Back to Pet School: Training for Dogs and Cats

From the WebMD Archives

Fall is here, and kids aren't the only ones who need to go back to school. Education is also important for domestic animals. In fact, "behavior problems are the No. 1 reason people relinquish their pets," says Sandra Sawchuk, DVM, clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison. "A well-trained dog makes life easier for him and his owners."

You can find a training class for every need, whether you have a puppy that needs to learn the basics, a well-trained dog that loves learning new things, or a dog that requires remedial education to correct bad habits. With classes that range from group programs at pet stores to one-on-one sessions at home, how do you choose which one is right for your pooch? Sawchuk offers some guidance:

If your dog needs to: Learn the basics

Sign up for: Puppy preschool

These group lessons are designed for puppies under 6 months old. Dog parents, with the guidance of trainers, help their four-legged charges learn basic commands like "sit," "stay," "come," and "leave it." As Sawchuk explains, "These classes are structured opportunities for puppies to learn obedience, get mental stimulation, and provide an outlet for their energy."

Look for small classes (five dogs or fewer per trainer) where trainers use positive reinforcement such as treats and praise. Make sure all "students" are required to have their first series of vaccinations before coming to class.

If your dog needs to: Burn off energy

Sign up for: Agility classes

Dogs learn to navigate obstacle courses, weave through poles, run through tunnels, and jump over hurdles. All are done off-leash, so Sawchuk recommends agility training only for dogs that already know basic obedience commands. "It's a great activity for dogs with a lot of energy because it requires both mental and physical focus," she says. While border collies and Australian shepherds are known for their agility skills, even energetic small dogs can participate. "You see dogs of every size and shape doing agility," Sawchuk says.

If your dog needs to: Work on a specific skill


Sign up for: One-on-one training

For dogs that did well in obedience classes but still need help with breaking bad habits like pulling on a leash or jumping on people, one-on-one training is a good option. And unlike group classes that follow a training curriculum, these sessions are based on your dog's specific needs.

"It's also good for dogs that need some in-home training to get ready for group classes," Sawchuk says. "It can set the tone and get the dog on the right track." One-on-one training is also a good choice for dogs that tend to be aggressive or anxious and may not do well in a group setting.

If your dog needs to: Correct a behavioral issue

Sign up for: A session with a behaviorist

Sometimes it's not just a simple lack of manners that causes dogs to jump, bark, or act out. For dogs with issues like aggression, fear, or separation anxiety, calling in a veterinary behaviorist -- a board-certified vet with specialized knowledge in animal behavior -- to diagnose the issue can help.

"Some dogs need medical management as well as behavior management," Sawchuk says.

Veterinary behaviorists are trained to determine whether the problem is caused by a lack of training or another cause (like past abuse) and provide solutions to correct the problem.

You can find a training class for every need, whether you have a new puppy or a dog that needs to correct bad habits.

Cat College

You won't find a lot of group training sessions for cats, Sawchuk says. Not surprised?

"Cats don't do well in structured group environments," she says. "Dogs do well in training because they want to please their owners. Cats learn new behaviors for their own reasons, not because we want them to."

When it comes to training cats, homeschooling is the best option. Sawchuk suggests clicker training, a form of positive reinforcement that rewards cats for good behavior with a "click" from a miniature noisemaker, followed by a treat. Over time, cats learn which behaviors are reinforced and continue to model them.


Since cats are stubborn, using non-physical negative reinforcement often works well. For example, placing cans of compressed air outfitted with motion detectors in places cats aren't welcome, such as countertops and furniture, will startle misbehaving felines, teaching them to avoid those areas.

And remember, cats need mental and physical stimulation. "Providing cat trees, scratching posts, and toys will help keep cats occupied and out of trouble."

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by William Draper, DVM on June 23, 2016



Sandra Sawchuk DVM, clinical instructor, University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.

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