Dogs have varying energy levels that are often related to their breed, age, personality, and individual temperament. Some dogs, like working breeds or young puppies, tend to have very high energy levels and struggle to stay calm in stimulating environments like a training class. Other dogs, like older dogs or lower energy breeds, may be naturally calmer. Before bringing your dog to a group class, evaluate their regular energy level at home so you know what to expect. Also note situations that tend to excite your dog or make them anxious, as those triggers may come up in class.
Starting Training Early
The best way to have a calm dog in class is to start training and socialization as early as possible. Expose puppies to new sights, sounds, people, and other dogs in a positive, structured way during their critical socialization period up until about 16 weeks old. Use lots of treats and praise to teach them that novel experiences are fun rather than scary. A dog that has been thoroughly socialized will feel more comfortable in a busy training environment.
Provide Exercise Beforehand
Make sure your dog has had adequate exercise before a training class to take the edge off their energy. A brisk 30-60 minute walk, play session, or training session at home can help your dog feel more settled when they arrive to class. Tiring them out a bit will make it easier for them to focus on you and the tasks at hand. Just don't overdo it to the point of exhaustion. You still want them alert enough to learn.
Practice Attention Exercises
One of the keys to having a calm dog in class is being able to keep their focus on you. At home, work on attention exercises like eye contact training, name response drills, and heel work. Use high value treats to reward your dog frequently for looking at you and responding promptly to their name or "watch me" cue. The more you reinforce attention at home, the easier it will be for your dog to stay focused on you amid distractions.
Teach Settling Behaviors
Train specific settling behaviors like go to mat, down/stay, or relaxed leash walking. Having a dog that knows how to calmly lie down on a mat or hold a stay takes the pressure off having to interact constantly. Use treats or praise to reinforce calm behavior on cue. Teach your dog that being calm and quiet in the presence of stimulation earns rewards.
Use Appropriate Training Tools
Have the right training tools on hand to minimize pulling and overexcitement. A front attaching harness can reduce lunging towards other dogs. A longer training lead provides more freedom while maintaining control. Bring high value treats in a treat pouch to keep your dog motivated to pay attention to you. The right tools make it easier to manage an excited dog.
Allow Time to Decompress
When you first get to class, give your dog adequate time to take in all the new sights, sounds and smells before asking them to focus and perform tasks. A brief acclimation period can help some dogs settle and relieve pent up energy through sniffing or pacing on a loose leash. Then they may be less distracted once the class begins.
Give Your Dog Breaks
During down times in class or between exercises, make sure your dog has mental breaks from the stimulation. Have them do a relaxed down stay while you stroke their chest or give them a chew toy. This prevents sensory overload and gives them time to recharge. Alternating focused activities with calmer breaks will lead to success.
Never punish anxious or excited behavior in the moment. Yelling, jerking, intimidating, or otherwise scolding a dog for having trouble paying attention will only increase their stress and make the behavior worse. Stay positive and patient, and know when to take a break. Harsh corrections will undermine your training.
Watch for Signs of Stress
Carefully observe your dog's body language so you can intervene at the first signs of stress. Yawning, lip licking, pinned ears, averting gaze, and tense muscles often precede reactive behavior. If you see these signs, create more distance, get your dog's attention, or do relaxing exercises. Catching rising anxiety early prevents escalation.
Use Distance Strategically
Don't be afraid to increase distance from areas of concern in class, like other dogs. If your dog is calm and focused from 10 feet away but reactive when closer, work from the 10 foot distance. Slowly decrease distance over time as their skills strengthen. Pushing a dog into stressful proximity will induce poor behavior. Work within their comfort zone.
Be Your Dog's Advocate
Don't be afraid to speak up during class if your dog is feeling overwhelmed by proximity to other dogs, the difficulty of exercises, or the environment. Politely ask the trainer to adjust spacings, slow the pace, or reduce distractions if needed to set your dog up for success. You know your dog best.
Keep Sessions Short
When first starting group classes, keep sessions short, especially for young or excitable dogs. It's better to leave early on a positive note than push a dog past their limits. You can gradually build up class duration over time as their self-control improves. Don't overwhelm your dog by immersing them for a full hour right away. Slow and steady progress works best.
Make It Fun!
While training classes should focus on strengthening skills, don't forget to make it an enjoyable experience for your dog too! Use happy praise, play reward breaks, and jackpot treats for especially good behavior. Your enthusiasm and positivity will help keep your dog's energy calm and motivated. A predominantly force-free, rewards-based approach leads to the most success in group settings.
Remember that perfectly calm behavior amid distractions will take time and consistency to achieve. Don't expect your dog to go from zero to a perfect down stay instantly just because you're in a class. Use small steps and realistic goals tailored to your individual dog. Progress at their pace. With patience and practice over many sessions, their behavior will gradually improve.
Try Private Lessons
For extremely excitable or reactive dogs, group class may be too much too soon. There is no shame in starting with private lessons to lay a training foundation with fewer distractions. Once your dog's skills have strengthened, you can then transition to a small, carefully managed group setting. Work up to busier environments gradually at your dog's comfort level.
The key to a calm dog in training class is laying a solid behavioral foundation, managing the environment, recognizing stress signals, utilizing appropriate training tools, employing rewards-based techniques, and working patiently within your dog's abilities. With time, practice, and positive experiences, even excitable dogs can learn to settle in and focus.