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On a crisp, fall evening Nala and I got in the car and drove to Petsmart, her head hanging out the window the entire way, anticipating the possibilities of the fast moving world. I was anticipating as well, the possibilities of a perfectly behaved pooch.

Two weeks prior I had waltzed into Petsmart with a coupon for ten dollars off any training class. The clerk at the counter was nice enough to show me the information about the classes: Puppy, Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Click-a-trick, Private, and Personal Training Camp. According to the clerk, Nala would fit in the Beginner.



Beginner Education

Specifically tailored for puppies over 5 months and adult dogs that have had no previous training.

Certificate of completion earned.

Course length: 6 weeks.

Key topics include:

Simple cues, such as sit, come, down and others

Problem solving

House manners

Canine health, grooming and nutrition

Relationship-forming games

It seemed a little juvenile. I didn’t see Nala fitting into the “had no previous training” group. She is so good at home. She can sit, stay, come, lie down, back up, shake and roll over. But the key words there are “at home.” Out in the world she’s a different dog. A leaf in the wind can interrupt her attention and cause her to bolt across the yard at a speed that no amount of “come” or “stay” will stop.

“She knows some basic commands,” I said to myself more than the clerk. “Maybe she should start in the Intermediate.”

“We’d like the new ones to start with Beginner.” I was about to protest with something like, sure you do, so I have to pay for more classes, when I had visions of Nala acting as a furry tornado in a room full of well behaved dogs. Then I would be kicked out, like in Marley and Me, and be too embarrassed to come back at a later date for the more appropriate Beginner course.

“You’ll like Brad,” the clerk was saying. “He just transferred here and he’s really good. He trains the trainers.”

With a sigh, I gave her my coupon, $100, and signed up, reluctantly for Beginner dog training classes at Petsmart.

I was reluctant not only because I wanted to believe Nala was beyond a Beginner, but also because, for the first time, I was signing up for a pet training class, something I always believed to be for people that have never had a pet. Or, in general, people that either didn’t know what the hell they were doing and were in the process of ruining their dogs, or for the extremely advanced dogs that were training for some sort of agility contest. For a teacher, someone always looking for new information, it is surprising how resistant I was to this learning opportunity. Maybe part of it was the cost. It is not uncommon that my cheapness trumps my need to further my bank of useless knowledge.

Or maybe it was more than that.

But two weeks later I found myself looking forward to the experience as I drove across town. I imagined some kind of open arena where somewhat well-behaved dogs and puppies were looking attentively at their owners while a man stood in the middle calmly giving instructions.

Plus, the possibility of seeing puppies is never a bad thing.

The Reality:

We were shown to the doggie day camp (day care) room, which is open via a glass wall to the rest of the store. I have stood on the store side many times, watching the dogs in daycare play and sometimes pee on the floor (promptly mopped up by a doggie sitter). The room is not much larger than 20 by 20 and, naturally, smells a little like pee. The addition for training class was small stools surrounding the perimeter.

Nala and I were the second to arrive. Preceding us were two women, each with a puppy, but it was clear they were together. I was greeted by a man about my age, slim, and somehow Zen in his demeanor. He greeted Nala and she attempted to crawl up on his lap.

We were soon joined by Moxy, a boxer mix puppy, Walter, an older, recently rescued white dog (maybe a Maltese or Schnauzer?), and Ace the extremely excited Boxer. Of course Nala found each dog equally interesting and worthy of play. I held her tight by the collar as she whined and attempted to escape over and over. But I was relieved to note that she was not the only rowdy child in the group. Moxy was a barker (specifically at Ace) and Ace was beside himself, tugging on his owner’s leash, rolling around on the floor while simultaneously whining and barking. Confinement is obviously not his thing. I did not envy Brad, talking over moving, barking dogs and attempting to maintain the attention of preoccupied and sometimes frustrated owners.

After all dogs were greeted, and human introductions completed, Brad started some demonstrations. He used the very wiggly Ace, who promptly stopped jumping up simply because Brad ignored him, and within moments was on the way to “sit.” Good start.

Then came the clicker, a little piece of blue plastic that is meant to make all the difference. “Click” good dog. “Click” thank you. Nala seemed to like it, and is responding to it well at home. It is the ah ha moment for the dog. Hear that click and they know exactly what it is they did correctly. No guess work. That is, as long as the holder of the great and powerful clicker is using it correctly.

Brad gave a kind of clicker lecture. As impatient humans, we might be tempted to use it at inappropriate times and, therefore, confuse our dogs. Brad was training us. In fact, the majority of the class was like this. If you don’t have well trained humans, you don’t have people capable of training dogs.


This is exactly why I had an issue with doggie classes. It had nothing to do with wanting Nala to be more trained than she is. It was my own ignorance or lack of skill that I had difficulty admitting.

I grew up watching my red-headed father training bird dogs in his vast back yard or in the back yards of friends. The training would continue in the tall grasses of the fields. During these sessions I was trained as well. He would narrate what he was doing and why, discuss how dogs think, and what we wanted from them. I knew how to train dogs.

But the fact is that Nala is not a bird dog and some of the techniques that worked on those labs and pointers were not working on her. She was either too meek or simply uninterested. I needed to learn a new way to teach my dog. I needed to be retrained

I started with books, Ceaser Millan, The Mini Encyclopedia of Dog Training.  Then I watched some videos and reviews of products on-line. I was doing research because that is how I know how to learn. But it wasn’t enough. Training a dog is not learning everything there is to know about Chinese foot binding, or how to play the guitar, there is another mind involved, an excited, young mind, therefore, to really learn, I needed to go beyond the solitary learning experience. I should have known better. I am the first one to preach about collaborative learning and the importance of learning communities among teachers when sitting in a meeting or the lounge. If I was going to learn how to teach this new, four-legged child, I needed to see what other teachers did.

Of course I didn’t realize that this was what I was doing until that click in the class.  And if it took me this long to realize this, as a teacher, it’s no wonder so many others believe themselves capable of training without training.

I can’t help but wonder if all those dogs that Nala and I see on our morning walks, tied to tired doghouses or in small, tarp-covered kennels, barking desperately as we stroll by, would maybe be inside, resting at the foot of a bed or with their backs against a warm radiator (which is what Nala is doing at this very moment) if their human had taken the time to take them to classes. Perhaps then the dog wouldn’t have chewed up that child’s toy or taken that food off the counter that landed them in their outdoor quarters.

Sure, $109 isn’t cheap. But there are other options. Local shelters provide some classes for free. My local shelter offers 50% off their $90 fee for all Pit Bulls and Pit mixes, for example.  The first class for puppies is free. But really, if we feel we can pay an adoption fee and fork out money for food on a monthly bases, is an additional bill really that much to ask?

We preach rescue. Don’t buy from a breeder, rescue. But what kind of rescue is a dirty kennel or a packed dirt circle around an uninsulated doghouse?

I’m not the perfect dog owner, that’s for sure. I make constant mistakes, and those are just the ones I’m aware of, but I am on the journey to realizing what I don’t know. Lesson one: put ego aside and ask for help.

More information on Petsmart training? Click here.


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