When people set out to train a pet dog, most people look for group classes. The same is often true for people seeking to train a service dog. However, there are some important differences between group classes and private, in-home classes, and these differences vary depending on your training goals for your dog, your and your dog’s lifestyle and personality, and your dog’s age and experiences.
Note: There are even more important distinctions between good classes and private trainers and between problematic classes or trainers that can set you back in the long run. Please see my posts on these topics.
Assuming you are comparing with competent, ethical, well-run, positive-reinforcement trainers and group classes, here are the pros and cons of each for pet dog training and service dog training. I’ll include some additional notes and discussion about each situation below that.
- Useful for puppies (ages 8-16 weeks) to learn to be happy and focused on their owner around new sights, sounds, smells (socialization)
- Useful for dogs to learn to apply existing skills around new sights, sounds, smells (generalizing known cues/behaviors)
- Lower-cost option
- Often a fun, social way for dog lovers to spend time with their dog and other dog lovers
- Get away from home!
Group classes are particularly recommended for…
- Future service dogs who already have solid foundation skills but need to practice in new environments
- Any puppy under 16 weeks of age
- Hypersocial dogs who already have solid foundation skills but need to learn to work around other people/dogs
- Future competition/sport dogs (agility, obedience, rally, etc.)
- Experienced dog owners who really like group classes
- Reactive, aggressive, or fearful dogs with adventurous/ambitious owners ONLY IF they have already gone through extensive, effective private training and want to “proof” those behaviors in a group setting with a trainer who is familiar with the issues and thinks it’s an advisable next step.
Group Class Drawbacks
- Often experienced as chaotic, noisy, or overwhelming by canine and human students
- Harder environment to learn new skills (for both dogs and humans)
- Cannot adequately address many in-home behavior problems (e.g., jumping on the children, mouthing the owner, pottying accidents, running the fence to bark at the neighbor dog, etc.)
- Follows a set curriculum, whether or not each skill feels useful to each owner
- Specific number of weeks and set schedule, whether or not each owner can make every class
- Less individual attention
- Have to travel away from home
- Generally not appropriate for dogs who are fearful, reactive, or aggressive around strange people or dogs, unless the dog and owner have already gone through effective private training for these issues and have solid foundation and coping skills.
PRIVATE IN-HOME TRAINING
- Material is individually tailored to meet the needs of the dog and owner
- Individual, one-on-one focused attention of trainer catches gaps/weaknesses in training that may be missed in a group class
- Schedule for the number of sessions most likely to be needed
- Flexible scheduling and location (can do lessons walking in neighborhood or going to local store or wherever most needed)
- Easy for dog and owner to learn in familiar environment
- Easy to control distractions and challenges to make training easier or harder as dog progresses
- When behavior problems occur primarily in the home, it is often easiest to solve them with training in the home
- Can incorporate management solutions (using the home environment to address specific problems) most easily — especially important for reactivity, aggression, fearfulness, countersurfing, and other in-home situations
- Often offers greater accessibility or easier accommodation for people with disabilities
- Essential for service dogs, as can address esoteric or specific training needs, such as retrieving or other service/assistance skills and usually achievers higher level of training
- Best option for dogs who are reactive, aggressive, or fearful in other environments or around strange dogs or people
Private, in-home training is particularly recommended for…
- Dogs whose bad behavior is primarily triggered by situations in the home
- Busy people who want their dogs to know some basic skills and are not highly motivated or self-directed to do a lot of training
- Dogs over six months old who do not yet have solid basic obedience and manners training
- Dogs who are reactive, fearful, aggressive, or have other significant behavior problems, especially around strange dogs, people, or environments
- Foundation training for future service dogs or other future working dogs
- Task training and public access training for service-dogs-in-training
- People who want to do group classes in the future, but whose dogs are not yet ready for group classes. (Dogs who need skill-building.)
- More expensive
- No social aspect
- Smaller focus — don’t get to compare dog’s problems or progress with other dogs in class or other people’s questions, etc.
- Cannot do sports or competition training without a group class facility
CONCLUSION: Best of Both Worlds?
There are many situations for which both group classes and in-home private training are the best option. Here are some examples of the best combinations of the two:
- Raising a puppy: Before or right after your puppy arrives, do a private, in-home puppy training consultation to get answers to all the puppy-raising challenges and issues (house breaking, chew toy training, handling, etc.). As soon as possible, enroll the puppy in a good four-to-six week puppy kindergarten class for increased socialization. Depending on your goals for the puppy and your lifestyle, choose what to continue with. For busy people who want a well-trained dog but haven’t been bitten by the “training bug,” usually a series of intensive day-training packages at key developmental periods works best (new puppy, 6-8 months, and 12-15 months). Learn more about Puppy Day School. For those who love group classes and get a lot out of them, continue with group classes!
- Training a service dog: Training a service dog is a serious, long-term, intensive time commitment. If starting with a puppy, follow the two recommendations above (in-home combined SD consult/puppy consult and then puppy class), then continue with private in-home training for one to two years, focusing on manners, obedience, socialization, public access, and finally service skills.
- Training a therapy dog or a pet dog: If starting with a puppy, follow the recommendations for a new puppy (above). If starting with an adopted adult or adolescent, begin with an in-home consult to get the dog quickly settled into your new home and following the house rules and do a basic training package at home to support bonding and good training all-around. When the dog has a solid foundation in manners and obedience, do a group Canine Good Citizen or other class to help your dog learn to generalize these skills to more challenging environments.
- Training and behavior modification for a reactive, hyper, or aggressive dog: Start training at home with a private trainer who specializes in the issues your dog is dealing with. After you have achieved a solid foundation with those skills, get your dog to the next level by doing specialty group classes (e.g., “Reactive Rover” or “Social Struggler” classes).
How about you? What do you love best about group classes or about private in-home training?