After over 50 yrs. of training dogs, the two most common questions I am invariably asked are:-Firstly: What are my current options if I want to train my 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, perish the thought, (4) Train it yourself!!  The second question is much harder to answer and that is, “how long will this take?”To this, I invariably respond, “Give or take 173 meters!!”  In this particular case, the rhetorical question of “how long is a piece of string?” applies most aptly.Factors affecting the outcome include such variables as “time, resources, motivation, ambition, experience/ knowledge, dedication” and the like.

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!!

In my experience, 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 training club.Of this 25% potential, one will be lucky to find more than 10% who 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 displays and hopefully, at the end of the day, getting involved in helping/training others with their dogs! 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. 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.

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 requires 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!

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.

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 club environment?

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.  In both cases, a third party is not training your dog, YOU ARE!They charge you for the lessons/knowledge, 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 club, it will cost you considerably less. True, in the case of private training 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 training establishments 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 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 sooner, if you put in more time, and 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. It is also true to say that for a few club members they join, not necessarily to train their dogs, but often merely for the social interaction and joy of giving their pets an opportunity to spend a few hours a week with some of their tail wagging friends!  On the plus side however, is that in a class environment, one has an opportunity to observe the mistakes and problems of other handlers. 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.

For a variety of reasons, dog training clubs, specifically those affiliated to the Kennel Union 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. The problem now 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). For example, the Pretoria Shepherd Dog Club, amongst others, 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.

So, all of this prompted me to think if there might be another (5th) option for providing a practical and cost effective solution which may assist everyone, even those enthusiasts already attending classes.  In fact, as a member and trainer in numerous KUSA Clubs over the years, I have consistently been contacted after classes by members, thirsty for additional training advice. This was a clear indication to me, that many handlers were missing a lot of what had been said in class, probably due to the numerous distractions present, including that of trying to control their own dogs!  In short, I always seem to end up having to re-teach or repeat stuff “out of class”.   Few, if any dog clubs provide such back up lesson plans or notes.It seemed to me, that where these lecture aids are made available, and diligently studied, and more importantly, where the principles are then applied in class, those handlers invariably show significant progress.  In fact, in the longer term, such notes become more and more in demand by the more committed handlers/trainers and their progressive dogs.  Thereafter, there should hopefully also be less demand on the class instructor to stop and repeat basic lessons learned previously.

In all my experience in several countries, I have never, perhaps with one, or at the most, two exceptions, encountered a civilian dog training club or establishment, that makes a special effort to formally “teach/indoctrinate/familiarise” it’s members/clients: “prior” to commencing the actual process of physically training their pooches.  As stressed earlier, such primary orientation involves Dog Psychology and the Theory of Dog Training.In short, those basic dog training secrets!   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.

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.

I really did need to highlight some of these points in order 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 handler’s, selection is strict and discipline and consequences for failure exist. They are under pressure to train their dogs. 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 in the medium to longer term and in any event, such improvement in training technique and knowledge base, usually comes only after learning from our own mistakes as we go along!

However, we do have something special that we need to take full advantage of!In the civilian environment, the dog is ours, 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. 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 the Military on a course, one is committed, but in reality, all actual physical “training” sessions tend to be very short. So at home, a normal guy 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 proverbial elephant: One bite at a time.

So: Why trg by correspondence?

Basically for the reasons given above, cost and time factors being foremost. In this age of information, you can’t go very wrong by “acquiring the “know how” from a reputable and reliable source” and then doing the job yourself!! There are, as we all know, some “distance learning universities” with proven track records, that successfully help students through correspondence, to gain the highest of qualifications in whatever field they choose. The whole process has been enhanced in recent years through the advent of the internet. We no longer have to rely on the time consuming and unreliable snail mail method of corresponding.In fact, I was one of these “distance learners” when doing my Risk Management and Business Management courses.The key aspect to my success was of course to identify and accept from the onset,  the fact that the ball was firmly in my court if I wanted to graduate!!

Thinking back, I recall that I trained my very first German Shepherd after reading a book. The book was called “Police Dog Rex” and it was written in the `1960’s by his handler who described, in fairly easy to understand terms, what makes a dog tick. He went on explain how “he was taught” to train Rex, how he learned from all of the mistakes he may have made along the journey and thereafter, how he used Rex over a number of years in the fight against crime in London.

I was so inspired by the book that, after reading it, I was strongly motivated to acquire my own puppy.At the time I lived in the Police Station’s officer’s single quarters where there were no restrictions on keeping a dog. In those days in the small Rhodesian bush town of Chipinga, there was no TV or other distractions.  During the course of my district rural patrols, each usually over a 14 day period, I had considerable latitude with respect to how I operated. So, I and  a young puppy named “Zara”, whom I acquired from a friendly farmer in the Sabi Valley,  ended up spending 24hrs of every day together, during which time I trained her as per my “Police Dog Rex” training manual.  

What a life we had!There were visits to various scenes of crime, including the occasional traffic accident, touching base with farmers, missionaries, local chiefs and headmen in the rural areas. We may even have ended up performing traffic duties at the only “STOP” street in that one horse town!

Zara went on to win many an obedience and working trials competitions and put on quite a few memorable displays at various social functions.Also, unofficially and off the books, over the next couple of years, she made a few arrests and helped to locate and recover stolen property. We never had any professional training support, and we never belonged to any dog club in those first 2years.We only eventually joined a KUSA Dog Club to expose Zara to the environment of doing various exercises in controlled “test conditions” whilst in the presence of other dogs and their handlers.

My wife and I have used this template over the last 40-50 yrs when training all our dogs.  Don’t wait till a dog is old enough to go to training classes.  We put in the quality time from as young an age as possible. Focus on play and fun training with respect to all the critical areas that may help you later. Recall, retrieve, use of nose etc.

So, in conclusion, I firmly believe that if anyone is really serious about training their dogs up to a standard where they can impress their friends, successfully perform or compete in a public, professional or competitive environment, they simply need to acquire the knowledge, before they even get their puppy if they want, and then get on with the job.  Nobody else can do this!  At the end of the day, what one puts in, is what one gets out!

Training by correspondence can give anyone such dog training knowledge.Progress can be monitored by occasional personal visits and almost instant interactions between both parties. Also where necessary, electronic video/camera examples can be supplied.


John Cox : July 2017