Inform, Inspire & Engage: How Your First Lesson Can Set the Tone for Your Group Classes

By Melinda Schiller, CPDT-KA

People take group dog training classes for a variety of reasons. Students may have just adopted a dog and want to start off on the right foot, or perhaps they have a behavior or manners issue they want to deal with. Maybe they want to have some fun with their dog and develop a deeper relationship. Regardless of the reason someone takes a class with a professional dog trainer, you need to keep in mind that while we call ourselves dog trainers, we are people trainers above all else. After all, the dog didn’t pick up the phone or enroll in your class; it’s owner did. Your students will have a variety of experience levels, personalities, and motivations. As you will have these people and their dogs in your class for weeks, you’ve got to hit the ground running and set the tone for those weeks—getting the owners excited, hopeful and inspired for the training while also learning how to handle their dogs in a group class. Here are some tips that will help you!

The first class: dogs or no dogs?

In the beginning of your class, you don’t always know—even with client intake forms—exactly what you are going to get. Without doing an in-person evaluation of every dog in your group class, it is difficult to plan out all the personalities that will end up in your room, and the owner’s opinion of what their true issues are.

Here is it important to not forget the human element of dog training. Helping dogs is great, but you cannot help the dogs until their owners learn how to communicate more effectively with them. That’s your job as the class instructor.

For this reason, I choose to not have dogs present at the first class for group training and asking owners to bring their dogs for the following weeks. The first class is an orientation and is meant to combat the human element of dog training.  

Your goal during this time is to understand the owners’ needs, get a grasp of their learning styles, and teach them the rules of handling their dogs in a room where other dogs are present. If you think back about the first class you ever took with one of your own dogs, you may recall that emotions are all over the map! You may have been excited, nervous, unsure of what to expect, or worried about your performance. These are all reasonable emotions to feel and your clients will run the gamut of all of them! As an instructor teaching an orientation class, you are trying to create buy-in to your training style, help to ease owner’s fears and tensions, and help them understand the game plan for how training is going to go.

In this first class your job is to make yourself sound professional and competent but relatable. Discuss your credentials, certifications, degrees, and associations with professional organizations; but also talk about your own dogs and their accomplishments and quirks. I find success at utilizing my older dog, as a demo dog in group classes. Having her present at the first lesson can help to break the ice and show clients first hand what we’ll be working on. But don’t worry if you don’t have a dog with the right personality for demo dog work. Another option is to simply explain the exercises.

When owners attend this first class without having to worry about controlling their dogs, they can honestly and more comfortably introduce themselves to you and their fellow classmates. This will allow you to engage your clients and understand their learning styles, as well as their overall motive for taking the class. The owner’s introductions will give you clues as what you might expect from their dogs. I often ask owners to introduce themselves, the dog breed and age, and either what they are looking for in the class or something quirky about their dogs.

This lets people ease up and feel more comfortable opening up to a fun and positive class. Search for clues that an owner is chatty and uplifting, or shy and reserved. Do they sound nervous or fearful about how their dog is going to do? You may find in these introductions that some dogs may not be equipped for this specific class, but may be a candidate for private lessons instead. While this step takes only a few minutes, the information that you can gather in this short time will give you important information about the owners, and what you can most likely expect from their dogs. It can also inform a game plan for this specific class, and will allow you to engage and connect with your new owners.

Tools to reach different training styles

This first class allows you to teach owners to think like a dog trainer. We discuss in our classes some of the common errors owners make that prevent them from effectively teaching their dogs, such as: repeating cues, not understanding generalization, motivations for dogs, inconsistency, and clicker training.

I find that providing a booklet of handouts to students on the first day of class allows people to read everything we discuss, and have a guide for what the class is going to cover. Leave enough room for owners to take notes. Some people are visual and need to see, some are auditory and need to hear you iterate a point, and others are more tactile, finding success when writing down what stands out to them. A booklet that is gone over in that first class helps people of all learning styles absorb and retain information.

Don’t just read from your booklet—have detailed information in there for those that need to read to retain information, but discuss the highlights and provide some anecdotal stories to help them remember. For example, with repeating cues, I often use the example of the owner at the dog park constantly telling the dog to “come” and the dog not coming. Typically you will see some owners chuckle, acknowledging that they have done this or that they can picture the scene. The owners start to relate back to stories of their own, and they remember to not constantly repeat themselves based on this story.

When using stories as teachable moments, don’t fake it. I tell stories in order to  teach, and implement humor and sarcasm because that is my personality. My animation level generally correlates to the enthusiasm of the group in the room with me.  But don’t force it! If you are more of a passionate person and aren’t as much of a jokester, don’t fake it! Let students know who you are and your genuine personality and teaching style will reflect through to effectively communicate with them.

Other things we discuss in the first class include:

  • Reinforcement strategies such as: bringing more treats than they think they could possibly need, having a variety of types of treats, taking into account acclimation time, etc.
  • Classroom logistics including: not allowing dogs to greet when the leashes are on, finding their seat in the room and starting to work their dogs by rewarding offered attention to the owners.
  • Room flow and setting up a game plan for what to do when the dogs actually get here.
  • What to do if a dog is stressed or scared in a classroom environment, if a dog is over-aroused or overexcited, or if a dog struggles with a cue.
  • A discussion of individual dog’s quirks or specific things that owners are hoping to get out of the class.
  • Homework that will help students prepare their dogs for the second class. These are simple things like capturing attention and teaching a sit and down. We discuss each of these skills and how to specifically work on things at home and then transition so they can be successful with their dogs the following week. (This is a great place to put your demo dog to work if you are using one!  If not, having a video link on a YouTube page or other social media outlet can help with a visual.)

Discussing these things up front helps ease concern and worry while making clients feel empowered and inspired for the next week.

Presenting a first class that allows you to engage and understand your clients in an informative and entertaining way and helping them create a specific game plan for training their dogs in upcoming weeks will create a fun, positive atmosphere for training.  In setting this tone, you set your owners and their dogs up for success while obtaining more information to help. Now you have an enthusiastic group of students and dogs!  Have fun training!