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Pandemic Pet Driving You Crazy? Try Virtual Obedience Training

Apps and video chats allow easy access to trainers and behavioral coaching for dogs and cats

spinner image Sara Ventiera and her pet dog
Courtesy of Sara Ventiera

Tips for Virtual Pet Training

Do some research: Find a trainer who uses an approach you like. With virtual training, geography is not an issue.

Create training space: Designate 8 to 10 feet of space in a quiet area where your pet won't be distracted.

Position your technology: Place your phone or laptop slightly above eye level and angled down.

Be prepared: Have plenty of treats on hand and ask your trainer what type of equipment (leash, toys, etc.) you should have ready.

Get into the real world: Virtual training won't socialize your dog. Consider socially distant walks or puppy play dates.

After months of anticipation, Ellen Cohen picked up her fluffy white Cavachon puppy Maisie in March, just four days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The in-person puppy training classes Cohen, 69, had planned for Maisie were no longer an option due to social distancing restrictions. But Cohen, of Danbury, Connecticut, needed help. When she tried to get Maisie to lie down or stay, Maisie would look at her “like I was out of my mind,” says Cohen.

Instead, Cohen turned to virtual dog training. Using an app on her phone, Cohen has been working one-on-one with a trainer through live video sessions.

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Those virtual sessions taught Maisie how to listen to commands, stop barking and be alone without her human — something many new pets may struggle with after so much togetherness. The sessions trained Cohen as a pet owner, too, teaching her to read subtle cues in Maisie's behavior indicating whether the dog was experiencing fear or boredom, or needed a potty break.

More flexibility offered

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a record number of Americans have brought new pets into their homes. From 100-person puppy wait-lists with breeders to a shortage in shelters, the 2020 surge in demand for dogs and cats has been unprecedented.

A lot of those pets — and their owners — need training. With social distancing measures still in place throughout much of the country, many cat and dog owners are using virtual training to get their new family members up to speed.

"You want to give your new pet love and affection, but you need to set them up to succeed for the long term,” says Larissa Wohl, pet rescue expert for the Hallmark Channel. “You need to create boundaries.”

Virtual training works much like individual in-person training sessions with one-on-one direction and weekly homework assignments — but with far greater flexibility. Scheduling is often easier, and some local trainers even offer hybrid packages that include in-person classes. And with virtual sessions, it is now possible to work with any trainer, anywhere. That is especially helpful for anyone seeking a much harder-to-find cat specialist.

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Kristina Trank Donovan of No Problem! Dog Training in Los Angeles has been training many dogs on the East Coast since she moved online. “I'm getting clients from across the country, which is nice,” she says.

Pricing can be drastically different from city to city, but the lack of a geographic tether makes it easier for pet owners to seek out trainers with different approaches — including the force-free method, which relies on positive-reinforcement techniques associated with improved obedience and better behavior.

"Positive reinforcement really promotes learning and thinking in dogs’ brains,” says Kait Hembree, the head of training for app GoodPup. “The dog is driven to perform behavior that way."

How virtual pet training works

To get the most out of the session, dog and cat owners should limit distractions by setting themselves up in a quiet spot in front of a device before the scheduled appointment time — armed with an arsenal of high-value treats. Susan Claire of Play Train Positive Dog Training in South Florida advises clients to place their phone or laptop slightly above eye level angled down with 8 to 10 feet of space cleared out for the training area. She wants to clearly see the handler and the dog stand and walk around.

Since trainers cannot take the leash to illustrate techniques virtually, many use their own dogs to demonstrate. “I have found, to my surprise, it's almost better to be more hands-off because the people take more initiative to execute,” says Claire. “The hardest part is setting it up and getting the camera at the right angle so I can see them."

Where the virtual experience differs most is the socialization, an integral part of dog training. Many trainers are encouraging virtual clients to expose pets to new experiences by taking socially distant dog walks with friends, planning puppy play dates with long leads or bringing pets to busy places.

"You can take them to Lowe's or Home Depot, where there's a lot of weird noises and sounds,” says Claire. “That's also part of socialization."

Use features like chats and written notes

Cohen decided to use GoodPup, a virtual dog training app that offers built-in features like written notes from a trainer, a homework tracker and 24/7 chat. Through an app on her phone (GoodPup is currently available on phone or tablet only on iOS and Android devices), Cohen meets her trainer Jess for their scheduled weekly appointment via live video chat.

When Maisie started to loudly bark at passersby from the terrace of Cohen's townhouse, Cohen quickly addressed the issue with Jess. When she would continuously bark at a strange dog or person from the patio, “she was taken right in the house and her time in the sun was over,” says Cohen.

But Maisie didn't quite get the message. In her mind, warning her owner of stranger danger is her job. So, Jess urged Cohen to essentially thank Maisie for her service with a happy demeanor, warm tone of voice and a high-value treat — cheese, in this case.

That would divert her attention long enough to issue a “sit” command; then, over time, a “settle,” which Maisie has come to understand means quiet down. “Maybe she barks two or three times instead of eight to 20,” says Cohen. “Without training, I have no idea what it would've been like."

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