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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued, the dog training world was put on hold, as classes and in-person consultations were canceled. How would we be able to work and teach if we couldn’t be there to see the dogs and their guardians in action? Since many people started working from home, adoption rates went up, so more than ever, people were needing help with their new fur buddies.
Enter the world of virtual dog training. As a trainer, it takes courage to go live on camera and walk people through what to do with their pets. Even though this medium has been around for a while, not many of us had been videoing our work, let alone going live. Would people like this? Would it be effective? There would definitely be a learning curve on both sides.
Being unable to go to work, I had some free time for learning. I’d never used Zoom, but after studying the ins and outs, I was willing to try it. My first client was an 8-week-old puppy named Oscar who was quite timid. He was the smallest of his litter and worried about everything. Virtual training was a good opportunity for me to help him and his guardians in the puppy’s own environment. Usually dogs act differently when a trainer is present. Sometimes, a worried dog is concerned with a stranger being in the home, but now without being physically there, the puppy could feel less stressed.
The challenging thing about virtual training is that one needs to be super observant and clear with direction. New guardians don’t always see all the nuances trainers do. For example, I can observe the dog’s tail going under and ask if they think their dog is worried. If they’re not allowed on the couch normally, they shouldn’t be on the couch during a training session (that could be why the dog was worried). It’s important to give clear signals and not mixed messages to your dog.
Your goal as a trainer is that you want the client to look forward to the session. You must be patient, understanding and diplomatic. Most of us teach by using the dog and demonstrating — now that you’re unable do that, you must use your verbal skills and provide precise direction. You can’t grab the leash or put something in the dogs mouth or help with the jumping. You have to carefully and tactfully instruct the guardian how and what to do without being overly critical.
The guardian is rightly proud when they get their dog to sit for the first time or when their dog does “touch” or “find it” all on their own. For us, it’s very rewarding, but you have to give up some control because the clients are now given more responsibility. But, you both revel in their success.
I love virtual training and believe it’s making me a better trainer. It seems the clients are progressing faster and are more confidant. Plus, the dogs are learning in an environment that is less distracting. For some dogs and people, it’s great to be alone to learn in the comfort of their home. Perhaps, even in their pajamas.
While we’re social distancing and even after, virtual dog training is a fabulous way to teach clients and their new pets.
Karen Schuerholz is a dog training instructor and behavior consultant at Marin Humane, which contributes Tails of Marin articles and welcomes animal-related questions and stories about the people and animals in our community. Go to marinhumane.org, Twitter.com/marinhumane, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.