For the determined do-it-yourselfer, side stepping the cost of hiring outside help can prove worthwhile. But anyone who’s tackled a project that requires expertise, whether it’s home renovation or dog training, will look back with either satisfaction or regret.

Michael James thought his family could train their own puppy. Armed with books on the subject, James saw no reason to budget for a professional. “Especially for the first-time dog owner, puppy classes are really important,” he now concedes. “Sure, we taught her to sit, stay and lay down, but not how to behave around people outside the family.” While no one was hurt, the family’s cockapoo would nip at the legs of strangers. “She got loose one day and ran and bit the neighbor mowing his lawn.” James says he was ill-equipped to change the behavior of a dog with so much anxiety. “She’s nine-years-old now and a lot calmer, but we still don’t trust her 100 percent.”

Sadly, dogs with unresolved aggression may face an uncertain future. “We have admitted dogs because their owners had unrealistic expectations,” says Jessica Nelson, senior operations manager at the Capital Area Humane Society. “People surrender animals for many reasons,” she adds. Nelson always recommends that families take their new dog to training class, even if it already knows commands. “Someone who has invested the time and resources will be more committed to their pet,” claims Nelson. The cost of dog training can range from $120 for group puppy classes to behavior modification packages that exceed $1,000. “Group classes are also a great way to bond with your new dog,” suggests Nelson.

Veteran dog owner Sharleen Aliff says her family has always trained their own dogs. Imitating the dynamics of the pack forms the basis for training, according to Aliff. “When they don’t see you as the alpha, that’s when you have problems,” she asserts. Aliff teaches dogs that “everything belongs to me.” During the training process Aliff has reenacted situations to show her dog the consequences of aggressive behavior. “If she growls when I approach her with a toy in her mouth, or when she’s eating, I’ll take away the toy or the bowl.” Aliff subscribes to the practice of making dogs earn what they receive. “In a pack, the lead dog will dominate an inferior dog that nips,” she explains. When she needs to correct a problem behavior, Aliff uses an empty paper towel roll to swat her dog on its behind. “I’ve found that dogs are calmer, happier pets when they know their place in the pack.”

Being consistent with obedience and behavior training is essential, says veterinarian Brigette Lightell. She further cautions owners not to let dogs age out of the prime time for training. “Puppies do most of their learning between 10 and 12 weeks,” says Lightell. What’s more, she recommends puppy classes over in-home training. “It’s a better environment for building socialization skills,” she advises. Group activities like “pass the puppy” teach dogs how to interact with people other than their owners, adds Lightell. She likens the experience to school readiness. “A child who has been to preschool usually transitions better socially to the kindergarten classroom. A puppy that learns to behave around different people becomes a better pet.”—Mary Cavanaugh Thompson

Mary Cavanaugh Thompson is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Dublin, Ohio with her twin teenagers, and husband, Mike. Their beloved dog, Sadie, chases away squirrels, and sometimes the utility guy!

Photo by Bobby Mikul