As several countries, including the United Kingdom, gradually relax their “lockdown” restrictions (albeit with distinct differences across our constituent nations…), it is worth reflecting that although many businesses have sadly had to suspend or severely curtail their physical operations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fair number [including us, here at The Dog House Rules www.thedoghouserules.co.uk ] have been able to continue in the “virtual” space.
Education and training is a key area of course, where there is already a vast range of material available online and providers focused on physical delivery have moved quickly to add to this. This includes “live” conferences in our own canine world for instance, offering wider access and additional features in the process.
Dog (and other animal…) training itself may not be an obvious candidate for “virtual” delivery, given the traditional view of how it has operated in-person, through classes or private sessions.
However, taking dog training online is not merely feasible, it actually has a number of benefits for the client, the dog and the trainer. Of course, there are various aspects to be considered, but we are likely to see an ongoing and sustained shift towards this mode of delivery.
“Virtually” the Same…
There are elements of dog training and behaviour services that clearly cannot be done online, such as training your dog for you through options like Day Training and/or “Walk & Train” (see note below) or that may be inappropriate for safety reasons, such as bite aggression directed towards the handler. Most of the time, however, we are in “coaching” mode, teaching the owner and potentially other family members how to train their dog and design their own training sessions, whether it is foundation behaviours, new “tricks” or even advanced skills. This is a great opportunity for those who are still furloughed, on reduced hours, looking after family or self-isolating and likely to be seeking new activities. Those newly working from home will have some extra time without their daily commute. Children can get actively involved and the dogs will love it too!
Although animals (it does not just apply to dogs…) do introduce a whole new set of variables, there is actually very little difference between the physical coaching process and the online version. When the trainer is not in the same space, the potential impact of this for the dog and the owner is removed. Another major advantage in the current context is that it is of course totally risk-free from the COVID-19 perspective. Despite those 5G stories, the virus cannot be transmitted electronically!
Having said that, along with the general considerations, there are a number of elements to be addressed for the client and the trainer:
[Note: It is possible within Government guidelines to do coaching in person outdoors and also training or walking your dog for you, with a proper risk assessment and all necessary precautions in place. We have COVID-19 Risk Awareness Certification. However, many people will understandably choose the absolutely safe “virtual” option.]
People may focus on the challenges or barriers in working online, such as the technology or thinking that the trainer actually needs to be there to observe the dog in action. However, similar considerations exist in other sectors and there are a number of distinct advantages. It drives best practice on the part of the trainer in various ways – the overall approach, profiling, observation and communication, as well as planning and logistics. A more normal, less stressful environment is maintained for the dog, avoiding “strangers” and other distractions (like someone else with treats!) and there are no additional safety concerns. The client may also be more comfortable without new people in the house. Of course, appropriate safeguards and precautions still need to be in place for an online presence. There is more flexible scheduling and the opportunity to help a much wider (potentially global…) population through a particular niche or specialism that may not be readily available to the client physically in the local area.
There is already a very high level of “engagement” with internet technology, in particular through smart phones with social media and communication applications. Another outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that with the severe restrictions on gatherings, people have turned to these online tools, including those who have never used them before. Services such as Facetime, Skype, Google Duo, WhatsApp and Zoom have seen a dramatic increase in usage as physical meetings become virtual ones. The business and professional world has been doing this for some considerable time of course, but even those who would normally shy away from such things are embracing video calling and sharing activities remotely with family and friends such as quizzes, games, singing, dancing and so on – the list is endless and limited only by imagination and creativity. So, the technology itself is much less of a barrier here and instruction in its use can be given directly and/or through widely available videos produced by the software organisations and by users themselves. If necessary, a regular phone call can be used initially to guide people. Quite often there will be youngsters around who are already experts!
We use Zoom (www.zoom.us ) for consultations and coaching, due to its reliability and simplicity for the client – it is free for them, they do not need an account and simply have to click on a link sent to their device. For the trainer, Zoom has additional features and flexibility as well as being scalable, to run classes and webinars for example. We add WhatsApp for follow-ups between sessions. With the recent Zoom upgrade, both are now fully encrypted and secure.
The other key elements are video and sound at both ends and the connectivity between client and trainer. For the client, a smart phone is usually fine and typically has a very high quality camera. It is often helpful to have more than one angle and a family will typically have other smart phones, a tablet or laptop that can be used for this. They simply log on to the session as another “participant” with the same link, just making sure that only one device is enabled for audio to avoid echo problems. It is also possible to connect a second camera to a laptop and switch between the two.
Zoom is very tolerant of internet connections and generally works well even at low speeds. A strong and consistent WiFi signal within the local environments is important though.
Everything can be recorded and a recap at the end can be “trimmed” and provided as an instant summary for the client.
The trainer may want to invest in a more professional set up for “live” and recorded demonstrations. Video is a very effective training mechanism and now an essential part of the “toolkit”. The sessions themselves would be recorded.
We employ only science-based principles with a positive approach and never condone any form of coercion or correction. Unfortunately, we do hear stories of trainers grabbing dogs from their owners and forcing them to do something or punishing them for not complying – an option that is removed online. If the owner themselves is asked to do this, there is no “pressure of presence” and they can simply and literally switch off!
Communication & Interaction
There may be a tendency to get “carried away” in an online session in particular and the welfare of the dog must always be paramount, along with the attention span of the owner!
Carefully structuring the sessions will help with this, incorporating frequent breaks and alternative activities for humans and animals alike.
The best approach is to break everything down into small steps, with clear and concise instructions. We use TAGteach (clicker training philosophy applied to humans: https://www.tagteach.com/). We explain the skill, why it is important, including extended practical uses in “real life” and then use the “WOOF” principle:
- What you want
- One thing at a time
- Observable or Measurable
- Five words or fewer
The initial session is likely to be an extended consultation, gathering information and exploration of options, including management. Coaching will probably then start without the dog, introducing the owner to the core principles and practice, demonstrated by the trainer using video, a toy dog, their own dog or even a “dog hand”, which they always have with them! In subsequent sessions, the first part would review progress, ideally supported with video taken by the owner. The actual training is kept very short, typically just a few minutes at a time, with reviews and adjustments in between. The owner can practice (with video) before the next online meeting. The second part can then be focused on a “show & tell”, followed by the next stage or something new, broken down into those small steps.
Again, the advantages are that the trainer cannot be tempted to “take over”, they have to explain and demonstrate everything very clearly and carefully and also there are no additional distractions for the dog!
Being fully prepared is of course another essential aspect for both trainer and client, whatever form the interactions take. When working online, it is even more important to ensure that the client has everything they need readily to hand and the trainer has planned out the session carefully and in detail, including actions to be taken under particular circumstances – people and dogs are not necessarily predictable!
Connections are also not 100% reliable, so there needs to be a clear plan for this situation.
Items required by the client will depend on the exact method being used (for instance a clicker), but will typically include a treat bag/pouch and tasty treats, already cut into small pieces. Also appropriate are food puzzles, kong, toys, chews etc to keep the dog occupied whilst they are not actually engaged in training and a mat or bed for them to rest on (or in a crate if this has been appropriately trained), plus of course a plentiful supply of fresh water. For the trainer, as well as the plan for the session, a timer is essential – in “silent” mode to avoid disturbing the dog, who may be wondering where the noise has come from! It may be helpful for the client to use wireless earphones so that they can still hear the trainer clearly and have full movement without encumbrance.
A quiet, well-lit environment is important and distractions would be introduced gradually, so any other pets and children would ideally be in another area, unless they are to be directly involved in the session. It is also important that the dog has an “escape route” and safe place whenever they need it.
Having an appropriate space is also vital, so that both dog and owner can be in full view. This is both to observe the actions of owner and dog, but also to check the body language of the dog. The camera angle will affect this and as mentioned above, it is possible to have another device as an additional “participant” and a second camera connected to a laptop for instance can be used. This will only be needed for the “live” training in the second part of the session.
Whilst some training can only be carried out in the physical space and that may be the owner’s choice and preference, online training is here to stay.
There are a number of advantages for the dog in terms of lower stress, familiarity and fewer distractions. It is safer and encourages best practice on the part of the trainer.
Potential unfamiliarity with the online environment can be readily addressed and it is well worth considering for any owner.
Ask your trainer about their approach and ideally, to go through a checklist with you. This will ensure you are comfortable that they are fully prepared and have covered all of the key requirements.
Please feel to free to contact us if we can help of if you have any questions.
Article supplied by: Stephen K Bell – The Dog House Rules