Group Classes are Not Always the Answer
As the New Year gets underway, we have many enquiries coming in for classes for adolescent and adult dogs. It's really great that people are looking for help and we want to be able to give that help - we really do - but the problem is that the expectation of how we should help and what we know is actually the best way to help, is often very different. Probably 90% of enquiries we get for dogs over the age of 5 months hints at mild to severe social problems and the expected solution is resolving this by sticking the dog into a group class. It really needs to be stated again:
*GROUP CLASSES ARE NOT THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT FOR DOGS WITH SERIOUS SOCIAL LIMITATIONS*
Please understand that if a dog is anxious or stressed around other dogs (whether this manifests itself in shutting down or reactivity), being thrown into an environment with other dogs is really NOT the answer. It really is like throwing a person who has never learned to swim into a lake and expecting them not to drown. It is almost guaranteed to be a disaster.
There ARE plenty of things that we can do for reactive or socially anxious dogs:
1. We can try to establish the extent of the problem and what has been or is contributing to it. 2. We can find ways to reduce stress to generally improve quality of life and optimise learning potential 3. We can increase enrichment to fulfil needs, which again puts the dog in a better frame of mind for learning new behaviour 4. We can draw up a plan for gradually desensitizing triggers for anxiety and reactivity 5. We can teach more appropriate responses in situations, where appropriate.
However, all of this requires one-on-one assistance to get started. An in-depth consultation that ensures we understand the extent of the problem and all contributing factors is essential in order to prevent us from putting a band-aid on the "sore" and never addressing the underlying "infection". Follow-up one-on-one training sessions may also be required in some cases. For some dogs group classes may be appropriate AFTER initial one-on-one help, but this does not mean that they should be the goal for all dogs - some dogs will simply never cope with a group class environment and it will do them more harm than good.
We do have dogs that have started off with social problems, but who we have ultimately been able to accommodate successfully into groups. But we also have to keep in mind that the more dogs we take in with a higher risk of becoming reactive if they feel a little stressed, the more likely we are to end up with a domino effect (one dog sets off another, that sets off another etc. ) and we end up with serious logistical problems of where to put everyone so that each dog can remain in their comfort zone. I don't think most clients realise just how much thought and energy we put into organising classes from a spatial point of view and considering how to meet the emotional needs of EVERY SINGLE dog in class. Continually admitting dogs with "borderline" social issues eventually creates chaos and a stressful environment for all dogs and owners. This is the exact opposite of what we are aiming to achieve and we have a primary responsibility to the socially healthy dogs, who have been enrolled in classes to learn and have fun with their owners, not to do emotional harm to them in our desire to help a dog with an existing problem.
So, if you have a dog with social problems, please do come to us. We WANT to help. But please allow us to help in the way we know is best. Yes, it's likely to take more time than you thought. Yes, you'll have to pay more for our one-on-one services, but please trust that we have your dog's (and your) best interests at heart. Of course you will find a training school or club that won't hesitate to admit your dog, even if he's utterly miserable or trying to launch at every other dog in class. They'll probably show you how to "correct" the reactivity or force your dog to engage on some level in training and it will probably cost you a fraction of our consultation fee. But you will get what you paid for - very bad advice, a scrambled mess of behaviour problems (increasingly unpredictable swings from suppression to full-blown reactivity) and a dog with chronic stress. It's just not worth it.