A group of students from Unitec’s Canine Behaviour and Training programme have shown it is possible to teach dogs – and their handlers – new tricks.
The New Zealand Certificate in Animal Management (Canine Behaviour and Training) is a one-year full time course and normally the students would bring their dogs to Unitec’s Mt Albert campus twice a week for practical training. But with the country in lockdown, the dogs and their students have had to move their learning online.
“One of the major challenges has been transferring this practical component to online learning,” says Unitec programme co-ordinator and dog trainer Jo Thorne. “We’re used to giving our students a wide, open outdoor space to do their practical training with the dogs. Trying to replicate that in the confines of your living room seemed like an impossible task.”
However, Jo says the students and their dogs have taken to online learning like, well, ducks to water. They have a YouTube channel of their training videos so they can share their experiences with each other, and Jo and fellow lecturer Sacha Berger can see how they’re getting on.
“We started the YouTube channel as a way for us to give the students feedback on their training,” says Jo. “We are checking in with them four times a week in Zoom meetings to plan and discuss their training. It's been working really well and the students have been amazing at adapting to online learning.”
“The students have had to be very creative with the equipment they have at home for things like agility training. In addition, some students that were borrowing dogs for the on-campus course have had to start training from scratch at home with different dogs so that has provided an extra challenge.”
A selection of clips from the YouTube channel includes:
The creativity the students are using for agility training - the dog is Putu:
More agility training here with Freya:
Here, Charlie is practising his 'mat' behaviour and having some fun finding dinner:
Here, Poppy learns to reverse (not an easy thing to teach!):
Milly learning to hand target:
Bodhi practising his mat behaviour:
Laura Harvey, Academic Programme Manager in Applied Animal Health at Unitec’s School of Environmental and Animal Sciences, said both the teachers and students are doing amazingly well, considering their unique challenges. “Jo and Sacha are both inspirational, engaging teachers and the students and their dogs have responded really well.”
Student Lauren Meyers, who has Freya, an 18-month-old border collie, said, “Our lecturers have been very helpful and understanding – not everyone has a big open space at home to train their dogs. Online learning somehow feels more concentrated. We get sent criteria on our Moodle page of what we should be doing and later on that day, we get another Zoom call to see how we’ve got on with the exercise. It’s very thorough but I know that both Freya and I are looking forward to getting back on campus so we can socialise with the other dogs.”
Fellow student Martine, who has returned to study this year for the first time in 30 years, says the theory part of the Certificate has been easy to pick up online, but she misses being on campus. She’s lucky to have space at home to train her two-year-old Bull Mastiff Cross, Poppy, but she says Poppy is missing the company of the other dogs and, like everyone, is looking forward to seeing old friends again.
And Sarah, who trains her two-year-old German Shepherd, Charlie, said, “The practical training has been a breath of fresh air. Being active with the dogs has been great for mental health.”