Hard to believe another Labor Day weekend has come and gone. Is it just me, or does each summer go by faster than the one before? No matter. Whenever September rolls around it feels like time to go back to school. But if taking a class at the local college isn’t your cup of tea, maybe your canine best buddy would like to learn a few new tricks.

Whether your dog is an eager pup or a wise elder, there are all sorts of classes that range from practical-and-necessary to just-for-fun. Every dog will benefit from a socialization class at some point in his life. For the Emily Post in the family who already has impeccable manners in any social setting, a freestyle or agility class might help her express herself in a whole new way. Most of all, having a place to go together every week and tasks to learn on your days off creates a whole new way for the two of you to enjoy your time together. Your veterinarian, your local park district, adult education facility, or junior college—and of course the web—are all good resources for learning opportunities close to home. The only question is—what would you like to learn?

For a very young dog, a “puppy class” will provide an opportunity to develop socialization skills in a supportive environment. Your puppy can meet and play with other puppies that are healthy, with guardians who are committed to their development.

Your little one will:

  • Learn valuable canine social skills
  • Learn appropriate use of his mouth, and reduce the chances he’ll develop biting problems later
  • Burn up excess puppy energy
  • Make new friends
  • Benefit from having you clarify what normal puppy behavior is
  • Become relaxed with a variety of elements in his environment
  • Have less chance of developing aggression or other behavioral problems in the future

If you’ve recently adopted an older dog, you might find that good socialization is one of many things missing from her early experience. In some cases the trauma of being left at a pound or shelter can create fearfulness or loss of confidence in an otherwise well-mannered dog. Many puppy classes allow space for older dogs who need to work on those basic skills, and a call to the instructor may be all it takes to gain access. Be mindful of your new friend’s needs and frame of mind, and avoid pushing her into a challenging situation before she’s ready. But a chance to hang out on a regular basis with other dogs and their watchful humans, within the safety net of your tender loving care, can help her regain her confidence along with her happy outlook. In any case it’s essential that you find a kind and understanding instructor for this or any type of class you enroll in. (See below for tips on what to look for.)

A welcome counterpart to socialization class might be a “sit-stay” class. While “obedience” is one of those terms I’d like to eliminate from our relationship with animals—it carries a huge implication of dominance and submission, and some interpretations of those words have no place in a loving relationship of any kind—when a dog is educated with love, respect, and a ton of praise and enthusiasm, learning to respond willingly and reliably to basic cues like “come” and “stay” can save his life. It also helps make him a welcome visitor in a variety of venues—your friends’ homes, the dog park, your next vacation—and opens doors for him to participate in your life as much as possible.

If your friend’s socialization skills are solid and her good manners are in place, perhaps it’s time to look for a class you can take “just for fun.” An agility class will challenge her mind, exercise her body—and yours!—and provide a chance for both of you to burn off some extra energy. Your dog will learn to jump through hoops, weave through a series of poles, climb up and down ramps—all as fast as the two of you can run. It’s wild-and-crazy-fun for the high-energy types, and just-plain-fun even if neither of you is in much of a hurry.

Canine freestyle is growing rapidly in popularity, and truly offers something for every dog. In a freestyle class you and your sweetie will learn to dance together. Really. You’ll learn simple steps—forward, backward, circles, even sideways—that you’ll string together and eventually put to the music of your choice. In truth, it can be as therapeutic as it is fun; it’s adaptable to every level of athleticism, and can even inspire aging animals to keep moving. Your youngster will learn to focus while he burns up energy dancing to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” You and your saucy four-year-old will strut your stuff as you two-step to “You Are the Love of My Life.” And your elder gentleman can stretch his creaky bones and stay nimble with a dignified “Viennese Waltz.”

If you and your dog have a higher calling, and feel drawn to be of real service—or simply want to take basic training to a more advanced level—search and rescue classes may be for you. Your friend will learn to follow a scent to find lost people, animals, or items, or to notify you when she finds a target scent.

So. School bells are ringing, you’ve got the urge to sign up, you’ve googled your way to a class that sounds like fun—is there anything else you need to know? How can you be sure the class you choose is right for you and your dog? The single most important factor is the instructor. Skills and experience are not enough. The only instructor who deserves your time and your dog’s attention is one who puts compassion and respect first, and who is committed to your dog’s well-being above all else.

Before you sign up, consider these guidelines:

  • Choose an instructor who believes in positive reinforcement to prevent or minimize inappropriate behavior, and never the aversive control or negative reinforcement techniques that are not only less humane but also less effective. For instance, a good teacher won’t object to using food as a positive training tool.
  • Avoid those who insist on using choke chains. Head collars such as Gentle Leader or Halties are humane alternatives if used gently, without jerking or twisting your dog’s neck, and always with a second leash attached to a flat collar or harness.
  • Observe one or two classes before participating with your dog. Are the dogs and their people happy? Interview participants. Choose an instructor who treats everyone, dogs and people alike, with respect.
  • Expect your teacher to offer you an understanding of dog behavior, and tell you the “whys” and the “what fors” when you and your dog are learning something new.
  • Avoid instructors who don’t tell you first exactly what they plan to do. You won’t enjoy being surprised, and neither will your dog.
  • Watch your dog’s response to the instructor and to lesson activities. Observe his facial expressions, his body language, his willingness—or lack thereof—to be in close proximity to the teacher. Trust the messages he gives you. If he appears frightened or confused, he is not having a positive experience. Be sure your instructor is willing to address those issues with compassion, and to provide your dog with the understanding and encouragement he needs.
  • Most of all, don’t ever be afraid to trust your own intuition and stop an instructor if she is doing something with your dog that you don’t like.

Now you’re ready. Fall is in the air, and there is much to learn and great fun to be had. It’s time to gather up your canine friend and hit the books—or better yet, put on a little music and get ready to dance.