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Is Virtual Dog Training For You?

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
Is Virtual Dog Training For You?

Melinda adopted Reepo from a rescue group. The energetic German shepherd/blue heeler mix was high energy, demanding, playful and sometimes fearful. He struggled with behavioral issues and panicked every time the doorbell rang. At her wit’s end, Melinda enrolled Reepo in positive training classes, which helped ease his anxiety and build his confidence.

Then a friend suggested she combine both virtual and in-person training. Melinda was intrigued, and willing to try everything to help Reepo calm down and learn good manners. So she got online and started researching the world of virtual dog training.

WHAT IS VIRTUAL TRAINING?

Thanks to the Internet, people are able to learn almost anything they want from the comfort of their own homes. Many colleges and universities offer distance education in the form of online courses, in which you take part in virtual lectures and email your assignments to your teacher.

Similar educational opportunities are available to dog parents, and one of the most popular is virtual training. Virtual training websites offer interactive online training classes and learning activities for their students. You may also connect to trainers via Skype or phone conference calls, ask questions, and have discussions with other students. One of the main benefits, besides the convenience, is that it gives you access to help with immediate problems until you are able to register with an in-person trainer.

WHAT IT CAN AND CAN’T DO

Virtual training is useful for dog parents who want to brush up on their dogs’ basic obedience, reinforce fundamental training lessons, get quick answers to questions, or supplement existing in-person training lessons. It’s helpful during transition periods such as when you’ve just adopted a rescue, or have moved to a new home and are trying to find a certified trainer in your area.

However, virtual training has its limitations, and should not be used as a replacement for in-person training, especially in cases where the dog has behavioral problems.

“Virtual training can be a tricky proposition,” says renowned trainer Victoria Stilwell. “In certain cases with certain dogs, while trying to address very particular lessons or issues, it can be an effective tool, but it can also quickly morph into a problem scenario. For example, often a client will hire a dog trainer to ‘fix’ a given issue, only to find out from the trainer that there are far different (and sometimes more complicated) issues at play than the person was previously aware of. Virtual training generally doesn’t allow for the flexibility to address those types of issues.

“It also makes the dangerous assumption that the dog owner and ‘virtual teacher’ are on the same page in terms of what they’re trying to address and how the dog responds to the training,” Victoria continues. “All too often, positive dog trainers see clients who miss important signals in their dogs, and virtual training creates a situation where there’s not a qualified dog behavior expert on hand to oversee the training process. Virtual training can only be considered for the most basic cues and language-building dog training – not any kind of behavioral issue.”

CONFERENCES AND CONSULTATIONS

Along with online classes, virtual training can also encompass video conferences or consultations. “At my website (positively.com/ dog-training/phone-consultation), we connect licensed dog trainers via phone or Skype with clients for remote consultations,” says Victoria. “We see it as an opportunity to get the right information into the hands and minds of those who need it most, and point them towards the right type of qualified positive trainer for actual sessions.”

Because a conference or consultation is more one-on-one than an online class, it offers some additional benefits. “Most ‘virtual training’ sites seem to be focused on a static program that is mostly a one-way conversation, whereas the flexibility of a video consult obviously allows for the trainer and owner to interact directly and in real time.”

A video consultation can be what you want it to be, or more importantly, what the trainer thinks would be most beneficial to you and your dog. It can include advice, ideas on how to solve issues, as well as training tips and information. Generally speaking, a conference or consult is more advice-based than step-by-step training. During a video conference, expert trainers are able to assist with puppy issues, shelter dog rehabilitation, some behavior issues, and many other dog-related questions.

By employing video conferencing, you have easier access to trainers, and therefore a wider support system, whether you’re a new puppy parent or a shelter dog adopter. This is especially important during the initial transition period when both you and the dog are getting used to a new dynamic (see sidebar above). In fact, video (or phone) consults can be invaluable starter tools. “Consults allow people to gain access to the most up-to-date information from a qualified professional, and provide a great introduction to what they might expect from the teaching process,” explains Victoria. “Also, in the event there isn’t a positive trainer in your area, having the opportunity to talk one-on-one about your issues or particular situation can be an invaluable ‘direction-pointer’ to make sure you know what to look for in a local trainer, and what pitfalls to avoid when finding professional help.”

As with virtual training classes, video consults and conferences shouldn’t take the place of hands-on training. “Video consults are much better as a continuing backup and refresher, rather than for starting the actual training process or for behavioral issues,” says Victoria. “They are a better tool for continuing training if the trainer has been working with the client in person for awhile. However, there is no substitute for having a trainer do an in-home visit where she can physically work with the dog and identify factors in the environment that might affect behavior. That is impossible to do via a video or phone consultation.”

Americans spend an average of 32 hours a month online. By investing some of those hours in taking an online training course, consulting with a trainer, asking for advice and/or viewing videos, you can help get a new dog on the right track, and refresh an existing dog’s training and obedience – just as long as you don’t also sacrifice time spent in person with a certified positive trainer.

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