Continuing the Virtual Classroom at SPCA Monterey County
In November 2020, the IAABC Foundation Journal published our article on switching to online dog training classes due to COVID. We wanted to present a follow-up article to show the progress of our program and some of our observations.
- Clients have enjoyed accessing virtual training during the various stages of COVID. Since April of 2020, we have served over 1,650 students.
- In 2020, April through December averaged about 110 clients in classes and about eight private appointments per month. We have a free behavior phone line averaging about 40 calls a month.
- In the same period in 2021, we averaged 119 clients in classes, 18 private appointments, and received an average of 54 behavior line calls per month.
The original virtual class offerings
We started the online program in April 2020 with three classes, Basic Puppy (for any puppy under a year), Family Dog (basic manners), and Reactive Rover (for leash-reactive dogs). We also had a Brown Bag Behavior Talk (ask the trainer anything hour) for our present and past clients.
Spring 2021 changes
After nearly a year of having a combined format for puppies, Bonnie and I decided we had enough business to warrant a change. From 2011 to 2019, we offered several puppy classes divided by age. In our virtual classes, however, we had puppies of a wide range of ages. While we made this work, we thought it would be more efficient for our clients to have similarly aged cohorts of puppies in class. Starting in March of 2021, we began offering Puppy Levels 1 through 3 as separate six-week-long classes.
Clients responded well to these new puppy classes. Puppy classes became smaller but averaged four to five clients per class, making virtual classes more manageable. In Puppy 1 and 2, we had more time to integrate socialization performed at home. We wrote a Socialization Booklet for all puppy clients that teaches socialization and offers structured weekly exercises.
The most significant curriculum change Bonnie and I decided to make last year was to Puppy Level 3. We began to encounter client requests for help with adolescent dogs and leash reactive behavior. To address this, we blended several classes’ curricula and rebranded Puppy Level 3 to Teenage Troubles. This new adolescent dog class is beneficial for young dogs reacting to cars, bikes, people, dogs, etc. in the environment.
The soft reopen in Spring 2021 – The addition of live classes
Public interest in live, in-person classes was growing in our area last spring. Our team discussed each class in the roster. Our shelter administration team created COVID protocols for us that followed state and federal guidelines. We followed social distancing rules, used masks, and had clients sign electronic COVID waivers to attend the class in our outside teaching space. Since last year, clients have never complained about mask usage or signing a waiver. They have been respectful of us and very cooperative, for which I am thankful.
The primary obstacles we faced for in-person classes were the availability and disinfection of teaching spaces, especially for puppies. Last year, staffing was also an issue, as Bonnie and I are the primary class teachers. Because of staff schedules and space, we decided to start with one live outside class.
In spring of 2021, we added an in-person general manners class, Family Dog Level 1. We called it a hybrid class because clients still received the homework and videos by email. Clients were still encouraged to share videos and contact us during the weeks of class for extra help, just as in the virtual classes. These classes were well-received.
Virtual private appointments continued to grow as clients became more familiar with the streaming environment. We added a few private in-person consultations and have slowly added more with time.
We began to offer our Advanced Walking Class again. This class is for reactive dog clients to practice walking with other dogs. We discontinued it in fall 2021 due to low enrollment.
Another traditional paid in-person gathering we offered pre-COVID was our one-hour Sunday Socials. These utilize our beautiful agility yard. Socials are for dogs that are already social and are great for owners that want a leash-free experience for their dog like a dog park, but with monitoring from staff and experienced volunteers. Clients were delighted to hear about Socials starting again, and we have had a tremendous response to them. We began our Sunday Socials in the summer of 2021.
We have currently stabilized at five virtual classes, one in-person training class, and two weekly Socials classes. We teach all day Saturday and Sunday afternoons, totaling ten group classes a week.
Bonnie took over running our department last fall, and since then, I teach all the classes by myself except for one Reactive Rover (Bonnie and I co-teach) and our in-person Family Dog course (taught by Bonnie).
I currently average 18 private one-on-one appointments a month; about half are in person, half are virtual. Several longer-term clients are virtual clients I have never met in person. Virtual consulting also serves our class clients well – if a client has difficulties in class, we can schedule a few minutes during the week to help them catch up. Because they are already familiar with our virtual system, they are comfortable with the format, and we can take care of their needs on the spot.
What did not work
- Brown Bag Behavior Talk, our “Ask the Trainer Anything” hour. Clients did not use it, so we removed it in March 2021.
- Because people started to work last year, we experimented with classes in different time slots like Wednesday evenings and Friday afternoons. We found only mild interest in these other times, so we only teach Saturday and Sunday classes.
- We discontinued Advanced Walking Class in Fall 2021 due to low enrollment.
COVID-time has driven successes
I am proudest of these improvements in our training program. We have created these products from years of training, writing, and experimenting with curriculum and behavior consultation experience. These classes were born from responding to COVID using a virtually driven environment.
Early puppy class for 8-week-old puppies with incomplete vaccinations has been a fantastic innovation in our program. The earliest we ever brought puppies into class was 11 weeks old. Puppies can now start training early, and owners learn about body language, manners, and how they can socialize their puppies. I am lucky enough to “be present” via video for early puppy experiences, such as this video of a puppy’s first walk.
Teenage Troubles has been an excellent in-between class for our “in-between” dogs. Some of these older puppies have had limited socialization, which has added to the leash-reactive behaviors. Post-class, puppy owners have protocols to help their dogs on leash, improve their greeting skills, and alter hyper adolescent behavior.
The eight-week Reactive Rover has been the most interesting and rewarding of our virtual classes. It uses an ample exchange of videos, training logs, and back and forth emails to coach owners. We have just added a private Facebook group for Reactive Rover alumni to share their training with us.
Two of the many clients we have helped in Reactive Rover stand out. One was a small terrier adopted recently by a gentleman. J. contacted us about the dog being reactive to people and dogs. We encouraged him to sign up for basic manners (virtual Family Dog) and Reactive Rover. He followed through with both classes and was a great, interactive student. I met him recently in a leash-free open space. I was thrilled to see his dog walking comfortably off-leash. When a stranger approached, J.’s dog moved away quietly toward J. He appropriately rewarded his dog for coming close. His dog never barked and was very attentive to J. J. was calmly watching his dog and rewarding excellent behavior.
The second client, K., had a dog the family could barely walk because of his barking and lunging. Two household members took the Reactive Rover classes in back-to-back sessions (16 weeks of training), making a massive difference for their dog. Both handlers worked separately with Bonnie and me, and the experience improved their handling and confidence. They can now walk their dog with little to no reactivity.
The most surprising aspect of virtual classes was solving many behavioral issues by improving the training relationship between families and their dogs. During the lockdown, many clients called us in need of help with barking, hyperactivity, or even more severe problems such as resource guarding, growling at family members, or shyness. After having a private virtual consultation with me, we sent many of them into a virtual Family Dog class. Upon completing the course, clients would comment that family life had improved and living with their dogs was enjoyable again. The class was undoubtedly helpful for them working with their dogs, but what made the difference, I believe, was having the weekly work to accomplish plus solid behavioral guidance for a low cost with an easy, accessible format.
We will certainly maintain a schedule of virtual courses for some time. Virtual classes mean that training is now accessible for very young, shy, fearful, reactive, or aggressive dogs. Without this format, these dogs either had to do private training or received no training at all. Veterinarians regularly refer clients to us for behavior and training assistance
The most likely candidates for a mix of virtual and live classes will are Virtual Puppy 1 for young puppies and Family Dog. Reactive Rover might be a permanently virtual class.
Our satisfaction as teachers has been great in the virtual program. There is more background preparation work with virtual classes, but having more opportunities to help owners with behavioral concerns is gratifying. We are very sensitive to the public we serve and are fortunate to have the flexibility to pivot quickly to their needs. I am sure we will be offering more live classes sometime in the future, but virtual classes are here to stay.
Wendi Newman, BSc., CPDT-KA, and CDBC has been a Behavior Specialist for the SPCA Monterey County for over ten years. Prior to that she ran her own private training business. Wendi’s work career has always been in the sciences, from sound/video engineer, watershed ecologist, to cartographer. She and her husband fill their home with their Great Danes, orchids, and music.
Bonnie Logue, CPDT-KA, CSAT, SPCA Behavior and Training Manager, has been with SPCA Monterey County since 2016. She enjoys studying animal behavior and working with shelter dogs and with owners looking for help training their pets. Bonnie has spent over 20 years working with animals in many roles, and has a vast wealth of knowledge about animals of all kinds. Bonnie and her husband currently share their home with 3 dogs, a cat, 5 birds, and have a farm with various livestock. “I love teaching people how to have a better relationship with their furry family member,” says Bonnie.