Q. What exactly is the program, and how long have you been doing it?
A. In 2007, the Broad Ripple Animal Clinic opened Bark Tutor School for Dogs, a family-focused, dog-friendly training school designed to address the behavioral health needs of the clinic’s patients. The majority of canine students range between 10 weeks and 18 months old, but the training programs are designed for companion dogs of any age.
Q. How is this program different from others in terms of the overall structure?
A. The program is different from other training programs, at least in Indianapolis, because of the unique day school. The day school assists clients who are trying to balance demanding schedules and family commitments with achieving their goal of having a well-mannered family companion. The curriculum is designed to teach students a basic vocabulary of cues, practical life skills and good manners.
Students are enrolled in a training program that can run from one to four weeks consecutively. They arrive at school each morning to take part in a structured day consisting of individual training lessons with their instructor, supervised playtime with other students of a similar age and personality, regular bathroom breaks and rest periods. They return home each afternoon.
Owners attend individual 20-minute transition lessons three times per week with their instructor. The program has a 6:1 student-to-instructor ratio allowing for individualized attention with a priority on training for all students at the school.
The transition lessons are scheduled during the afternoon pick-up times. The days between transition lessons allow the instructors time to train the necessary skills before working directly with clients. More important, this time gives the owners an opportunity to learn how to use the training their dog is receiving at school. The instructors demonstrate the learned behaviors, have the owners practice with their dogs, discuss common behavior problems and answer questions about raising a dog. The owners are sent home with homework designed to incorporate training into life; e.g., have the dog wait at doorways before going outside.
The school is located in an urban area with many real-world training opportunities. Students are regularly outside of the school practicing loose-leash walking in a neighborhood and visiting the pet supply store to practice controlled greetings with new people. These daily experiences provide the necessary socialization and training to prevent behavior problems and generalize learned behaviors.
Q. How does day training compare to board-and-train or weekly group classes?
A. Owners need to learn how to properly manage and train their dogs and provide them with direction. Traditional board-and-train programs can be cost prohibitive, and many owners lack the desire to send their dog off for training. Group classes often have a high student-to-instructor ratio, and the week between classes allows for training fallout. The progressive day school curriculum breaks training plans into small chunks and provides owners with regular support from their instructor throughout the week.
The continuity of everyday training vs. one time per week creates a stronger, more reliable skill set. I see a big difference in the reliability of the student who attended the day school compared with those who are enrolled in the group dog training classes. Even students who take a break from day school and re-enroll in group dog training classes a couple of months later display a more reliable response.
Q. You accept both adult dogs and puppies. Why might day training be especially handy for puppies?
A. Puppies are great, but they are a lot of work. The school facilitates house training, provides necessary socialization outside of the home and trains core behaviors for the companion dog. Those puppies attending day school come home tired and well educated. They are less mouthy. They are more confident. They are more reliable with their basic obedience cues. They are comfortable being handled by new people. They are able to share high-value toys. They learn to look for direction and offer polite behavior.
Q. What is different about your program’s curriculum compared with a standard board-and-train or dog class?
A. Like many programs, the day school is progressive. Each day the student will learn new skills or expand on previously learned behaviors. See above for a more detailed description. However, what’s different from many programs is that in addition to basic obedience cues, we recognize that dogs need to learn frustration tolerance and impulse control. We address this through the daily schedule of training, playing, resting, tethering during downtime, purposeful handling, and teaching all dogs to give eye contact and wait at thresholds before proceeding. In addition, each dog is taught to walk polity on leash, settle quietly on a tether during rest periods, and eliminate outdoors. The entire culture of the school is designed around creating a habit of well-behaved dogs who demonstrate good manners.
During training time, students are taken off their tethers and worked with individually. Depending on their goals, they may be taken outdoors, to the pet supply store next door or be trained in the training area alongside other students who remain on tether.
Some may worry this would create frustration for the dogs who remain tethered. In truth, when done properly, it builds frustration tolerance. Students learn to remain calm in the presence of other dogs as they walk by, work on down-stays or are taken out to eliminate. The instructors are reinforcing—both verbally and with random food rewards— students who remain calm and relaxed. If a dog starts to bark, he is redirected into an alternative behavior such as a down.
Q. Can you explain how you start teaching impulse control?
A. We put behavior on cue, but first we work on teaching environmental cues. We click, treat and release the dog for giving eye contact when the door opens. We click and treat dogs that settle on their tethers or in their crates. We wait until the dogs sit, or stand patiently, then click, treat and release them from their tethers. We build all of this into our day, and the students learn to settle, offer behavior and look for direction because this is the expectation. As the program progresses, we fade the clicker and move to verbal praise. We do not expect clients to go home and use the clicker. It is only used by the instructors to teach or refine a skill.
We do teach the dogs early on what a body block means: Back up and look at me when I step in front of you. This can then be applied in necessary situations. It is my opinion that our approach to training creates a dog that is composed, offers behavior and looks for direction—not to avoid punishment, but because we expect him to look to us before proceeding. I want the students to think about their actions prior to proceeding. I don’t want to have to tell them to go to bed and stay in order for them to settle; neither do my clients.
Q. Do you have a set curriculum, or can you vary the training based on the dog?
A. There is a standard curriculum, but training programs can be customized based on the client’s training goals and the dog’s personality. If we have a student who comes in knowing a portion of the skills normally taught in the program, we will adjust the criteria and/or add skills, based on the owner’s needs, to ensure the student is advancing. We have had great success with crate training a student at the school and then transitioning the skill back into the owner’s home. If an owner needs her dog to jump in the back of a vehicle or walk alongside a stroller, we can begin the process during the day and show the owner how to carry on at home during her transition lessons. The instructors are laying the foundation in a manner the dog understands, so when the owner steps in there is a context for the behavior.
A. In addition to the day school, the training school offers group dog training classes and a day care service. Group dog training classes are on a four-week rotation, making the time commitment realistic for many dog owners. The class size is limited to six to eight students to ensure individualized attention. The day care is available exclusively to the alumni of the training school. This way we have an established relationship with the dog and the owner. All students are on the same schedule of play, train and rest. Even though the day care students are not receiving individual formal training, they are expected to wait at doorways, go outside to eliminate, walk politely throughout the school, sit politely before gaining attention, etc.
We have 30 students per day. The mix is typically 12 to 15 training students and 15 day care dogs. There are four staff members—two primary instructors and two assistants. That means trainers spend 12 to15 hours during the week working directly with the clients in their 20-minute sessions. That’s six to eight hours per trainer or three to four hours if assistants are included in this.
Q. In many day care and group play situations puppies and dogs actually practice bad behavior. They become overly aroused and learn to ignore signals from other dogs to stop, and what they are learning affects their behavior outside of the day care, too. How do you ensure that the dogs are learning appropriate habits while still having fun?
A. The playgroups have an average of 12 dogs with two instructors. This minimizes opportunities for bullying among the dogs while giving the instructors the opportunity to maintain control of the playgroup.
Students are divided by size and, most importantly, personality. We host mixed playgroups where small gregarious dogs are interacting with larger dogs because we believe this is what is best for them based on their behavior and personality. All playgroups are directly supervised, and our low student-to-instructor ratio minimizes the degree of risk often associated with large-group play.
Our goal is that the students never have a bad day. We believe that dogs who have appropriate behavior are the best role models for younger dogs. I don’t want a sensitive shepherd mix interacting with the large adolescent dogs if she is going to be picked on or be defensive. The same is true for the puppy that is too gregarious for the small breed/puppy area.
We don’t expect dogs to simply deal with the environment. If they are overwhelmed we will remove them and allow them quiet time in a crate, then bring them back in once the playgroup has settled. If one student is harassing another, we use body blocks and known commands to redirect them. Our approach allows us to have dogs who play for short periods of time and settle next to each other while chewing on bones, and the whole experience is not overwhelming for students or instructors.
Is your hospital ready for a similar program?
This program is actually an ancillary service of the veterinary hospital. The entire staff, from client service associates to veterinarians, are trained on the programs and services offered at the training school.
“Behavior wellness becomes part of the culture of the practice, with conversation about training classes becoming part of each exam with a puppy or newly adopted dog,” says Phifer. “When behavior problems are identified during exams, the veterinarians no longer refer to a local trainer they may not have first-hand experience with. They refer to their team members—the instructors at the clinic’s training school.”
As you can see, this type of program is a huge win for any veterinary hospital that can implement it correctly. Now the veterinarians will know that the quality of care their patients receive will be in line with the philosophy of the practice. The relationship with the clinic instills trust in the training school, and the experience dogs get in training school results in better-behaved patients!