Group dog training classes are one of the most popular ways that dog trainers interact with their clients. Group classes allow past clients to come back to refresh their skills, new clients to get started in basic dog training, and for private lesson clients to grow their skills and their dog’s skills around more distractions.
There are a variety of group classes you could hold. Some dog trainers start with basic puppy and obedience classes then progress to group tricks classes or nosework classes. More experienced dog trainers hold reactive dog classes or confidence building classes for overly-shy dogs and their clients.
Why Teach Group Dog Training Classes?
Group classes help owners receive dog training help at a reduced cost since group classes are typically less expensive than private, one-to-one lessons. Classes also allow your clients to meet others in their situation which is great when they are struggling and need some encouragement. As a dog trainer holding group classes, you have the power to reach many more people and you can work to create a real, connected community to help you build a successful, sustainable dog training business.
When you’re first starting out, some important pieces of a great group class may elude you. Unless you’ve observed a mentor or taken a group class yourself (and perhaps even if you have), you may not be aware of some of the critical aspects of a successful dog training group class. Here are some recommendations to help you make it the best experience possible for your students.
1. Initial Written Expectations
Start by thinking about what your clients want to get out of the class. What do they want to be able to do with their dogs? Put clear expectations about what will be expected of them to achieve this result. In a welcome email, you can include information about where the class will be held, when you’ll meet, what they should bring, and you could even go into specifics such as how they should enter or exit the room to avoid dog-dog confrontations. The more detailed and specific you are, the more organized you’ll appear and the more prepared your clients will be.
(Related Article: How to Prevent Overwhelm and Increase Compliance in New Dog Training Clients)
You’ll want to send out expectations via email a couple of times before the class begins. I would never expect someone to read an email I send out less than 48hours before a class. You can also request a reply to your email to confirm all the students have received it and it didn’t end up in their spam folder. If you request a reply and don’t receive one, follow up with a phone call to make sure they read the instructions and are aware that you’ll be sending communication via email.
Well thought out expectations and communication is key to a successful group class.
Find a space for your group dog training classes that will help dogs and their owners feel safe and comfortable. Think about ways you can improve the level of comfort in the class. Should you offer chairs? Should you ask students to bring a non-slip mat for their dogs? Should you bring visual barriers to help dogs keep calm?
Control the space your students are occupying by placing markers or barriers between them to make sure everyone stays at a safe distance from each other.
When deciding on your curriculum, consider your student’s experience. Will students in your class know the mechanical skills required to train their dogs already? Do they know what positive reinforcement is and how it works? If not, you’ll want to have a sort of orientation to get your students acquainted with how dogs learn, dog body language, what is and isn’t realistic when it comes to their behavior, and more. Once your students understand the way they’ll be training, then you can coach them on how to utilize this information to train their own dogs.
There are hundreds of choices when it comes to group class curriculum. You can create your own from scratch or collaborate with other trainers that are willing to share what they have.
A fairly common curriculum I’ve seen is Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels Program. The first few levels are a great starting point for basic obedience and dog sports.
For reactive dog classes, I’d strongly recommend reading Emma Parson’s book, “Teaching the Reactive Dog Class: Leading the Journey from Reactivity to Reliability.“
You can hold classes with a specific start and end date or you could host open enrollment classes that allow you to continuously accept new students in your class.
Make sure you are confident enough to speak in front of a few other people and lead them through the steps of the curriculum.
Project your voice. Have the confidence to let your voice be heard. You know more about dogs and dog training than anyone else in the room. Your students have already invested their time and money to listen to you speak so speak with confidence and project your voice so that everyone can clearly hear what you have to say.
Step in when a student is struggling. A group class should always have a few minutes of one-to-one attention so that each student can be successful. Step in when you see a student getting frustrated or annoyed at their dog before things escalate too much.
Ask students to listen. If you have any chatty-Cathys in your class or children that are being disruptive, do not be afraid to redirect their attention for the sake of the whole class. Other students appreciate it when the teach asks for order – they’ve all paid to listen to you teach, not listen to anyone else. If you can’t control the class, your students will have an unpleasant experience and may not return.
Let people know when they should be listening and when they should be practicing with a signal. You can even use a visual (red light/green light card) or an audible bell to let people know when to begin otherwise some may get distracted or start practicing before you’re done instructing. This signal only improves communication and expectations.
If your students are starting to master the material, have a few games up your sleeve to increase the difficulty and level of fun. There’s a book with many different games you can play in your group dog training classes called “Gamify Your Dog Training” by Terry Ryan.
In a group classes, unlike with private instruction, you can great a really fun sense of community. I would even argue that this benefit of group classes is underutilized by most dog trainers, but it can be critical for building long-lasting relationships with your clients that keep them coming back for more. Get people talking to each other and make real connections with your students so that they feel supported and want to come back.
7. Next Steps For Students
Part of creating a great experience for your students is having a clear next-step to take with their dog so that they aren’t left without direction. Take the lead and introduce some possible next steps for your group class graduates. Will you offer a Level 2? A class with more games or even a beginner dog sport class to keep people motivated and practicing? Will you offer an ongoing meetup they can attend with their newly well-behaved dog? Will you offer additional private lessons to help them overcome specific scenarios they’re struggling with? What next steps should your students take to continue working with you?
Offering ongoing services either in group form or private lesson form is important to maintain your income as a dog trainer. Many people, including me when I first started out, rarely work with clients again after their initial goals have been met. How can you position your services to help your clients maintain their dog’s training while you continue to generate income over time for your business?
Everyone loves good puppy classes. Cute, fluffy, little bundles of fur with their stinky breath and corn chip smelling feet. Most students come to class already having begun the basic behaviors. While those are important and key to any dog training class here are a few training games to incorporate into class to strengthen those basic behaviors while having fun.
Image via Bessey’s Positive Paws
5 Fun Games to Play During Puppy Classes
Crazy to Calm
When the bait bag and clicker come out those puppies line right up in front of their owners and pay close attention to what is being asked. They stay calm and attentive and excel at learning behaviors. What’s happening though, is that the pups aren’t learning how to still do those behaviors when they are amped up. Crazy to calm does just that. Play with the puppy for a set amount of time, jazzing them up to a level where they are rowdy but not completely out of control. After the time is up, stop playing and wait for the pup to calm down and ideally offer a sit. It is okay when your puppy is new to this game to cue them to sit the first few times but ultimately we want them to be able to offer it on their own. If we cue too much our dogs begin to rely on us to tell them what to do in any given situation, whereas when we allow them to offer the behavior it becomes more reliable.
Once your puppy is calm and sitting you will continue to reward your pup for staying put. Then you will release him with “Free.” Always remember to release your puppy when done. Crazy to calm will help teach impulse control, stay, and how to quickly calm themselves in excitable situations.
Puppy Ping Pong
Majority of owners will prioritize the behaviors they want their puppy to learn with coming when called being first, if not second to walking on leash. Puppy ping pong is a great game to play to build a knee jerk reaction to hearing their name and running towards their owner. The game can include 2 or more people. Each person will have a handful of delicious meaty high value treats. One at a time someone will call the puppy, be very exciting and happy to encourage the puppy to run fast towards them. Once the puppy reaches the person calling they will touch the dog’s collar and then reward with the meaty treat. Encourage clients to give 1 to 3 treats, one at a time to avoid having a puppy dine and dash (knowing they will only receive one treat, grab it and run off to the next person). Stress the importance of being able to touch the dog’s collar because it can save the dogs life. A recall is no good if you can’t actually get a hold of the dog if you are alongside a busy road.
Have another person call the puppy and reward the same way. The puppy will run back and forth between the people playing learning that coming when called results in fun and that he gets delicious stinky treats.
Catch Me If You Can
Another game to strengthen the recall and to help with leash walking. When a puppy has something he shouldn’t or doesn’t come when we call, we move towards him to get him. With a puppy this often prompts a fun game of chase. How extremely annoying for the owner. Catch Me If You Can turns the table on the puppy and teaches him it is more fun to catch up to us than to be pursued. In a safe space or with your puppy on leash move away from him encouraging him to follow you. When he moves in your direction you stop, let him catch you, mark it and reward with high value treats. While the puppy is eating the treat move away again in another direction, encourage him to move after you. Mark and treat. The point of stopping before the puppy actually catches up is to prevent having a puppy bite at pant legs or jump at the person running.
Pass the Puppy
Who doesn’t love to cuddle a puppy. Have the trainer take one puppy away from their owner. Have the person who is without a puppy move and take the puppy to their right and so on until everyone has someone else’s puppy. Pass the puppy is great for socializing the puppy and have them get used to other people handling them in a positive environment. People handling can ask for a simple behavior, give treats and just play.
Hide and Seek
If you have equipment in the training room or places where the owner can go out of sight, hide and seek is a good game to play to help with recalls. This game teaches dogs that they need to listen to their handlers as much as look for them. It encourages owners to stay upbeat and pushes their dogs to find them because recalls aren’t always as easy as saying “Come” and then quietly standing by for the dog to find them.
I like to remind clients that everything we teach our puppy is a trick but to us we take some more serious than others. Playing these games will help take those serious behaviors and keep them fun for us and our pups and make them strong, reliable behaviors.
Do you have other games you play in puppy classes?
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Semi-private lessons are my new favorite type of service. They cover a number of client “problem” areas that we don’t always get the opportunity to address through private instruction or group classes.
- Image via Kat Camplin
What Is A Semi-Private Lesson
Technically, the definition should be fairly obvious. A semi-private would assume that it’s more than one client and less than a regular group class. How you market it determines how it’s viewed.
The Smaller Class
Reactive Rover classes are typically smaller in size, but aren’t really sold as semi-private instruction. This is probably due to the classes taking place in a facility that does other group classes. Marketing a group class as “smaller,” or semi-private allows you to charge more per person per class to make up the income difference you’d normally have in a regular sized class. The smaller class should be no more than 3 or 4 students to make it exclusive. There is a balance with these classes. They have the opportunity to fill up quicker, but you need people with the income to pay more. Sales points can be “more one on one instruction,” or “great for shy or timid dogs.”
Try a few different naming conventions to see which one resonates with your target demographic.
The Group Private Lesson
Private instruction is usually geared for people who can’t make a group class or may have a dog that doesn’t do well away from home. The downside of having a dog trainer show up at your home is it costs more than going to a facility for a group class. If a new client can’t afford your private rate, giving them an option to host a small group at their home and split your rate with friends.
The upside of this type of semi-private is the client fills their own class from their neighbors and friends. The neighbors and friends get to split your private hourly rate and get one on one instruction. This works if all the students have basically the same needs. If one dog is reactive and the others just need basic obedience instruction time will probably not be in balance.
To make these work you really need to be upfront and inclusive to everyone involved. Topics and behaviors covered, the number of weeks the class meets, and what happens if someone can’t make a class should be spelled out in advance. A questionnaire can be helpful to see what everyone’s needs are and find the behaviors that cover the most problem areas. To save you time you’d want to be sure you have handouts and homework for what the lessons cover. The really great thing about doing these “neighborhood classes,” is that neighbors get to work with each other in between sessions, which increases client compliance and time spent training.
If you’re marketing these as a cost saving plan you’d split your hourly rate by the number of students then multiply it by the number of weeks. As an example: Your hourly rate is $100. There are three students in the semi-private class that runs for five weeks. Each student pays $34 a week, for a total of $170 per student. Typically these are run as a package, so payment is expected from each student up front.
Is it worth it? Yes, if you pick the right location. I am interrupted at least once in every neighborhood class by a neighbor that needs a trainer. It’s great exposure, just pick the right neighborhood.
Moving Advanced Clients To Semi-Private Lessons
Semi-rivate lessons are a fabulous way to continue to work with students that may have capped out of all your other classes. Think of these as field trip classes. Finding locations that are dog friendly can be a problem, but it’s usually worth it if you get to work with real world problems and distractions in exotic locations.
Therapy Dogs, DIY Service Dogs, reactive dogs that are too good for a Reactive Class, but not quite ready for the close quarters of a regular class, and students who just want to set new goals, are all great resources for these small groups. How you market and charge for this type of class is up to you. While the hosted semi-private lesson in someone’s home is sold as a cost saving measure, the time spent to set up working locations will probably warrant the “smaller,” class model.
Locations can include dog friendly restaurants, hospitals or medical offices with elevators, public transportation locations like bus stops and train stations, public parks with active baseball games, horse stables, and local hiking trails. Visit each location ahead of time and make a plan for where you’ll work and what you’ll work on. Have a backup plan in case you get there and there is something that prevents you from holding class.
Goals for advanced students can be individualized based on the location. Discuss the goals with each individual student then make sure they know what to do when things are going well and what to do when things are going wrong. Your job for most of these advanced classes will resemble a circus ring leader. You will be watching for unexpected intrusions, giving a heads up to oncoming children, dogs, people, horses, etc., and sometimes running interference with those things. Students work individually unless the students have agreed to work together ahead of time.
Are you already doing semi-private lessons? How are they working for you? Leave us a comment!
Should you make the leap to a permanent facility?
Whether you’re a veteran or just starting out, there’s no doubt you’ve dreamed of having your own dog training facility. You’ve imagined the space, the flooring, and the equipment surrounded by happy, smiling dogs and clients, but should you make the leap? Here’s 5 things to consider before you sign the lease.
Can you afford it?
Your name is on the lease, so you are responsible for the entire amount of the rental costs. If you’re planning on bringing in outside help, rent out a portion, or hold large events, all of that is in the future. Can you afford the rent if those things don’t pan out? Also note, a lot of leases include additional maintenance costs on top of the rent. These can be one annual payment at the end of the year or included in the monthly payments. Ask about additional costs, not just the amount of the rent.
Consider The Equipment
Sure, you can hold basic dog obedience classes on concrete in a barn, but that’s not why you’re getting your own space. The minute you decide to hold any type of sports training classes that include jumping you have to consider anti-fatigue flooring. Sporting equipment, tables and chairs, mats, barriers, and cleaning supplies will be needed before a client ever sets foot in the space. Don’t forget a sign. You’ll need a nice sign out front to let everyone know you’re there! Make a list and add it all up using an average cost from one Google search. Yes, you’ll find discounts and sales on some things, but you don’t want to count on being able to do that for every item.
Insure The Facility
Now that you’ve got the building and all your stuff, you need to insure it all. The building owner will have some requirements for the minimum coverage needed for you to get in the door. If you’re bringing in help or subcontractors you’re going to need liability for those people as well. You’re probably going to purchase your equipment in stages, but what if it all suddenly goes away in a fire? You’re going to need the coverage to get back up and running. The time to find out who pays for fixes from building breakage is before you sign the lease, not after. If a pipe bursts and ruins all your stuff who pays for it? Even if the building owner pays, how long will you be out of business while the repairs are being done? Take a look at insurance that covers loss of income should the unthinkable occur.
Will your city allow you to open?
Cities have zoning regulations so residential areas aren’t built right next to factories. Regulations say where certain businesses can and cannot open. Training businesses often fall between the cracks of zoning codes. You’re not exactly dog boarding and you’re definitely not a groomer, but sometimes cities put you in those zones because there isn’t a place for you. This means buildings you can consider are in a certain district and not necessarily where you want to be. One of your first phone calls should be to the City Planning department to find out where you can go. While you may be able get a conditional use permit for your perfect space, CUP’s require a lot of paperwork, time, and money to get. Plus, you also may be required to do some building upgrades as part of the conditions.
Will clients travel to you?
Sometimes what we can afford and where the city puts us isn’t exactly on Main Street. If you’ve found an old warehouse on the outskirts of town, will people drive to meet you? Sure, existing clients love you and may drive the extra 15 minutes to get to you, but what about people who don’t love you yet? When someone does a map search for your location will they think, “Oh heck no?” Will they drive it in evening traffic? Rain? You need a location people are willing to go to.
Consider these five places to hold group dog training classes before you decide to run your own facility.
Did we miss something? What else should be considered before signing a lease? Tell us in the comments!
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When new clients contact you, generally the first thing you will be asked about is classes you offer. Most people don’t even think about private training. Knowing whether to guide your clients in the direction of classes or private sessions will help your clients get the most bang for their buck.
Though there are some incredibly well-run “Reactive Rover” type classes out there, for dogs that cannot be in the same building/vicinity of other dogs or people, classes can just be too much and there will be little to no benefit. Help the client get a solid foundation on the dog through private sessions. If the dog and owner have zero foundation skills, they will struggle in a group class setting.
Young And/Or Untrained Dog
Beginner Obedience classes are probably the most utilized class out there, but are they always the best option? So often, the massive distraction of other dogs and people all combined make it difficult for a young or untrained dog to focus on their owner. Doing even one or two private sessions before putting a dog into a class can make a monumental difference in their ability to focus and benefit from the class.
Owner Needs Special Attention
There are some clients that, for a myriad of reasons, would benefit from one-on-one instruction. Putting an owner like this into a group class just wouldn’t be fair or beneficial to them. This type of owner craves your full attention which cannot be provided in a group class setting. Spend some time with them in private sessions so they can be confident in their abilities before you transition them into a group class.
Specific Training Issue
If you have a client that has attended group classes and continues to have problems getting his/her dog to do a certain behavior, a private session may be in order. This will enable you to focus all of your attention on them and see what the problem may be so you can help them fix it.
Housetraining, intra-household dog aggression, cat/dog issues – many of these are problems that can’t always be solved in a group class. These often require you to go to a client’s home and help them enact feasible management while they work on behavior modification.
What other times do you recommend private sessions versus group classes to your clients?
If you are a dog trainer without your own private training facility, you can sometimes feel relegated to holding only private in-home sessions. However, with some creativity and planning, you can hold group classes in many different places.
Public parks can often provide you wide open spaces to hold group classes. They enable you to spread dogs out so even space-sensitive dogs can succeed. Holding group classes in parks is often easier if you have somebody to partner with so that one person can teach while the other can run interference with curious bystanders or loose dogs. Be sure to check any city regulations about using parks for personal gain.
Many veterinary offices have spacious lobbies. They often love having a trainer “on staff,” so to speak, so they can refer clients to you. If you can establish a good working relationship with a vet, it can become mutually beneficial with each party referring potential clients to the other. Classes are a great way to keep clients coming back to their office and you’ll be able to make new relationships with clients.
Local Pet Stores
Most of the big box pet stores have their own staff trainers, but many local pet stores have decent open areas and would love to have a trainer hold group classes there to bring customers in their doors. If you promise to promote their products, they may even allow you to use the space for free. Additionally, holding group classes in a pet store provides for GREAT distraction training!
Parking lots/parking garages can be fantastic for group classes. Being on concrete allows for distracted dogs to focus a little more easily, yet there is often still grass close by for potty breaks and sniffing rewards. Also, like public parks, they are very large and permit you to spread your clients out so all the dogs have ample space. Just make sure you have permission to be there.
Sometimes churches or AmVets type clubs will rent out their halls or basements for a reasonable fee. Be aware that some may require you to be an active member to get this benefit, but it certainly does not hurt to call around and ask.
Remember that when you are out in public or using somebody else’s space, it is important to leave the space as clean as or cleaner than it was when you arrived. Doing so ensures that you and your clients will always be welcome in the future.
What other places do you use for group training?