Running a group dog training class is an inherently different challenge than working individually with owners and their dogs. The behaviors you teach may of course be very different, but there are also the management questions. What sequence of behaviors will you teach? How will you manage the space? What will you do with dogs that are leash reactive (for social or aggressive reasons)? Will you hire assistants? And layered on top of all of this: How will you manage your time to be sure each client feels like they are getting the attention they need while still being able to get through your curriculum?
Time management in a classroom environment was discussed and taught extensively in my elementary education graduate program, yet I rarely see it taught explicitly as a dog training skill. Trainers and behavior consultants come to this work from just about every professional background imaginable, and managing the behavioral, educational, and timing challenges of a classroom should not be an assumed skill set. I found that certain techniques from elementary school education translated seamlessly to dog training classes, and I feel that they will likely benefit any trainer working to run a class smoothly.
Core concepts: The mini-lesson and the workshop
The core concepts in most of my classroom lesson planning when learning to teach children were the mini-lesson followed by the workshop. While the use of these concepts varied to some degree by subject, it worked exceptionally well and was popularized by Lucy Calkins for Readers’ and Writers’ Workshops. Essentially, teachers broke their lessons down into three components: direct instruction (mini-lesson), a workshop where students worked independently, and a sharing time when the group came back together. The workshop time was also structured to include teacher check-ins or “conferring” and mid-workshop teaching when something arose that needed to be brought up with the whole classroom. The three-component format was intended to be for an hour-long lesson in a school classroom. When I moved into teaching dog training classes, however, I found that I ended up working in four to six miniature versions of this format. Each behavior I was teaching got its own mini-lesson, workshop, and usually a time for the group to share.
The mini-lesson itself was further broken down into four parts, which in human education are called connection, teaching, active engagement, and link. Connection involves recalling what the class has done in the previous week. Teaching is showing, modeling, demonstrating, or describing the new skill they are learning. Engaging means ensuring that the learners are receptive and paying attention so you can make sure they understand and are ready to go. In a link, you send them off to work independently. In a dog training class, this might look like the following:
Keep in mind this is just one behavior out of four to six I might cover in a class. Teaching a behavior like down is easy to fit into this type of timeframe. It may be that when you teach something like “nose touch to hand” the mini-lesson is even shorter. For other behaviors, like loose-leash walking or go to mat, you may need a longer mini-lesson or workshop. The format is flexible enough for you to fill the hour appropriately to yours and your clients’ interests, but the process of teaching each behavior can almost always be broken down into these segments.
If you have ever done TagTeach, you may recognize that there are similarities here. As I grew as a trainer, I really valued what TagTeach added to my lesson planning and how it improved on this design. With TagTeach, I didn’t need to change how this general lesson approach informed my planning. They worked beautifully together, and I would strongly encourage anyone who hasn’t done training in TagTeach to look into it!
While teaching elementary school and teaching a dog training class are certainly different environments with different concerns and skills needed from the teachers, the overlaps are significant. Knowing how to plan a lesson, estimate time on each skill, emphasize time for individual check-ins, and build skills one upon the other over time are universal. I encourage anyone teaching group lessons to continue to tackle their issues with planning and time management, and find ways to improve upon what they’re doing. Good time management and planning makes our clients more successful and keeps class time meaningful—all resulting in happier clients and better-behaved dogs.
Adria Karlsson, MAT, EdS, is an Applied Behavior Analyst and Certified Dog and Cat Behavior Consultant working out of Cambridge, MA. Her company, Dog Willing and Purrfectly Able, offers dog and cat consulting to local clientele. While her main focus professionally is on dogs and cats, she finds the behavior of any species of animal, particularly humans, endlessly fascinating.