Making the Switch to Online Dog Training Classes
Our County of Monterey, California went into shelter in place on March 17, 2020, and we had no choice but to cancel all classes and refund clients any money for remaining classes. Our once-robust training and behavior program was at a crossroads. I have worked for my shelter for over 10 years, and my primary responsibility is taking care of outside client dog behavior appointments, group class training, and class and curriculum creation. When our SIP orders came down, I realized that I had to find a relevant way to do my job and take care of clients’ needs. I knew we had to pivot to online training as fast as we could.
The SPCA of Monterey County is a large, non-profit, independent shelter in central coastal California. The shelter provides group dog training classes and behavioral support essential to our community. Pets that have a reasonable level of training are better family companions and are less likely to end up in shelter or rescue. Classes and private training also provide an important income stream to the shelter.
We are very fortunate to have a shelter administration that puts a high value on behavior, and our department is able to provide several behavioral programs that enable us to rehome dogs that need extra help. In addition to classes and private training, we have a behavior program within the shelter for dogs that need extra time and training (TLC), and a residence prison program for dogs that need continued one-on-one training from our incarcerated trainers (Ruff Start).
Our in-person classes and training program
Prior to March 2020 and covid-19, all of our training was in person. Our group classes ran in five-week sessions, and we have standard curriculum scripts that are presented during classes with illustrated, complete homework handed out at the end of each class.
We teach clients about positive reinforcement training, how to use it properly, a set of basic cues, attention games, and loose leash walking. Our intention is to create a supportive environment where clients come away feeling successful with some basic skills, as well as an understanding of how to solve some very simple behavior problems they might encounter at home. In other words, we try to educate them so they become engaged, attentive owners and help them give their dogs the skills they need to be great companions. If they wish to go onto compete in agility, obedience, or other dog sports, they have a good foundation with our classes. Our priority is helping the client develop a great training relationship with their dog, whatever their life together looks like.
Up to March 2020, we were providing private training hours as well as these classes:
- Puppy Level 1 (an open enrollment first class)
- Puppy Level 2 (for puppies 5-7 months)
- Puppy Level 3 (adolescent puppies up to 18 months)
- Family Dog 1 (basic manners)
- Family Dog 2 (basic manners 2 – run during good weather months)
- Reactive Rover (reactive dogs)
- Out and About (walking with distractions class taught in public shopping and tourist areas)
- Advanced Walking (supervised neighborhood walking for our reactive dog clients)
- Sunday Socials (hour-long social for dog play, separate small dog and large dog groups)
- Reactive Rover lecture (first class of the paid class, open to the public every 6 weeks)
- Canine Good Citizen workshops and evaluations
- Free monthly lectures on various canine topics.
Getting started with creating a compelling new training experience
It was evident within the first week that we needed to take our classes online to continue our client training program. As a CDBC, I have quite a lot of experience taking online classes, webinars, and live online training for myself and my own dogs. As a senior trainer in my department, I took on the task of driving the creation of the classes with my colleagues Amanda Mouisset and Bonnie Logue. We also had the guidance and video editing help of my husband, Richard Newman. The four of us became the online team.
We first had to make the decisions on how to pare down our class selections.
- Puppy classes were critical to all of us, so we widened the age classes. Our age limits for classes were originally developed to accommodate puppies that were going to have physical interactions during playtimes in class. Without that aspect of class, it became a simple choice to open the age category and adjust the class content as needed by age appropriateness. Puppy class was opened to dogs aged 8 weeks to 12 months of age.
- Our Family Dog 1 adult basic manners class was also critically important. With people camped at home, it would give clients an opportunity to work with their dogs and learn something new.
- Reactive Rover was also critical to continue; we had a class in process when the SIP order happened, so we decided to try to keep that going.
We had several ways to present these classes. Our priorities were to keep any associated costs low, create a format that was easy for our clients, and do it quickly. We also wanted to be able to ask clients to share video with us as part of their homework. Our choices were:
- Make demonstration videos as though we were teaching a live class of the cues we teach, and provide normal homework, and meet through a video streaming type format weekly
- Create a stand-alone class using a learning management system (LMS)
- Present a Facebook class
- Do a live demo class with virtual audience using a video streaming type format
An LMS system and Facebook Live class were quickly eliminated. Both formats require clients to create another account in another piece of software to acquire the lessons. We didn’t want our clients to get lost in software, and many of our clients don’t use Facebook. The best LMS class interfaces were also too expensive for us, as we could not justify spending a lot of money. (We might revisit this at some point in the future.) Doing a live demo class had its own issues. We don’t have a “studio” space, and it would require at least one live dog, cameras, and a bit more production to create a good product. And if we wanted many classes per week, how would we be able to fulfill clients’ needs? We really wanted to eliminate the “performance” part of instructing classes.
Out of our comfort zone – the pivot
Our online team decided that the first option was the most cost-effective and efficient way to go: create demonstration videos of our scripted cues, and present classes with our modified scripts. We dived in as a team, making sure our content was complete and coherent. Bonnie agreed to be our on-camera presenter, even though she had no prior experience being on camera. My husband is a professional video editor who was willing to donate his editing time. My husband and I also have a television/film background, so we knew what was needed for production, storage, filming equipment, and delivery of content. In three weeks, we created over 200 edited minutes (75 videos) as well as committed our Reactive Rover lecture to stand-alone video. The average running time of the videos is three and half minutes. We currently have over 90 videos for class use; I’ve included a small selection of them at the end of this article.
We scheduled our first six-week class to start on April 11. The first week would be an online meet-up to make sure people (and instructors!) could connect, and delivery of the first week of homework. Bonnie and I had never hosted Zoom-type classes or meetings, and to be honest, the first few classes we both felt what we called “Zoom anxiety” before class!
Our classes filled immediately. One reason for this was a rise in adoptions due to the pandemic. Foster families and the public came forward to adopt most of the animals in our shelter, and this gave us a chance to reach out immediately to these families at home with their new dogs. Other clients came from previously canceled enrollees and a public that was at home looking for activities they could do with their families and dogs.
Running the virtual class
What we expected
When we were planning these classes, we expected we would present a discussion and refinement of the training presented in the homework, followed by a quick preview of the coming week’s training. This was based on our live, in-person class experiences, where we worked primarily on the physical training. In an in-person class, we would typically demonstrate timing, marking, mechanics, and problem-solving for people having difficulties teaching their dog some particular cue. After most in-person classes, clients would stay after to ask us behavior questions. We always had time constraints, and would often hand out cards and contact them later. Many of the clients involved in regular in-person classes were experiencing some kind of behavior problem at home, and thought that attending a group class would help them. Some of these dogs had significant behavior problems, and we would often move them to private appointments.
What actually happened
When we open class, we take roll, then we go around the “table,” giving everyone a chance to speak while Bonnie and I take notes on items to return to the conversation. Classes are lively and active: the chat box is bustling, one of us is always taking notes, and clients raise questions, keeping the two of us very busy. It should not have surprised us, but the online classes evolved into discussions of behavior, especially in puppy classes. We discuss socialization extensively. Since our puppy online class is open for puppies up to 1 year old, we often tease apart age-appropriate socialization protocols. Behavior discussions have now become a major selling point of the classes – when we talk to clients on the phone who are interested, especially puppy people or recent adoptee clients, this is an attractive aspect for them. We have never had the time to spend on behavior in live, in-person classes.
Another interesting phenomenon is that the behavior discussions will often have themes. We do not set these topics; the clients start them. We might start talking about socialization, and conversationally drift to resource guarding, stealing, multi-dog household training, reactivity, or just the science of behavior.
Any behavior subjects, except socializing in puppies (we make a point of talking about that every week), are started by clients. We open each class with a check-in for each client; asking them how training went this week also gives them a chance to bring up any new behaviors or challenges that came up for them.
A client-made video showing the skills she taught her dog during an online puppy class:
Clients have been pretty good so far about sending video. I do want to make the point that we do not share videos that clients send us in the class. This was a deliberate choice. Since we are training everyday people and simple, general manners, I have a sensitivity for how embarrassed or shy they can be. I know from teaching live classes how intimidated people can get and I wanted to make it so that Bonnie and I see and comment on video directly to them. We note timing on the video to mark what we comment on, and we critique what they send us via email. If it’s interesting, or a great teaching moment, I ask the client before class if they would mind us showing it to the rest of the group — I never put them on the spot during class. I want them to feel safe and comfortable with us.
Clients received the classes very well. They enjoyed the format of meeting via a live video streaming platform, and watching the videos and doing homework during the week. We never had a complaint that something was not explained very well; everyone had a good grasp of the content.
This video was put together by a client, showing her dog’s progress in class:
We put together this video as a graduation gift for our clients:
The benefits of online classes
Virtual classes make clients more accountable — they cannot sit in the back of the room and do nothing. Every client has sent at least one video, and many clients have sent videos of quite accomplished skills. During our roundtable each of them speaks — clients often have lists of talking points. In a live class with a lot of distractions, we end up presenting primarily to those who pay attention. We cannot get to them all. Online, everyone is paying attention. They all know everyone gets time to speak.
Clients can only speak one at a time. This is huge! Many times in a live classroom, there is a lot of background chatting, especially during our puppy classes, which can be quite disruptive. Over video, clients can take notes while the class is talking. This is not easy during a live class.
With my experience as an in-person instructor, I am always conscious of my paying clients’ needs. If one client is asking for a lot of my time and is interrupting my ability to teach an in-person class, I have to hand them a card and sideline them to a private conversation. With online classes, they can put a note in the chat box privately, where we direct them to stay after class, follow up with them via email, or set them up with a private appointment. We also now have an open email policy, so clients can contact us anytime.
More people can attend online classes. The entire family, from young children to grandparents, can attend online. This would not be possible in an in-person class. Our classroom square footage is limited, and if extended family does come, the class becomes more about managing people and dogs than teaching them. People with disabilities can also attend more easily, as can people from outside our geographic area, and clients who may be nervous of group interactions can always turn off their video.
More dogs can also attend. We can now get puppies in class that are very young, capturing that critical month of 8-12 weeks. The earliest we would ever see a puppy in person was 11 weeks old.
A puppy class
We can also offer clients who have behaviorally challenged dogs the chance to take a basic training class, instead of only being able to work with them in private (more expensive) sessions. Those sessions can now be used for us to focus on the behavior modification work their dog needs.
The fact that both instructors have a lot of behavior knowledge is a huge win for our clients. Bonnie and I work together very well, and when one of us has commented on a discussion, often the other will fill in extra fine points, or provide other ideas on how to manage or train a behavior. Since we are not “performing” the demonstration of cues, we have more time to personalize the time with clients. This clears the way for clients to create great relationships with their dogs, keeping them in homes.
There are of course some disadvantages with online classes. Some instructors may have difficulty connecting with the client online. We, as a society of television watchers, are used to anonymity and disengagement looking at a screen. A very good friend of mine who is a family counselor urged me to reach through the screen, connect directly with that person, and you soon find the screen is like a window. The client is very much present and the communication very real, and we are quite comfortable with it now. This type of screen time is indeed a very different experience.
Another problem is the hands-on aspect of training an animal. There is no fix for this, because we cannot reach through a screen. But by using TAGteach methods, and encouraging the use of video from clients, instructors can show clients where they can improve their handling. I will often give a client a time in the video to look at, and suggest another way to use their hands, bodies, or mark behavior. Perhaps they missed some nervous body language from their shy dog, and I might point this out and suggest changing the training to a modified, gentler method by softening tone of voice, changing their hand or body position, or cheerleading a bit more.
We are still convincing clients that online private training can work. We have a few clients right now, but we are building that aspect of our outreach. We are now in an education and social media campaign to increase awareness. Some clients looking for private training fail to see how it would work. “You can’t train my dog over the internet.” “But we can train you….” Often there is an adjustment in expectations. Since all our training has always been client based (we do not offer day training or board and train), educating and reassuring clients is an active, ongoing task for us.
Our Reactive Rover class has now transitioned to a fully online format, and we created a drop-in style “ask the trainer” hour we call Brown Bag Puppy Talk for prior class clients. We are busy developing some new classes (in puppy socialization, and a special adolescent dog class for high-energy, bored dogs).
I believe that the COVID-19 experience has changed the way many businesses will operate in the future. Our facility will no doubt at some point open up again for in-person classes, but we will maintain a hybrid of classes. I am excited by the possibilities for virtual teaching. It will be up to us to again be flexible and intuitive about what our community needs, and the best ways to serve our mission statement of offering “Compassionate, inspiring, and engaging training classes for dogs of all ages, breeds, levels, and abilities.”
Videos from class
These are just a small section of our videos we use for class:
Mechanics of training
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.