What are the options if you want to train your dog?  Simply put, the answer is : Depending on one’s needs, these are:- (1) Pay someone else to train it (2) Go to private training classes (3) Join a recognised nationally affiliated training club, or, (4) Train it yourself!! 

Actually, if dogs could speak read and or write, training them would be a piece of cake! Being a gregarious pack animal, they possess all the necessary natural attributes and motivation to do whatever we ask of them, breed permitting.  There is literally no limit to what we can accomplish together.  Man/Woman and Dog!!

There are only three reasons why a dog will not do what you require of it. 1. It is physically incapable, 2. It does not accept you as its pack leader and 3, it does not understand what you want it to do or, in short, YOU have failed, either because you had a poor Instructor, OR because you didn’t listen properly and implement what you have been taught. It’s never the dogs fault.

Here are some sobering Stats:  Almost 100% of dog owners genuinely desire a well- trained and obedient pooch.  Around 50% of these “wishful dreamers” actually decide to find out more about how to accomplish this, and, of these, only roughly about 25% have a go and make some sort of effort to train their dogs. They usually opt for private training classes or join a recognised Kennel Union club.  Of this 25% potential, one will be lucky to find more than 10% who actually listen and implement what they have been taught, then persevere to a stage where they are happy with what they have achieved, enjoyed the experience, and end up with a basically obedient companion. Thereafter, they either cease attending classes altogether, or become relatively passive yet valuable and supportive social club members.

However, as a thumb-suck guesstimate, perhaps 3% of these, if we are lucky, have that x factor, natural training gift, or just pure determination and drive to go further.  These handlers/owners eventually end up becoming completely “hooked” on the concept of dog training, to such an extent, that they aspire to greater heights and even thrive in a competitive environment. They either end up training champions in a specific discipline such as obedience, working or field trials, jumping or agility, carting, fly-ball etc., or doing dog fund raising displays and hopefully, at the end of the day, getting involved in helping/training others  in the Club! These members are club diamonds, worth their weight in gold, and they need to be treasured!

It is the training and motivation of the owner that is the greatest obstacle to dog training. Invariably the owner just does not know how “firstly”, to get the most out of his or her best friend and “secondly” is not prepared or able, for whatever reason, to commit to putting in, what they perceive as the hard yards!  As soon as they realise that most of the effort and time required to succeed will come from THEM, they quickly throw in the towel. However, I have found that if any novice has had the opportunity to sit and personally observe dogs and their owners, often teenagers or old folk, competing at an official show, it can spark a desire to achieve something similar with their own dog.  At least they then have a picture in their minds of what is possible by a normal dog owner and their pooch.  Another important factor that will determine success, is the breed of dog in the context of what one wants to train it to do, as well as its individual trainability potential. In this regard, for the average person, getting a puppy from the onset and starting to train it as early as possible, is nearly always the best and most effective option. The problem of course for any Dog Club, is that most folk decide far too late to start socialising and training their dogs.

As previously intimated, when one acquires a dog and wants to train it, you have four options.  (1) Train it yourself. (2) Give it to a professional trainer to do the job for you. (3) Join an approved recognised social dog training club (normally Kennel Union Affiliated), or (4), pay for private training classes with a specific reputable individual or business.  Each of these four options have their advantages and disadvantages. Most people openly claim to “love” their dogs and want to treat them as part of the family.  The various “training your dog” motivational sales pitches play to these emotions. Guilt and/ or a sense of duty invariably helps to separate aspiring owner handlers from those hard-earned bucks!

We may all have good intentions to start with, but, for most, these sadly fade with the realisation that success in dog training is directly proportional to the effort one puts in, and/or in some cases, the amount of $$$ one is prepared to part with.

Of course, it goes without saying, that training one’s own dog assumes one as acquired the appropriate knowledge and commitment, but it is, without any doubt, by far the most “cost effective” and “satisfying” option. It also tends to cement that wonderful “bond” between you and your pooch, ending up where you, the “pack leader” and your dog, can “read each other” like the proverbial book.  In short, you become the trainer and the handler. All you need to do to acquire and fully comprehend a workable knowledge of Dog Training is:-  Firstly, learn the very basics of “Dog Psychology,” ie what motivates your dog to do what you require of it?  Secondly, familiarise yourself with the simple but enlightening “Theory of Dog Training,” or how to identify training issues and get the best and most consistent desired results. Thirdly, it is important that you acquaint yourself with the characteristics (i.e. strengths and weaknesses) of your specific breed, in relation to what you actually want your dog to be able to do?  Clearly, you are not easily going to be able to train your St Bernard to become a jumping or agility champion or your toy Pomeranian to herd that flock of sheep!  The methodology of achieving your training objectives is as simple as ABC. I call this the “The basic secrets or golden rules of Dog Training.”  Furthermore, at the end of the day, your bank balance will hardly be dented!  The main disadvantage of training ones dog in isolation, is that it is often not exposed to the usual distractions associated with Club or Dog School Training. This can pose a problem if aspiring to competitions. Thus, even if one is knowledgeable enough to train one’s own dog, it is also wise to join a club.

Handing your dog/puppy over to a third party, invariably the choice of an extremely busy, rich or lazy owner, deprives one of that oh so powerful bond, between you and your dog. The end result will be, that there will seldom be the same level of “pack leader” control or rapport between you and your pooch, as that which invariably evolves between the “trainer” and the dog.  Even more importantly, unless the owner has received concurrent lectures and practical lessons (additional expense) on the handling of the dog, that owner will never know, in the short term at least, how to handle the animal in the most effective manner.  Yet, regardless of the result, you will pay a considerably amount and still only end up being a mere handler with limited control over your dog and absolutely no personal satisfaction or sense of achievement.

Now the last two options: These are very similar in nature. The private training “classes” with a reputable individual or dog training business, OR training in a recognised social Kennel Union (KUSA Approved/Registered) “club” environment?  In both cases, you will invariably have access to, for example, otherwise very costly jumping, agility or protection work training equipment.

Much depends on your financial resources and/ or your personal determination to succeed. Remember, that the reputable individual or business is in it to make money. But in a KUSA Club, historically, the Committee and Class Instructors are volunteers, who do it as a hobby, not for profit.  In BOTH these cases, a third party is not training your dog, YOU ARE!  They charge you for the lessons/knowledge they provide, whilst YOU MUST, if you are to progress, do the bulk of the work in the week, gradually learning more and more as you go along.  No work, no progress!  But you still keep paying! The only difference is, that in the case of a social KUSA club, it will cost you infinitely less.

True, in the case of private training school classes, they may be more one on one sessions and the trainer may, at an additional cost of course, offer to intervene on a personal basis, kennel your dog and/or do some of the training for you.  But beware of losing some of that important pack leader bond/control and in addition, those extra hard earned $$$  Having said this however, there are still a few good KUSA training  around, but the problem is, that they are so few and far between, that they are often hard to find, and usually not very accessible due to distance.

One further, but very important point in respect of going to dog training classes.  Invariably, many of those “club” members or “private class members” are tempted to think, that having paid their “training” fees, all that is then required, is to attend the classes once or maybe twice a week, and “hey presto” their dog will be fully trained!  Make no mistake, THIS WILL NEVER EVER HAPPEN.  There is no other alternative, but to put in some training effort each and every day.  Remember, one of the secrets of dog training is……  Quality Repetition.  At the very least, even though one attends training classes once or twice a week, the aim of these sessions is for YOU to learn what to do when you go home and thereafter, at least 2 x 30 or 4 x 15, or even 6 x 10 minute quality training sessions a day should do the trick. Within 12 months or even much sooner, if you put in more time, you should end up in one of the senior classes having achieved most of your initial objectives.

There is one abiding yet unavoidable problem with training dogs in a class environment and that is, that classes can very easily and quickly become boring, especially to those who are making progress. The fact is, that some handlers and their dog’s progress faster than others. But when this is clearly as a result of not putting in the effort required, everyone is held back. Consequently, class instructors and other members of the class become frustrated or impatient. This can of course causes embarrassment as well as creates unnecessary tension and in some cases, unfortunate conflict.  

On the plus side however, is that in a class environment, one has an opportunity to observe the successes, as well as the mistakes and problems of other handlers, thus learning more about dog training relatively quickly.  One does not get this advantage when training in isolation. Also, some people are competitive by nature and like to be the best in the class. This serves as some motivation to put in training time during the week and invariably impress everyone during the next class. Conversely, it may depress other less enthusiastic class members.

For a variety of reasons, dog training clubs, specifically those affiliated to the Kennel Union here in South Africa, have gone through a bad period in recent years. Most are not as active as they once were when the economy was in a different space. Such Clubs used to be the backbone of civilian dog training activities in South Africa. They existed in most major urban centres throughout the country, and had a proud tradition of being wonderful and affordable facilities for those members of the community who wanted to train their dogs. This was in an era when folk had far more spare time for recreational stuff every day plus at weekends. Life was not so fast paced or pressurised. There were no digital distractions

The problem we now have is, that these clubs used to be able to boast amongst their members, most of the experienced civilian non -professional working and obedience dog training “brains trust”, in the form of extremely knowledgeable senior club members and class instructors. These men and women came through the competition ranks of hard knocks with pure passion and hard graft.  Today however, with the demise of many clubs and economic pressures, many of these “experienced” and “enlightened” old hands, have either passed on to that big dog training club in the sky, or opened their own private dog training businesses, and are now charging an arm and a leg for what they used to do on a voluntary basis within the original club environment!

Consequently, in South Africa, we now have a bit of an affordable community Dog Training facility void.  We still have the occasional centre of excellence, where volunteer dog enthusiasts are doing their very best and sweating blood to fly the KUSA flag (Kennel Union of South Africa). But even they consistently struggle to provide experienced and effective trainers.                    

To further exacerbate matters, because of this critical shortage of experienced trainers, any new club member showing the slightest promise, let alone demonstrating that they are amongst that exceptionally gifted 3% who could perhaps be destined for greater things, soon gets taken out of their routine training classes and persuaded to take classes themselves.  This of course results in the double negative whammy of inexperienced but promising handler/trainers being somewhat prematurely asked to “instruct” and motivate others, whilst at the same time, themselves missing out on that so very satisfying and extremely motivational personal experience of “shining” and/or achieving personal success amongst their peers.

Consequently, it is quite possible that in future, dog clubs will need to provide backup lesson plans or notes on all training exercises. Also, perhaps even an email Club correspondence link or WhatsApp type Group facility for members to use, in order to discuss issues whenever they encounter problems.  Thereafter, there should hopefully be less demand on the poor class instructors to stop and repeat basic lessons learned previously.

Training advice and guidance by correspondence, can give anyone instant access to any dog training issues and suggest options.  Progress can be monitored by almost interactions between both parties. Also it can usually be acquired for free plus, where necessary, video/camera clip examples can be supplied.

It may also become common practice in future, for dog training clubs to make notes available to members so that they can be fast tracked, in terms of being familiarised with basic Dog Psychology, the Theory of Dog Training, and detailed guidelines for every type of training exercise going forward.   In short, those basic dog training secrets!  In the case of our Club, many such notes already exist on our website, where they are updated as needed, from time to time. It is never very easy in a practical club class environment for novices learning a new exercise to remember everything the instructor has said.  So, having notes to refer to in one’s own time, either in advance of classes, and/or later, can prove to be a great help.

In any professional military/police dog training establishment, potential handlers are put through many weeks, if not months, of theoretical training, with exams before they are ever let loose on their four footed best friends. Dog Clubs, for obvious reasons, have never had that luxury.

In other words, it is a bit like golf, or most other sports for that matter; get the basic principles of hitting that little white ball perfectly, before one even starts the serious business of playing the game. Get this wrong from the beginning, and one can end up with numerous problems going forward.

We really did need to highlight some of these points to put everything into context. But let’s get to the point.

One will find, that in most professional Dog Training establishments, where staff volunteer to be dog handlers, selection is strict and discipline and consequences for failure severe. They are under pressure to train their dogs or move on and get another job. The training is structured, and those involved are fully committed to a specific time table.   In Civilian life however, we have a completely different scenario. 

In short, it comes back to what we said at the beginning of this article.  We don’t have enough “knowledge” and we don’t have the “time” commitment to put in the effort when we do have it!! This means that whilst we may improve over “time”, this will be at a much slower pace, and in any event, such improvement in training techniques and knowledge base, usually comes only after learning from our own mistakes as we go along!

However, it’s not all bad news. We do have something special that we need to take full advantage of! This is that in the civilian environment, the dog is yours, a member of the family, living at our home with us.  We train or discipline, albeit unconsciously, our dogs, and or play with them, because we want to, not because we have to. If we really think about it, unlike the Military or Police handlers, whose dogs are usually kennelled, we spend the majority of any 24hr period with our best friend, and in fact, by the time our dogs reach an age where those handlers are just being introduced to their mutts and about to get started on serious training, our dogs are probably 18 months old and could already be quite advanced.

In truth, the time required to put into the training of your pooch is not so frightening.  In reality, even in a professional establishment, all actual physical “training” sessions tend to be very short. So at home, a normal handler only needs to spend those 6 x 10min or 4 x 15 minute serious sessions each day in order to produce the proverbial Rin Tin Tin within a year.  It is akin to eating that elephant: One bite at a time.

Thus, in conclusion, what we expect most from our club members is commitment to put in the time and practice what one has been taught in class.  Don’t frustrate or disrespect class instructors by cuffing it during the week, and wasting not only their time but also the time of one’s fellow class members. Remember those reasons why a dog does not do what you ask of it and make a plan. Remember also, that all dogs are different and, except for the very, very basic training exercises, there are many different ways to train for the more advanced ones.

Members are expected to read the constitution, follow the general rules of the club, where possible, attend classes regularly, support club functions including attendance at the AGM. 

Good luck and we hope that if you decide to join our Club, which has a fine reputation with over half a century of training experience, you achieve your goals with you best friend.

From the Club’s side, members whom we know are trying hard to put into practice what they have been taught, will always receive our fullest respect and support.  It’s not hard to identify such folk.


John Cox:  For Pretoria Shepherd Dog Club: Revised Sept 2022