Vancouver Dog Training: Dog Obedience Classes and Agility Training in the Vancouver, B.C. Area

In September of 2012, I adopted a little rescue dog (Lucy) who couldn’t walk on leash politely, lunged crazily after birds and squirrels, was reactive to some dogs and was mildly food possessive. Since I don’t come from a long line of dog trainers (I’d never trained even one dog before), I started looking online for Vancouver dog trainers, as well as obedience training and agility classes in the Lower Mainland (I live in Port Coquitlam). I also borrowed the first few seasons of Cesar Millan’s TV show “The Dog Whisperer” from the library, read a ton of dog training articles online, including those on Ed Frawley’s site, and I ordered a few of the Leerburg CD’s.

I must say I learned a lot from my research…

Dog training methods have varied over the years, with different styles falling in and out of favour, but basically training any animal is a matter of behaviour modification or operant conditioning that uses positive reinforcement. This reinforcement includes a reward (food, praise, play, toy, etc.) and/or avoiding something negative (removal, reprimand, collar correction, electronic buzz, etc.). Some trainers call these two methods the “do” method and the “don’t” method. Example: pull on your leash and you get a reprimand; don’t pull on your leash and you avoid a reprimand and maybe you’ll get a treat, too. The thing is, whatever the dog is avoiding (e.g., reprimand) has to outweigh the potential reward of not obeying (e.g., catching a squirrel!). Will yelling louder keep the dog from lunging after squirrels? Debatable! Will a piece of kibble stop the dog lunging after squirrels or do you need a sirloin steak as a reward? If the latter, that’s not very practical! Indeed, if the dog requires a food reward, then you will not always be able to control it. Fortunately, dogs do get conditioned eventually to obey without the food reward (i.e., it gets phased out over time).

It’s not about dominance or “alpha rolls” or “scruff shakes” or even understanding a dog’s motivation. It’s not even about being a pack leader. It’s about telling the dog what behaviours you want and what behaviours you don’t want. Simple as that! Whether you let the dog eat first or sleep on your bed or go out the door first is irrelevant. The question is which of those behaviours drive you nuts and which do you want to encourage? Hate it when your dog jumps up on visitors? Tell it not to do that! Want the dog to sleep on your bed? Tell it that’s okay, but don’t expect it to know that the bed is okay sometimes and not others, unless you tell it how to know that. For instance, the dog is only allowed on your bed when you invite it. Lucy only gets to go on the couch when invited, but she can get on her own special armchair without being invited. She only jumped up on the couch once without being invited. I told her to get off and she has never jumped on the couch since… unless she’s invited.

One thing that works really well is the e-collar (Ed Frawley thinks it’s the most humane way to train a dog!). The e-collar (electronic collar) sends a buzz or pulse to the dog via remote control. This sensation is not something dogs are willing to disobey (as opposed to ignoring a voice reprimand or ignoring a yank on the leash – dogs’ necks are the strongest part of their bodies, so you have to do a lot of yanking to get through to a dog, especially a large dog determined to catch a squirrel!). With the e-collar, if the “nick” (“stim” “or stem”), as they call it, isn’t working, you can dial up the strength immediately and get instant results! Lucy is an adult rescue dog (probably two years old when I got her), so she needed some serious training. And I needed instant results because I did’t want to spend weeks or months trying to get her to the point where we were enjoying our time together. Although she’s not a very big dog (23 pounds), walking a dog of any size that is continuously pulling and lunging is unpleasant and not something to look forward to twice a day!

With dogs, there’s something else going on in the training process besides pure conditioning. Dogs are the only species that has bonded with humans to the point where they can read our expressions (even apes can’t do that!). Puppies spontaneously begin trying to interact positively with humans as soon as their eyes open. They wriggle with delight, wag their tales happily, look at your face, make eye contact, “smile,” etc. In testing humans reactions, they found that, other than a human baby, there is nothing as appealing to humans as a puppy. And dogs are actually more interested in interacting with humans than with other dogs! Speaking of body language, do you realize that human beings universally recognize many, many dog behaviours and sounds? Take a dog’s bark out of context by removing the visual aspect and most people still get it right: anxious, excited, guarding, aggressive, etc. We just have this amazing affinity with dogs! So, dog training is also partly affected by this strong bond we two species (human and dog) share. Dogs will work hard to please the person they are most bonded with. They will try to keep their people together which is why they are always checking on where you are. And, rather sadly, they will suffer great indignities and horrible treatment and still be loyal to their person.

I loved “The Dog Whisperer” shows, but Cesar Millan’s methods require confidence and at least some kind of a bond with your dog. I didn’t have either of those when I started training Lucy! Eventually, though, I did discover my own variation of Cesar’s “Tsch” word that works on Lucy. I don’t know why, but when I say, “Hey!” she knows I mean business! So, if Cesar had been by my side, giving me the confidence I needed and my bond with Lucy had been well-established, I know I could have used his methods to train Lucy. Still, it would have taken longer than it did with the e-collar! While Cesar uses the e-collar in a couple of his shows, his basic method doesn’t use it. He would probably have fewer detractors if he did use it, because some of his other methods have not earned him the best name in the dog training world.

There are actually more dogs than children in the USA and it’s probably the same in Canada. In Vancouver, we’re definitely a dog-friendly community! As a result, selling dog products and services is big business. This proliferation of services only makes it harder to find the right dog training method for you and your dog! But there are lots of great Vancouver dog trainers. It doesn’t really matter what technique or combination of techniques a dog trainer uses, as long as their philosophy matches your own… and their methods work! Just beware of dog trainers using methods that can engender fear and aggression in your dog. Corrections must be used judiciously and the correction should start at the lowest level that works. Some dogs are “soft” and some dogs are “hard.” A too weak correction for a “hard” dog may do nothing, but you can always crank up the level. A too strong correction for a “soft” dog can send it into a belly crawl. You can’t undo that correction, so don’t risk making your dog terrified of you by using harsh treatment when it’s clearly not required. There’s nothing sadder than a dog cringing in fear in the presence of its owner, the one person it should love, trust and respect more than anyone else in the world!

By the way, I use an e-collar, as I mentioned before, but I never cause Lucy to cringe or belly crawl when I use it, nor have I ever seen that at any of the many Vancouver area dog classes I have attended where the e-collar is used exclusively. That’s the benefit of getting a professional dog trainer to train YOU in the use of the e-collar. You know what they say on TV, “Do not attempt this at home!” But, look, I’m 63 years old, I’ve never trained a dog before, I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but I have successfully done it… and with zero trauma to my dog! I even did so well that Lucy has been Puppy of the Month at my training class.