Dog training clubs confront serious challenges
Pet food superstores and private schools offer competition
By: Norma Bennett Woolf Date: 04/30/1998 Category: | Canine Issues |
Ten years ago, dog owners had few choices for training their pets. Classes were sometimes offered in adult education programs, at local animal shelters, or at independent businesses, but the bedrock of dog training was the obedience club - a small, medium, or large group of fanciers who enjoyed training their own dogs and gave of their expertise to the general public.
Today things are different. There are more independent training schools, many of them operated by members of obedience and kennel clubs who no longer have time to donate to club classes. There are also some newcomers on the scene - the pet food superstores that offer grooming, vet clinics, and obedience training. The dog clubs have been thrown into a competitive maelstrom that many are ill-equipped to deal with.
Evolution of Training
Dog training flows naturally from the development of different breeds of dogs for different purposes. Although born with the instinct, herding dogs need training in the finer points of gathering and driving sheep, bird dogs need training to mark and retrieve ducks and pheasants, and hounds need training to stay on the trail even when the scent seems to fade.
Many herding dogs, hunting dogs, terriers, and guardian dogs are still employed to do their original jobs, and many more are trained to hone their instincts at a variety of competitions that emulate their original careers or simply provide an opportunity to show off their skills.
In addition to their herding, guarding, scenting, retrieving, and other working skills, dogs are well-adapted to become family pets. And like those dogs still used to ply or play at their historic trades, pets need some training to develop the behaviors compatible with modern urban and suburban living. Dog clubs meet that need on several levels.
Dog club members are people who like working with and learning about dogs. They hang around with other dog people and build up a store of knowledge that they enjoy sharing with anyone who will listen. Many of them attend seminars to learn about training methods and canine behavior and participate in a variety of dog sports, thus providing a depth and breadth of experience useful to pet dog owners. If one member of a dog club doesn't know the answer to a problem, chances are, someone else will.
Dog clubs provide puppy and basic obedience classes specifically geared to the needs of pet owners and advanced classes for owners who "get hooked." Dog club classes are generally priced to cover overhead and materials; the instructors work for nothing because they support the club and like teaching classes.
The basic commands taught to pet dogs are also the foundation of obedience competition. Obedience competitors just take the training to additional levels, adding commands to retrieve, jump, drop-on-recall, and find an object. Many people who train their dogs for obedience trials also participate in other dog games such as tracking tests, field tests and trials, hunting tests and trials, terrier go-to-ground contests, lure-coursing events, and agility, a fast-growing sport loosely-based on horse jumping events. Any dog owner - city dweller, suburbanite, or small town resident, child or adult - can get involved. Dog clubs provide opportunities for newcomers to get started and for participants to learn together.
Dog clubs often get involved in community events and problems, providing obedience demonstrations, education booths, assistance at animal shelters, expertise about dog issues for local governments, and speakers for schools and youth groups. They may offer discounted or free classes for dogs from animal shelters, help with shelter or rescue fund-raisers, march in parades, and donate to 4-H clubs and other youth programs involving dogs. Although clubs do host seminars and a variety of training and competitive events that bring in money, they pay their overhead with the fees from public classes. The growth of pet supply outlets such as PetsMart and PetCo and the training services provided by these stores has drawn pet owners away from dog clubs for several reasons.
With hundreds of pet supply superstores in the country, chances are that one will be located fairly close to most urban and suburban areas. For example, PetsMart has five superstores ringing the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, and each one offers training classes. Superpetz, a rival chain, has several stores north of Cincinnati, and both chains have stores in the Dayton, Ohio, area. The same area is covered by three obedience clubs in Cincinnati, two clubs just north of Cincinnati, and two clubs in Dayton. In addition, while pet supply stores are located in convenient shopping areas, obedience clubs are often on the outskirts of populated areas or in low-rent districts.
Because their instructors are volunteers who tend families or work jobs during the day, most obedience clubs offer only evening and Saturday classes. Instructors at pet supply stores work during the day; between classes they can run the cash register, talk to customers, or restock shelves.
Pet supply stores treat training classes as another way to get customers to come in the store, so they undercut the prices of the clubs and training schools in the area by as much as one-third to one-half. They count on sales of crates, collars, leashes, toys, and food during the classes and on the owner's habit of shopping at the store after classes are over.
Small Training Businesses
Members of dog training clubs often enjoy teaching classes so much that they open their own training businesses. They face many of the same problems that clubs encounter, including high overhead and inconvenient location, and the additional drawback of not being able to provide additional opportunities for trainees. Not all training businesses grow out of club activities; there remains a core of businesses that adhere to old-style training methods now considered cruel.
Training at pet supply stores has a major drawback: lack of expertise in dealing with even the most common dog behavior problems. However, the general public does not understand that cost and location are not the most objective criteria to use when selecting a dog training class, so clubs begin to feel the pinch. At a time when top trainers are recommending a combination of behavior modification and motivational training methods, instructors at pet supply stores often rely on the old jerk-and-release techniques or misapplication of theories about dominance and submission. While dog club members attend seminars - usually at their own expense - to learn the latest methods, retail store instructors get their training in-house, often from video-tapes or from people with little or no hands-on experience with dogs.
Classes in retail outlets are generally limited to puppy and basic classes for young dogs and do not provide continuity for pet owners if problems arise as the puppy grows or opportunities for additional "remedial" classes if Fido forgets his manners. Clubs may charge more for initial classes, but they encourage people to return if problems arise and often offer a reduced rate for additional classes. And they offer free or low-cost classes for pet owners who become members.
Ironically, the ability of these stores to reach large audiences has raised the profile of dog training even while it has siphoned clients from the clubs and businesses that have the expertise to do the job right. In spite of the font of knowledge about dog training and behavior at local dog training clubs, in spite of the community services and educational efforts put forth by these clubs, they often find they cannot compete with the massive advertising campaigns, convenience, and low-cost classes offered by retail chains.
Dog clubs have to find a way to market their expertise. If you are a member of a club that has a special education or community program to help people make an informed choice of pet training sources, let us know. We'd like to highlight such programs in future issues of NAIA News.
About The Author
All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |