting them in that particular situation.
In virtual classes and consults, students can have access to class session recordings, allowing them to review their own training, the teacher’s class instructions and to learn from fellow students. This is not the case with most in-person classes because students must pay full attention to their own pets during class. Reviewing one’s own behavior on video is one of the best ways to learn to train a pet.
Some virtual classes include students with cats. In-person classes don’t provide a safe environment for mixing cats and dogs, but with virtual classes, students can train their cats at home, right along with other students training dogs. Students are learning to take their cats for walks, teaching them manners around food, not to run out an open door and to go in their carriers when asked—the same foundational behaviors dogs are learning.
Private Virtual Consultations
Just like virtual dog training classes, virtual behavior consultations and private training sessions are a perfect way for trainers to coach dog owners to train their dogs in an environment conducive to learning. Many problematic dog behaviors are based in stress and anxiety; the presence of the professional trainer in the home can be yet another stressor for a dog already having trouble managing his stress under the current conditions. This is commonly known as trigger-stacking, meaning the impacts of multiple stressors at one time on a dog, and it can easily be prevented through virtual coaching sessions.
Safer for Aggression Cases
In aggression cases, it is much safer for the owner and trainer to hold initial training sessions on a virtual platform. It’s safer for the dog in a behavior sense; setting the environment up so the dog does not exhibit the problem behavior allows quick acquisition of an alternate behavior.
Many trainers are using a “hybrid” between virtual and in-person sessions to help pet parents learn to train in a relaxed environment and then take their new behaviors systematically into new situations. This is often appropriate for aggression cases. Training safety behaviors like happily wearing a muzzle and staying next to the owner on a leash can be done through virtual sessions. This sets up the opportunity for the trainer to do a home visit while keeping everyone physically safe and without contributing to the dog’s stress level.
A Dedicated Owner is Imperative
Behavior science has taught us over nearly 100 years that the environment facilitates behavior. When an animal is trained away from home by someone other than the human he or she lives with, teaching the owner how to maintain the behaviors in their home environment is essential. Educated professional trainers accomplish this through “transfer sessions,” during which the owners learn their part of the process—how to maintain the behavior, how to use positive reinforcement and the cues that have been taught, and which environments the dog has performed in so far.
Now that virtual training is growing, transfer sessions can take place more often throughout the training process because virtual sessions save travel time for both clients and trainers. This allows dog owners to learn while their dogs are learning and has proven to be a great enhancement of the training process.
The COVID-19 pandemic opened the eyes of all dog trainers to the need to pivot quickly in the event of another pandemic. Scrambling to make that change during the pandemic resulted in discoveries of the technology available for connecting with clients, and dog trainers have gotten pretty good at using it. Virtual dog training is here to stay because it offers benefits for pet parents and trainers alike.
Nancy M. Kelly, B.S., CPDT-KA teaches students to train their dogs and cats through her training company, The Mannerly Dog. Her virtual classes and training packages teach pet owners all over the U.S. and Canada. Nancy writes, pursues a master’s degree in behavior, and shares behavior science wherever she can. She created a program to train shelter staff in low-stress animal handling, resulting in a safer, quieter environment for staff and animals at a large shelter in Houston, Texas. She is working on a documentary about the power of behavior science in animal training through SpyBird Productions, LLC.