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,” says Stile, who was taking a class at My Fantastic Friend in Ellicott City, Maryland. “But then I realized 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 says. “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,” says 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 says. “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.”
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 specializes 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 says. “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 says. “Once we switched to online, she zoomed through the private lessons.”
The ultimate goal of dog training, LaSala says, 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.
“I know what food guarding looks like. I know what stranger danger looks like,” she says. “I don’t need to instigate the dog to see that behaviour to help the person or to help the dog.”
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 practicing 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,” says LaSala. “All that can be done remotely and be very successful.”
In addition, your trainer will give you exercises to socialize your puppy to the environment. Stiles says the advice worked for her.
“She gave us really great ideas, like sit on your front lawn and watch the bikes go by and the garbage truck and the UPS person. Go on walks so they can see other dogs, and give them a treat so they have a positive association with the world around them,” she says. “My dog is so well socialized — she can walk across any surface, she can hear any noise, the doorbell rings and she doesn’t bark, and she’s really great with dogs and humans.”
And as we’re all learning these days, online can give us some of the other things we need as well. “I got to see my dog friends every week and see how they were progressing, and that was fun,” says Stile. “And especially in this weird pandemic time, it gave me something to look forward to, and a goal each week.”