Virtual training can be good for trainers, owners and dogs

Linda Lombardi

AP – Jennifer Stile was apprehensive when she found out that training classes for her puppy Josie would be moving online because of the pandemic.

“Initially I said I’d wait till it’s over,” said Stile, who was taking a class at My Fantastic Friend in Ellicott City, Maryland. “But then I realised that it wasn’t going to be over fast enough, and I knew I needed to train my dog and I didn’t have the tools to do that without help.”

So she took the plunge – and she’s glad she did.

“I’d been trying to watch YouTube videos and do it on my own, but I wasn’t getting that instant feedback, knowing if I was doing it correctly,” she said. “Having that feedback from a trainer who was invested in me and my dog and getting to know my dog, it was much more successful than I thought.”

In fact, many trainers are finding that holding classes and private sessions online via videoconference is more than a stopgap: There are advantages for them, for their clients and for dogs.

One plus is that the setting is less distracting than that of the typical in-person group class that takes place in an unfamiliar environment with other dogs around.

“People make progress more quickly, which I think is encouraging for them, and it’s more efficient,” said Kelly Lee of Dog Kind Training in Davis, California. “And many dogs who could never do an in-person class can come to these, because they’re still in their comfort zone.”

Maura Knestout found that to be true for her terrier mix Mia. “An in-person group class wouldn’t have worked out for us, because she wouldn’t have been able to focus,” she said.

“Doing the group class online, I was able to see the other dogs, and see how their handlers were working with them, but we were in our own space, so she could focus better.”

A computer screen capture shows an online training session with dog Trig and his owner in New York, conducted by Kate LaSala via Zoom
The Stile family and their dog Josie, who have taken online training classes, pose for a photo in Ellicott City. PHOTOS: AP

It can be less distracting for the people, as well: They can focus on what is being taught without having to worry about wrangling their dog in an overstimulating environment.

For certain behaviour issues, online training may be the best way, pandemic or not. Kate Lasala, who specialises in problems like pet fear and aggression, has been offering private sessions online for several years.

“I have found that doing these types of cases remotely is often easier on the dog, because they don’t have a stranger coming into the house,” she said. “It’s less stressful for the dog, and less stressful for the people.”

This makes learning easier, as Knestout discovered with Mia.

“We were actually able to speed up the process because we didn’t have someone coming in our house and making her nervous,” she said. “Once we switched to online, she zoomed through the private lessons.”

The ultimate goal of dog training, LaSala said, is to provide owners with the tools to work with their own dogs, not for the trainer to do it. And although each dog owner’s problems may feel unique, there’s usually no need for her to see the animal in action. Technology also offers some benefits that would be harder to provide in person. It’s easy to share video to demonstrate a technique, and rewind or slow-mo to focus on details. It’s easy to record class, so some trainers share video to help you review what was covered. And looking at video of yourself working with your dog can let you see more clearly what your trainer is talking about when she gives you feedback.

There are some downsides to online training for puppy classes, where practising good dog-dog play and providing exposure to strange people and situations is a big part of the curriculum.

But experts stress that doing puppy classes at the right age is critical, and online classes are still effective.

“It’s easy to do a video session to address normal puppy behaviours like play biting and jumping and mouthing,” said LaSala. “All that can be done remotely and be very successful.”