New trend in dog world might make you skip traditional classes, try tricks, urban herding instead

Stimulate your dog's mind, not just its body, expert advises

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group
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Many people are quick to put their puppies in some kind of class or training program -- you know the kind, where the dog learns commands like “sit,” “stay” and “down.”

One company likes the idea of engaging with your new pet early on, but it’s flipping the script when it comes to puppy classes.

“We believe in (fostering an) ongoing relationship with your dog through fun,” said Liz Claflin, the director of operations at Zoom Room, which has locations in four states, including two in Texas, in Austin and just outside Dallas.

Zoom Room offers classes and workshops that benefit the dogs and the owners alike. Although the concept and some of these classes have been around for years, the ideas are still slowly rolling out in the United States. Not every city has something like this, so maybe it's new, or maybe it's new to you. But we thought it was worth looking into.

Agility

When it comes to agility training, it’s safe to say, the average dog owner might not want to get involved. Even some dogs might not be up for it. But when you think of agility training, are you picturing some sort of competitive atmosphere? Because it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Doing it non-competitively is great, too,” Claflin said. “Tricks classes, for example, can be really fun in a group setting. People think that’s not training. But it’s absolutely training. And it’s a little more fun for the human and the dog. It’s less rigid (than a more traditional class). People have more fun this way.”

Urban herding

A relatively new activity that started in Europe is now “on the fringes” in the United States, and it’s called urban herding.

Think of herding, as in, a dog herding some sheep. Certain breeds especially are perfect for this -- it’s an instinct.

“(But) we don’t have sheep running around (a major city), so how do we give dogs an outlet for their herding tendencies?” Claflin said. “They herd yoga balls instead of sheep.”

It sounds pretty neat. At Zoom Room, an instructor will set up big, bouncy yoga balls much like how you’d line up pool balls, and then in class, there’s a command for the dogs to push the balls. The dogs will then corral them into a pen.

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“It’s a great indoor activity,” Claflin said. “There’s no livestock -- nothing for an animal to be nervous about. I’ve seen a chihuahua (do really well at this). Any dog can do urban herding.”

It’s a cool thing for dogs and their owners to take a workshop like this, and then bring those skills home.

Scent classes

The facilities even offer scent classes, starting with essential oils.

Claflin said even dogs that are eventually trained by authorities to become drug-sniffing dogs, or dogs that become diabetic-alert dogs, often start with essential oils. Competitive scent work exists too, but at some point, Claflin said, Zoom Room officials asked themselves, “Why can’t we teach anyone scent work?”

And now they do.

“On a rainy day, you could hide essential oils around your house and your dog could show you they could find it,” Claflin said. “It’s a great thing to do to stimulate your dog’s brain instead of just his body.”

Mind over body

So, what’s it all for? These classes sound dynamic for everyone involved, but as for the why -- why venture beyond “sit-stay-down” classes? What’s the benefit? Claflin has an answer.

In a lot of ways, it all boils down to understanding how a dog’s brain works and how dogs communicate.

They want to teach you the best methods to communicate effectively with your puppy and all about the benefits of early socialization.

They’re some of the only facilities, Claflin said, that put a big emphasis on early socialization.

Zoom Room even takes dogs who aren’t yet fully vaccinated, and provides a sanitized, safe, clean spot for people to work with their dogs.

Puppies are typically vaccinated around the 16-week mark. A risk of your dog contracting an infection diminishes with each series of shots, Claflin said.

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Before your dog is vaccinated, some dog parks won’t even let you in. And some dog owners don’t want to take their pets on walks. There are certain levels of fear in some parts of the country -- and for good reason. In parts of California, the Central Valley, for example, there’s a higher-than-usual number of people who don’t vaccinate, neuter or spay their dogs. The parvo virus is perhaps more of a concern there than other places. And it can live in the dirt.

When it comes to vaccines and how comfortable you are bringing your dog out during those early weeks, Claflin said it all comes down to what your vet recommends, and what region you call home.

But, she stressed, the socialization window ends at 16 to 20 weeks. Once that period is over, you’ve missed a critical window, or maybe the biggest opportunity, when it comes to working with your dog and potentially stopping any behavioral issues in their tracks.

These classes are way more important than just teaching your dog to sit, Claflin said.

You want to stimulate your dog’s brain.

Claflin joked that dogs are “overweight and unemployed in this country.”

Yet all of their brains are fairly similar. Yes, there are differences by breed, but it’s safe to say that most, if not all, dogs enjoy doing some kind of work.

“But brain stimulation is lacking in so many dogs. They get meals, nutrition, go on walks, but they’re not using their brains.”


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