It’s time to take some time off

dog vacation

This article was originally published in the dog*tec blog. 

Depending on where you live, summers and holidays likely see RVs rolling down the highway, station wagons and SUVs loaded down with bicycles and camping gear, school-age children screaming through local parks in the middle of the weekdays, or tourists sauntering about with cameras and pointing index fingers. What about you? Did you get a break this year?

Everywhere we travel giving business talks for dog pros, we hear the same refrain: “I haven’t had a vacation in years.” “I couldn’t possibly take time off.” People have even tried to tell us that it’s impossible for a dog trainer/sitter/walker/daycare or boarding operator to take a vacation. We disagree. Not only is it quite possible, it’s imperative.

There are countless advantages to working for yourself as a dog pro—no supervisor micromanaging your work, no co-workers who make your eyes roll, no busy work or illogical requests coming across your desk. Oh, and you get to work with dogs. But then there’s the downside: No structure, no one to hand you a regular paycheck, all the responsibility for just about everything, so many people relying on you. Oh, and no paid vacation time.

It’s easy to feel that you can’t get away. Who would take care of the dogs whose owners are away on vacation? What would your clients do without daycare or walking for a week? Who would answer the phone and return emails? And how could you possibly afford it?

Before we help you answer those questions, here are a few more: How can you afford not to take a vacation? Who will take care of your clients and their dogs when you’ve burned out? What will you do instead of working with dogs when you are so tired that you don’t enjoy it anymore? Remember what the airline stewardesses say before take off: You’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for that.

Here are tips for a stress-free vacation from doing what you love:

Plan ahead – Your schedule is crazy. You can barely keep up. You can’t imagine when or how you’ll get away. The trick is to turn the calendar page. Turn as many pages as you have to to find a blank spot—a week where nothing has yet been penciled in. Pull a fat black Sharpie marker from your desk and fill that week with so much ink you couldn’t possibly write over it.

There. You have your dates. Now you just have to figure out what fun things you’ll do and where you’ll do them.

Give lots of notice – Given how busy dog pros tend to be, you probably had to plan a few months out anyway, so this one’s easy. Give your clients plenty of heads-up about your plans; at least a couple of months’ notice. Then put it in your calendar to give them a reminder at the one month, two weeks, and one week marks, just to be safe.

Let clients know what’s expected of them. You may choose to arrange a substitute walker or sitter for your clients, for example, but don’t feel obligated to do so. Schools close in the summer, on holidays, and for teacher in-service days, and working parents manage to figure out what to do with their children. Your clients can absolutely do the same for their dogs.

Simply write, “We’ll be closed on these dates. I wanted to give you early notice so you have plenty of time to make alternate arrangements for Fido.” You’ll likely be showered with well-wishes for your vacation and supportive comments like, “It’s about time! You sure deserve it.”

And if you’re worried that your clients will jump ship while you’re gone, don’t be. The likelihood of that is very, very low. They’re going to be just as excited to see you back as their dogs are.

Choose the slow times – The dog industry has natural yearly cycles. Sitters and boarding facilities are busiest during the holidays and summer months, for example, while these times tend to be slower for most dog trainers. Take a look at the patterns in your business and, if possible, take your vacation when things tend to be slower. This will help keep your revenue losses to a minimum and lessen the impact on your clients as well.

Budget – Put a bit aside for your vacation during the busier months so you can take time off with less financial stress and worry. Then get creative about planning a wonderful vacation that fits your budget. You may not yet have the funds for a trip to Europe or the Bahamas, but perhaps a road trip would do the trick. Are there unexplored areas close to home that you’ve overlooked for their proximity? A friend to visit? Maybe resources you haven’t considered? One of our clients announced a small upcoming vacation at home and one of her daycare clients gave her use of a vacation home!

Go! – You’ve planned and budgeted, now go. It’s that simple. Just go. Have a great time. The world and the dogs will be there when you get back.

Don’t work – If your budget only allows a staycation, be disciplined about not working. Lock the computer in a closet if you have to. Consider putting together an itinerary of day trips or plans—hiking, lunch with friends, a novel you’ve been looking forward to—to make sure you take advantage of your downtime.

It’s tempting to keep working right through vacation these days. E-mail, texting, and mobile phones make it hard to truly get away. But nothing ruins a vacation faster than taking a frustrating phone call or dealing with a missing class registration. So record a vacation phone message and turn on your auto reply. There’s little that can’t wait until you get back.

If you find that you rest easier and enjoy yourself more not knowing you have a full inbox waiting for you, allow yourself an hour of email each morning. Then lock the computer away and go have fun.

Plan for easy re-entry – Try to give yourself at least one day at home before you jump full time back into the business. Get unpacked, maybe catch up on a little email, take it easy. The transition from vacation to business owner can be jarring. Take it slowly and you have a better chance of bringing some of your newfound vacation zen back with you into the job.

Make a habit of it – Plan to take at least one vacation every year. In addition to the obvious personal benefits, your clients will become accustomed to your vacation schedule, making the whole process smoother for everyone.

One trick is to take the same week or weeks off each year so your clients know to plan for those dates. This is an easy way for facility-based businesses to give staff time off (and maybe even take an extra day or two for deep cleaning and a little maintenance work). And it means you don’t skip a year and cheat yourself out of some much needed and deserved time off.

********

Having a well-trained staff can make vacations easier for everyone! Subscribe to FetchFind Monthly Pro and relax, because you know your employees can do the job while you’re away.

Emergency prevention, planning, & protocols for dog walkers

el-salvador-1782203_960_720

This article was originally published in the dog*tec blog. 

Taking care of other people’s best friends means living with the chilling prospect of emergencies. Dog walking emergencies can come in all shapes and sizes, from a vehicle break down to a sprained ankle to potentially traumatic accidents. Out on a trail, an otherwise reliable dog takes off chasing an unknown scent and is lost or hit by a car. Two dogs who normally play well together get into a nasty fight. A dog you are walking swallows a rock or other non-edible item whole. All are scenarios that make dog walkers sweat. But failing to consider and prepare for accidents makes them more likely and will only aggravate an already bad situation if it happens.

Your clients, the dogs, your staff, yourself—everyone is better served by a 3 P’s approach—taking deliberate care to prevent emergencies, planning for their eventuality (life does happen, after all), and having set protocols to follow for each type of emergency to stave off panic and keep things under control.

Emergency prevention

Preventing emergencies is much easier than dealing with them. And preventing emergencies is really a matter of following good dog walking practices:

Set the tone. A dog who is calm and focused on you is less likely to be involved in an emergency. Consistently asking your charges sit to greet you and leash up, sit and wait at doorways and curbs, walk nicely on a loose leash instead of pulling, etc. will make your days both easier and safer.

Walk dogs, don’t socialize them. You can’t bite what you’re not near enough to reach. Live beings—both humans and other dogs—are unpredictable. Use strong recalls and focus techniques (like “Let’s go!” or “Watch me!”) to keep dogs interacting with you instead of strangers or dogs you don’t know. When appropriate, pull over to the side for a focused sit-stay to allow others to pass. Politely decline requests to pet your dogs, even if you know them to be friendly. They may well be, but every dog has her limits and you never know when a well-meaning but blundering dog lover will find one of them.

Practice good screening and group composition. Choosing the right dogs—and matching them carefully if you’re a group walker—can go a long way toward avoiding fights and other emergencies. Always decline dogs with behavioral challenges that are beyond your skill and knowledge set, and avoid more than one challenging dog (we call them project dogs) per group, at most.

Actively monitor and interrupt. When walking groups, interrupt play or other interactions before they tip into conflict. Frequent obedience breaks (such as practicing circle stay pull-overs), and calling dogs (recall off leash or “Let’s go!” on leash) to break up potentially heated interactions, keeps things light and fun. Think of it a bit like monitoring a group of children—it’s best to initiate a break in play before a squabble breaks out.

Keep up on vehicle maintenance. The only thing worse than your car breaking down is your car breaking down with dogs in it! Maintain roadside assistance, schedule routine maintenance, and head to the shop at the first sign of trouble. Treat your vehicle like the key business investment and tool it is.

Watch the temperature. NEVER leave dogs in your car other than to pick up other dogs. Keep your keys with you, and the windows cracked. If you live in a particularly warm area, outfit your windows with dog-proof screens that keep dogs in, hands out, and air flowing.

Use proper equipment. To avoid a startled dog breaking free from you, secure leashes to head harnesses, body harnesses, or martingale-style anti-slip collars. Never use flexi-leashes, as they are too easily pulled out of your hand by a bolting dog, and can also cause serious injury to you and the dogs you walk. Be sure all dogs wear a large tag with your cell number to expedite a quick reunion with a lost dog.

Emergency planning

Being prepared keeps emergencies contained when they do happen. Better a small emergency than one that blooms into a crisis.

Carry a 1st aid kit—and know how to use it. Keep a full kit in your vehicle and a small kit on your person as you walk. Visit DogSafe or PetTech websites for canine 1st aid kit information and to look for 1st aid classes if you are not already certified.

Always have client contact information on hand. You should never have to rummage frantically through your vehicle for your phone list or, perish the thought, go home to get it. Keep up-to-date, well-organized client contact details in your car or phone at all times, and require any staff to do so as well.

Program emergency vet phone numbers into your phone. Write down or program into a work phone emergency directions to the closest vets from your most-used trails or the neighborhoods you service and keep them in any car ever used to transport dogs. Make sure all staff members know where to find the directions and understand them. Even if you work solo and you know the directions well, have them pre-programmed into your phone or GPS. When a crisis hits, it’s all too easy to forget one’s own name, let alone how to get to the veterinary hospital.

Get permission to help in writing. Your client service contract should clearly spell out what’s expected of you in an emergency.

  1. Have clients give you permission to seek emergency treatment and agree to cover the cost.
  2. Have clients specify whether there’s a cap on the cost they will accept. (Don’t assume everyone shares your willingness to take out a second mortgage to pay for surgery.)
  3. Have clients specify whether they authorize you to take the dog to whichever vet or animal hospital is closest. In other words, they want you to exercise discretion in getting their dog the best, fastest care. Otherwise, they may refuse to pay because you didn’t use their vet.
  4. Have clients state their wishes with regards to resuscitative care. For example, some clients may not wish to have senior dogs resuscitated.

Recruit an emergency assistant. One way to prevent panic in an emergency is to have a person to call who can help you keep calm and assist with urgent tasks. Don’t just make a mental list of cool-headed friends, though. Your emergency assistant must know and agree to his or her new designation, and the two of you should set up a protocol for such calls. Maybe it’s her job to meet you at the vet clinic and provide general support. Maybe she is the one who takes the other dogs home. Maybe she finishes your walking stops for the day. Whatever it is, you always know that someone can come to your aid. You and a fellow dog pro can do this for each other, or you can ask a friend who works from home or has a flexible office schedule.

Take your emergency assistant out with you on your regular rounds so she can meet all the dogs. Then practice your emergency protocol with your assistant to make sure everything goes as planned when you really need it to.

Emergency protocols

Knowing what to do in an emergency will help keep you calm. And being calm will allow you to more effectively handle whatever situation comes your way.

At the Dog Walking Academy we provide step-by-step protocols for handling all manner of emergencies, including vehicle breakdowns, you being injured or becoming ill during a walk, a dog in your car biting another dog or person, and losing a dog. We encourage our grads to carry these protocols with them, giving them a clear path forward should panic or shock set in. If you don’t have specific emergency protocols, take some time to develop them—or come join us for the Dog Walking Academy.

Secure dogs and call your emergency assistant. Regardless of the situation, one important step in any protocol when walking groups is to secure all dogs to keep the situation from escalating. The last thing you need while dealing with an injured dog or sprained ankle is for another one to take himself off on an adventure. Get everyone safely leashed if they aren’t already, then call your emergency assistant. In most protocols, your emergency assistant is the first call you’ll make. Knowing someone is in your corner and on the way to help can do a lot to bring calm, no matter the emergency.

Communicate with the client. Call the client when you have calmed down, not before. Also hold off until you know the precise nature of the damage. Sprained leg or amputation? Eye patch for a few days or blindness? Best to find out before you make the dreaded call. When you do, speak in a calm, confident tone. A distressed owner needs to know a professional is in charge of the crisis. Clearly state whether everything is handled and this is just a courtesy call to let the client know, or whether some action on her part is required.

With any kind of mishap, even if everything turned out fine, the best policy is to tell the client. Some clients might not care that their dog was missing for 20 minutes on a deer-chasing adventure, or that he got into a scuffle in which no one was hurt, but that risk is preferable to a client who hears it from someone else and is outraged at your failure to tell her about the dramatic event, regardless of the outcome. And if running off or scuffles become a trend, your client may be angry to learn something’s been brewing and wonder why you didn’t let her know sooner.

Take responsibility as appropriate—you are an adult and a professional. But don’t verbally rub sand in your hair, don’t heap blame on yourself, and don’t ever tell the client they ought to sue you. Accidents happen. Dogs are not appliances.

Depending on the situation, here is a possible strategy for the conversation: describe in a straightforward manner exactly what happened, share all the steps you took to handle the situation, give a report of the current status of the dog, and share anything you plan to do (if relevant) in the way of policy or process changes to avoid something similar happening in the future. Stress your concern for the dog’s and the client’s well-being, and ask if there’s anything else you can do to be of support at this particular moment.

Emergency follow-up

If the worst happens and a dog is seriously injured or killed while under your care, let your other clients know in writing. Bad news travels fast and if you are not the one to tell them, they may think you’re trying to hide the episode. You have to protect your business and your brand, and honesty is the best policy.

The letter should include any policy changes you are making to prevent the same thing happening again. Be thoughtful about protecting anonymity; don’t hang clients out to dry. If a dog is expelled, for example, don’t name that dog. If a dog is killed, find out whether the owner wants the dog named or not. Some do, some don’t. But don’t name the dog who killed, just say he was expelled.

Openness is the best policy about smaller incidents, too. A scuffle in a walking group that results in a dog needing a couple of stitches, for example, should also be communicated. Doing so breeds confidence, prevents rumors from festering and growing, and demystifies normal canine behavior. Emphasize what is being done about the problem: “We had another tiff over tennis balls today, so we have decided not to bring them to the beach with us anymore.” Hopefully, you are communicating with your clients every week anyway (highlights from Fido’s week, etc.), so bad news isn’t the only news they get.

(Of course, if scuffles happen more than once in a blue moon, something is wrong. Screening procedures and staff training are the first places to look for a possible issue.)

Don’t fret

If you generally run a strong business, if you take good care of dogs and of people, if you handle a crisis with responsibility and grace, it’s rare to lose clients over injury incidents. Be open and honest, be calm, and face the situation down—it can happen to anyone.

********

Save time and money with the new annual FetchFind Monthly Pro subscription! Learn more here.

Secrets to pet business success

Dog trainer teaching dogs

This article was originally published in the dog*tec blog. 

We’re asked often by clients and workshop attendees as we lecture across the country for the secrets to success in this industry. Here’s what we tell them.

Get and keep yourself educated

Whether you are already or wish to become a dog trainer, walker, sitter, or daycare or boarding facility owner, you owe it to yourself, your clients, and the dogs in your care to know everything you can about dog behavior. We have an unfortunate habit of assuming we understand dogs because we’ve lived with them all our lives. The truth is we suffer from a host of often damaging misconceptions and pieces of conventional wisdom about why dogs do what they do. Ridding yourself of these myths will make you a more effective dog pro.

Start by attending a scientifically-sound program based on positive reinforcement, then keep up your education through seminars, reading, DVDs, and professional conferences.

Learn how to market yourself

A lack of or poor marketing is the number one reason for failure in our industry. Too many dog pros rely on a “build it and they will come” approach, or a few brochures or fliers spread around town. This rarely gets the job done, especially in a busy market like the Bay Area. I also see dog pros waste precious money on passive advertising that rarely works—Google ads, yellow pages ads, direct mailers, etc. Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive or stressful, but it needs to be done and done smart.

My focus when working with clients is to develop inexpensive community-based marketing plans that play to personal strengths—good writers can write an ongoing column or newsletter, for example. I also recommend finding a way to stand out. Look around at other service providers in your area. What can you do differently, better? There are lots of pet sitters– is anyone focusing on animals with special health or behavioral needs? Anyone sending video report cards to clients on vacation? There are lots of dog walkers—is anyone focusing on small dogs? There are lots of daycares—what will make yours special? Small playgroups and a well-crafted daily itinerary? Special monthly event days?

Work ON the business, not just in it

I can’t stress this enough. To be a successful dog pro, you have to do more than see clients and care for dogs. You have to be your own secretary promptly returning phone calls and emails, your own admin assistant handling paperwork, your own accountant managing your books, your own marketing manager executing your marketing plan, and so on. Though you can (and should) get help with many of these tasks, the reality remains: You have to actually run the business. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of client needs, but if you don’t work on the business itself it won’t grow.

Keep to a master schedule

Working on and in the business demands efficient use of time. I teach my clients how to create a smart work schedule that allows them to effectively run their businesses while also enjoying plenty of down time and flexibility. After all, there are supposed to be perks to working for yourself. Whether you’re the type to flounder under a lack of structure, getting little done without the external pressures of a job and boss, or the type to work yourself to the bone when there’s no one to tell you to knock off for the day, a master schedule creates a sustainable balance.

This approach to scheduling involves setting aside specific days and times for each business activity, as well as protected personal downtime. When there’s a specific task to be done, it’s assigned to its logical spot in the weekly schedule, rather than relegated to a post-it note, intimidating to-do list, or a hopeful “I’d like to get to this someday when I have time.” A master schedule operates on the concept of “do dates,” listing when something will actually be accomplished, instead of “due dates” that simply cause stress. When everything has its place things get done—and that means success and peace of mind, too.

Though running your own dog business can be challenging, few who do it will tell you they’d rather do something else. Working with dogs and dog lovers is a great way to make a living, especially when combined with the freedom that comes with owning a well run business. So be bold. If you already own a dog business, take it to a new level. If it’s been a long-standing dream, give yourself permission to pursue it.

********

Save time and money with the new annual FetchFind Monthly Pro subscription! Learn more here.

 

Walking reactive dogs: distraction to the rescue!

beagle

By Beck Rothke, former FetchFind Academy and dog*tec Dog Walking Academy instructor 

When I think about working with reactive dogs, I often think about the use of comic relief for intense moments. Essentially, I know that a door out or away from an intense or possibly intense moment is to find a distraction powerful enough to turn the dog’s attention to something else. It’s the same concept as a moment of comic relief and it serves the same purpose.

As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching sitcoms. What I loved about sitcoms as a kid was seeing people going through hard and emotional experiences, but at the most critical moments, there would be a bit of humor to offset the drama of the hard stuff. By no means did it minimize the impact of the emotional moment, but it did make the moment a bit easier to digest. Incorporating comic relief in to my everyday interactions with other humans – making jokes when the tension is too high or finding humor in less than humorous situations – lessens the tension of the moment and serves to help us throughout our personal and professional lives. While we still experience the intense emotion of the moment, we do so in a more regulated way, allowing us to keep our true focus where it needs to be. It doesn’t ruin our day. The comedy distracts us and we move on. As dog walkers, we all know how well distractions can work and are familiar with the idea of using them to our advantage!

Let’s take a look at using distraction techniques to avoid or get out of hot moments.

Knowing your dogs – Making use of distractions to relieve a reactive dog from an intense situation relies on a full understanding of two important concepts for the dog: (1) what he is bothered by (or is reactive to) and (2) what he loves or is interested in (if the former isn’t too intense). For instance, when we work with dogs who are reactive towards other dogs, we can work to avoid running into other dogs to a certain extent, but not fully. Knowing a dog’s triggers (both the ones to be worried about and the ones that we can use to our advantage) can help immensely when negative interactions cannot be avoided.

Distraction tools – One reliable “go-to” as a distraction for dogs is treats. Most dogs like them and they are easy to have on hand. But what if the dog isn’t interested in the treats you have or is generally unmotivated by them? Indeed, sometimes the dog’s emotional state may render treats completely uninteresting. Well, it’s not as easy, but knowing the dog’s favorite motivators can help provide the right and appropriate level of distraction. One item I always carry with me is a squeaker from an old toy. I put mine in the side pocket of my treat pouch. It’s easy to access this way by just hitting the side of my pouch to squeak the squeaker. Some dogs are very tuned into the sound of crinkling. For this you can use an empty bag of chips in your pocket. Another good distraction might be simply the sound of your voice. Experiment with different pitches and volumes to see what the dog you are walking is most easily attracted to. Use of verbal praise or cues is quite effective in distracting a dog from tempting stimuli as well.

It’s all about timing – As is true with comic relief, one very important factor in implementing distractions is timing. If you are too early, the dog might be attracted to the distraction, but it might not understand why, and worse, it may become bored with the distraction before you have a chance to make use of it. If you are too late, you may unintentionally reinforce behavior (if it’s operant/ learned) or miss the chance to make a difference (if it’s classical/ emotional). So how do we determine the appropriate timing? Take note of each dog’s trigger zone (i.e. where the scary or concerning stimuli is okay as opposed to not okay) and implement the distraction right before the point that is not ok. Practice makes perfect. Use your eyes and ears to determine the dog’s body language or any vocalizations that tell you the interaction (or stimuli) is not okay. Implement your distraction before the dog shows any signs of distress and you’re sure to be on time!

Walking dogs is exciting and rewarding. You can make it even more rewarding for all involved through purposeful, well-timed distractions to set everyone up for success.

********

http://dogtec.org/dogwalkingacademy.php

Making behavior a win-win

dog sun

By Erin Taylor, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training

It’s easy to forget that dogs operate in very simple ways: Does it work for me? Does it not work for me? Is it safe? Is it dangerous?

Unfortunately, what works for dogs often is not what works for us dog pros: jumping up on us when we pick them up for their walk, deciding to roll in a stinky dead fish right before it’s time to head back inside, chasing the cat/squirrel/bicycle/crow instead of coming when we call, dragging us down the driveway to the car…the list goes on.

As human beings we often believe that, because other dogs have “understood” what we wanted, because we’ve shown this dog what we prefer once or twice, or even because he got it right in the past, he understands what we want, and any behavior contrary to that is “stubborn” or “willful” or “blowing us off.”

But dogs are honest. Their behavior very clearly shows us what they do and don’t understand. They aren’t built with the capacity to be stubborn or to blow us off. If they aren’t doing what we’ve asked them to do, it’s because we haven’t successfully shown them that it works for them to do it. Getting mad at a puppy for peeing in the house because “he knows better” is the equivalent of getting mad at a toddler for having a potty training accident. The understanding just isn’t quite there yet, requiring us to be better teachers and to manage the situation to set the dog (or child) up for success.

Unfortunately dogs don’t read minds, and we can’t make them understand what we’ve tried to teach them simply because we desire it or other dogs have gotten it. This way of thinking sets the dogs up for failure, sets our relationships with dogs up for conflict, and sets us up for irritation, anger, and frustration on the job.

Next time you’re feeling frustrated with a dog who “should know better,” try a different viewpoint.

It’s a matter of helping the dog understand what you want by making what you want work for the dog. Manage the dog’s space, time, and access to anything she wants to set her up for success, and then consistently reward the resulting desired behavior. For example, if you’d like your canine charge to sit while you converse with her owner, ask for or lure the sit and then reward it. Lean your body towards her to help her remain sitting and continue to reward her as long as she holds her position. By identifying what you want, helping the dog to do it, and rewarding the results, you set the dog up for success. This line of thinking and action removes conflict, pressure, and irritation for dog and the walker both.

Here are some questions that can help when you’re facing a training challenge on your walks: How can I help the dog understand? How can I make this more rewarding? How can I teach him that doing what I ask yields the biggest, best, most fun, most rewarding experience, so he sees that doing what I ask works best for him? These questions can help create a more pleasant outing for walker and dog alike, help maintain the bond and trust we can have with our dogs, and ensure we’re helping our charges really and truly understand the precise behaviors that we might be asking of them in that specific environment, in that specific moment and on that particular day.

Here’s another example: Say you’ve got a dedicated leash puller on your hands. Every day this dog strains your shoulders and back trying to get to all his favorite sniff spots. He wants to get to that great pee-mail bush on the corner. You want him to walk nicely alongside you. How can you make doing so more rewarding? How can you get him to see that walking alongside you works? One strategy would be to head toward the bush while he’s not pulling and to turn around in the opposite direction when he does. Take a few steps away from his desired object, then turn around and try again, rewarding with forward progress toward the bush and, if you want to up the ante, treats, too. It may take a few minutes to get to that bush for a few days, but eventually he’ll realize that it works to walk patiently with you to get where he wants to go. This way works for everyone—you get what you want, the dog gets what he wants, and your back probably feels a lot better, too.

********

erin-taylorErin Taylor qualified as a dog trainer in South Africa in 2004. She wanted to expand her experience working with positive reinforcement with dogs and moved to Canada in 2007 to do so. She owned and operated a successful dog walking business for a number of years. She currently owns and operates Pawsitive Connection Dog Training & Services where she is very excited to offer the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, Dogsafe Canine First Aid classes and both puppy and adult dog training classes. She has a passion for helping to connect people (both pet parents and dog professionals) with their dogs to develop strong bonds and relationships, positively.

Joyful work: mental health days

mental-health

By Erin Taylor, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training

About five years ago, I experienced a serious case of burnout. After six months of feeling stressed, exhausted, and short-tempered, I wondered if there might be something physically wrong with me. When I finally found the time and energy to make a doctor’s appointment, I learned that the years of stress from running my own business, being responsible for other people’s dogs on a daily basis, and always feeling like I needed to take on more and more I had flooded my body with so much stress hormone that my adrenal glands were no longer able to function as they should.

As it turns out, everyone needs down time, a break from work and responsibility and everyday life. Everyone needs mental health days. For me, that means days where the only expectation I have of myself is to take care of me, to rest, to recuperate, to lounge around and read and snuggle with my dogs. It is critical to my sanity to be able to go for long, leisurely strolls with them where the goal isn’t exercise or mental stimulation, but simply to enjoy ourselves and be. I have to allow myself to gently and kindly replace the thoughts of everything I need to do the next day with what is right here, in this very moment. On these days, I find ways to help distract my brain from the laundry list of things to do because a day off is not a day off if the mind is still occupied with work. Some days I allow myself to get completely lost in a good book that isn’t dog related. I have to force myself to (gasp!) actually take a vacation and spend money on myself without the fear of what will happen if an emergency arises and I have “frivolously wasted” that money on down time and vacation time.

This period in my life caused me to profoundly shift my perspective, to understand that in order for me to be able to give the very best to my clients, I need to take time for myself. I had to learn to say no to them, to honor the time I need and to understand that it doesn’t make me lazy or unproductive, and that my business isn’t going to fall apart if I take two weeks off.

When I eventually bit the bullet and worked up enough courage to take that first vacation, I agonized over how to tell my clients, worried that I’d get a backlash of frustration and anger. What I got instead were emails filled with support and comments like “Wow, it’s about time, you really deserve a break” and “I hope you have a fantastic time, I’m so glad you’re taking time for yourself.” I was flabbergasted. I had made myself a priority, and other people thought that was a good thing. Who knew??

I took my dogs and spent two weeks at a lovely B&B, where I spent my days reading, napping, exploring with my dogs, and sitting in the hot tub. I even went horseback riding, something I hadn’t done in years, which invigorated me more than I ever could have imagined. That was the start of me getting me back. Together with the treatment for adrenal fatigue, depression, and anxiety, the time off allowed me to slowly start seeing more of myself again. I began taking one weekend a month where I had no boarding dogs, where I didn’t think about the coming week and what needed to be done. Instead I spent it in the moment, celebrating and enjoying my own dogs and my life. I lost one client because I said “no,” and I had the amazing realization that that was okay. Losing that client lowered my stress levels even more, because she was replaced by another client who respected my boundaries and my down time, and didn’t expect me to always say “yes.” Not surprisingly, my new client was much, much easier (and nicer) to deal with.

Mental health days are not something we should do. They are something we need to do.

They are vital to us being able to provide the best care and service for our clients and their dogs. As dog walkers, we take on such huge responsibility for other people’s dogs. Not just the physical responsibility, but the mental and emotional one as well. I see so many dog*tec grads and other colleagues seeking each other out to discuss issues with their clients’ dogs, learning how they can make things better, looking for ways that (outside of work hours) they can make a difference. Each and every one is emotionally connected and engaged with their clients’ dogs.

The connection that can exist between dog walker and dog is a beautiful, amazing, touching thing. But it can also be an exhausting, draining thing, because when we care, we give of ourselves. And we give and we give and we give. I wish for everyone reading this a way to find that desire to give to themselves. I encourage you to find the things you can do on your mental health days that recharge and reinvigorate you, to give yourself permission to take those mental health days (whether it be a two-week vacation or simply taking a weekend off, fully and completely), to learn to say “no” so that you can continue to say “yes” to all of those dogs who benefit from you being at your very best.

********

erin-taylorErin Taylor qualified as a dog trainer in South Africa in 2004. She wanted to expand her experience working with positive reinforcement with dogs and moved to Canada in 2007 to do so. She owned and operated a successful dog walking business for a number of years. She currently owns and operates Pawsitive Connection Dog Training & Services where she is very excited to offer the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, Dogsafe Canine First Aid classes and both puppy and adult dog training classes. She has a passion for helping to connect people (both pet parents and dog professionals) with their dogs to develop strong bonds and relationships, positively.

 

 

 

Rules of engagement for great dog walks

dog-walker

By Pat Blocker, Denver, CO Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Peaceful Paws Dog Training

Imagine a parallel universe where dogs are as compelled to respond to their person as humans are to instantly answer our cell phones­ — anytime, anywhere. A decidedly essential skill for dog walkers is the ability to overcome canine distraction. This can be a tall order. For instance, hailing a dog away from a fascinating pee-mail would be like having me notice your eye color while Johnny Depp walked through the room.

Two vital skills needed for successful and safe walks are the capacity to engage dogs while walking and getting a reliable recall. Whether you walk dogs on or off leash, whether you walk dogs singly or multiple dogs together, you’ll want to master the rules of engagement.

Off on the right paw
. It’s important to engage dogs before the walk as well as during. For example, ask dogs to sit and focus when you enter their home and again before exiting. This sets the tone for your outing. If you are transporting a dog to a trail or off-leash park, you’ll set the mood with a polite sit before loading, after unloading from your vehicle, and again before heading on to the trail.

On the walk
. If a dog is engaged during the walk, he’s not completely absorbed in his own world where things can get risky. Talk to the dog. Have him check in. In the meantime, you’re practicing situational awareness to see potential distractions early. With dogs engaged, you can redirect if necessary and reinforce proper behavior. If you’re connecting with the dog, you’ll be proactive instead of reactive. When you’re proactive, would-be problems are more easily averted. Preventing a situation is always less complicated than dealing with its aftermath.

Circle up
. Engage dogs by circling them up. This means having dogs gather close, sit, focus on you, and wait for treats. Whether walking on or off-leash, single or multiple dogs, you’ll want the ability to circle them up. It turns distracting situations and potential problems into a positive, safe experience.

When to circle up:

  • Other dogs passing by at a distance
  • People passing by (especially joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, etc.)
  • Before loading into your vehicle
  • After unloading from your vehicle
  • Before crossing the street
  • Highly distracting situations (think squirrels)

Teaching circle up. It’s easiest to teach behaviors to individual dogs as opposed to group learning. If you walk multiple dogs, have each one reliable on the behavior before attempting a whole-group circle up.

To teach circle up, start with little or no distraction. With the dog on leash, call him to you. Then cue him to sit and treat him for doing so. Next, practice off leash. Even if you don’t walk dogs off lead, you’ll want the ability to circle up in the event of a dropped or broken leash.

For a group circle up, call all dogs to you and cue a sit. As each dog sits, say his name and treat him. Speaking each dog’s name teaches the dogs to wait their turn for treats.

Bonus: Passersby will marvel at your dogs’ polite behavior under distraction. You are a model for your business. Be sure to carry your business cards!

Reliable recalls
. It’s been said that dogs come when called and cats come when they’re interested. In reality, dogs also need to be interested. We want to build a rapport with our charges that has them interested and knowing that compliance is worthwhile.

A reliable recall allows us to:

  • Call dogs away from danger
  • Call dogs out of an escalating situation
  • Call dogs away from distractions
  • Rules of recall

Be ridiculously happy. Even if you’re feeling scared and frustrated, use a happy, high-pitched voice.

Resist the urge to chase. Running toward a dog will incite him to run away, either from fear or because it’s fun. Do the counterintuitive thing and run away from the dog while calling him.

Teaching recall. Enthusiastically call the dog’s name. Be very animated by slapping your knees or clapping your hands.

When you have the dog’s attention, move away from him and say, “Come.”

Upon the dog’s arrival, lavish on praise and treats.

To teach successful recalls, begin with little or no distraction. If a dog can’t come when it’s easy, he can’t do it when it’s difficult. Don’t begin training recall on the trail or at the park where dogs are susceptible to fun induced deafness. Start easy and work up to increasingly difficult situations.

Practice makes perfect
. If you only call dogs to come or circle up when you’re ready to leave the trail or park, they’ll quickly learn that these cues mean the fun is over. To avoid this consequence, practice the cues randomly throughout the walk. Praise, treat, and let the dogs return to whatever fun they were having

With training, understanding, and fun, dogs will be happy to comply with the rules of engagement—anytime, anywhere.

********

pat-blockerPat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is the author of Taking the Lead without Jerking the Leash: The Art of Mindful Dog Training, Pat has been training for over 20 years. She owns Peaceful Paws Dog Training, through which she specializes in canine behavior issues and also offers group training classes. She is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and an evaluator for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen and S.T.A.R. Puppy programs. A dedicated educator, Pat delights in teaching dog guardians through public talks and as a featured writer in local dog magazines and newsletters, and in helping to shape the next generation of dog professionals as a training mentor and Dog Walking Academy instructor.

 

What everybody should know about growth plates

puppy

By Kimberly Burgan, Dog Walking Academy director and Austin, TX DWA instructor

Who doesn’t love the sweet smell of puppy breath? Most of us jump at any chance to work with puppies and teenagers, and their owners are all too glad to have us wear out their whirling dervishes. But there’s a downside to too much exercise for dogs who haven’t yet reached sexual maturity: high-impact play and exercise can damage a growing dog’s growth plates, causing ongoing damage.

Here’s what you should know about growth plates and how to balance their protection with much-needed exercise for young dogs.

What you should know about growth plates
Growth plates are regions of cartilage that sit at the ends of the long bones of the legs. They are ultimately responsible for healthy bone growth. As a puppy grows and develops, moving and working their muscles, hormonal changes trigger this cartilage to calcify and develop into a denser matter. This calcification ultimately fuses and becomes a stable part of the bone. Until fusing completes at sexual maturity, these soft areas are much more prone to injury from hard impacts, repetitive impacts, and even too much exercise. And a fracture during this time can present problems for proper healing, prevent the growth plate from fully forming, and create uneven pressure on the other legs that produces secondary physical health challenges over a dog’s a lifetime.

Walking puppies
A good rule of thumb to keep you on the safe side of preventing injury is to assume sexual maturity and growth plate fusing by 9 months for small dogs, 12 months for mid-sized pooches, 18 months for big dogs, and 24 months for the giants. A fully mature canine client may now safely enjoy things like jogging or running on hard surfaces, doing stairs regularly, jumping, and high-impact activities like catching a Frisbee in the air that might also involve any leg twisting.

Spay/neuter timing & growth plates
Recent studies and findings indicate that altering a dog prior to reaching sexual maturity removes the sex hormones needed for physical maturity to fully occur.

With nationwide early spay/neuter campaigns still on the rise (for all of the right reasons including overcrowded shelters), veterinarians are seeing a greater number of adult dogs experiencing problems such as early-onset of arthritis, shortened leg length, functional gate abnormalities, twisted limb or paw, and non-healing fracture sites—all of which mean unnecessary and possibly avoidable pain and discomfort for the aging dog (as well as secondary health problems often attached). Veterinarians are now choosing to wait for sexual maturity or are now choosing alternate options. Responsible breeders will regularly promote delaying alteration until sexual maturity and inhibit early spay and neuter options within their contract.

The increase in these practices among vets and breeders means an increase in unaltered young dogs needing your services.

How does this impact my work as a professional dog walker?
Carefully planning increasing exercise for puppies and adolescents is a must. Doing so provides a potential niche for dog walkers who can factor in screening parameters such as: Are you in a position to lift the puppy or teenager in and out of your vehicle to avoid injury? Are you comfortable including an unaltered dog on your route and is it safe to do so? If you’re walking off leash, can you control the environment to keep the puppy from jumping over logs, for example, or running too hard with her group mates? It’s also best to keep very young puppy walks a bit shorter to avoid stressing growth plates, and, where possible, choose routes with soft substrates like grass and dirt rather than concrete.

For intact dogs, can you keep un-neutered males safe from targeting by other males, and intact females safe from unwanted attention and impregnation? Do you walk on leash so you can avoid an intact male running off to investigate a female scent? Many professional walkers choose not to include the menagerie of additional responsibilities that come with walking intact dogs. Given that more prospective clients will be holding out for longer durations of time before altering, it might be a good place to put some thought into your screening policies: What works for you? If you decide the risks involved in walking intact dogs remain too high for you, stick to your policies.

If the additional challenges that come with walking puppies and teenagers aren’t for you, consider networking to find walkers willing to work with puppies or adolescents that don’t fit your walking model so you can provide quality referrals when your answer is no. Pet parents will appreciate your professional knowledge, ethical integrity, and insight even if you ultimately have to decline their business. Healthy walking is happy walking, after all.

********


kimberly-burganKimberly Burgan
, CPDT-KA, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a professional member of the APDT, an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, and a nationally recognized, award-winning dog trainer with over 12 years of experience. She is one of only a handful of U.S. trainers accredited through renowned behaviorist John Rogerson’s Northern Centre for Canine Behaviour (UK). As 
Director of the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Certification Program, Kimberly also teaches the program in Austin, TX. A wearer of many hats, Kimberly additionally lends her teaching and support talents as a dog*tec business consultant, helping dog pros reach their career goals. She is the author of the children’s book, Poppy and Puppy Are Friends: A Child’s Introduction to Responsible Dog Ownership and continues to be a driving force for proactive education for dog-bite prevention and rewards-based training.

The joys and challenges of dog walking for a living

bridge-construction-189036_1280

By Veronica Boutelle, dog*tec Dog Walking Academy co-founder and San Francisco Dog Walking Academy instructor

Gazing outside from behind the dreary landscape of our desks, few are the people who can say they’ve never given a thought to a career change that involved working outside–river guide, perhaps, or a rancher or deckhand on a luxury liner. For many dog lovers, those rosy-tinged, outdoorsy dreams concern dog walking. A life of easy days, surrounded by nature and happy pooches—but in reality, there’s much more to the job.

dog*tec runs a certification program for dog walkers, called the Dog Walking Academy, and over the years we have seen people from every thinkable vocation—lawyers and computer programmers, sales reps and accountants, nurses and writers, ex-military personnel and classical musicians—give up their previous, often very successful, careers to walk other people’s dogs. And yes, if you love dogs and worship the outdoors, if you yearn to be your own boss and don’t mind being your own office manager, marketing exec, and customer service representative to boot, dog walking just might be for you. That said, if it seems as easy as slapping a leash on a few dogs and going for a stroll you’ll likely be surprised.

In today’s densely populated, greatly regulated, and litigious world, in which people’s pets are integral to the family like never before, good, safe dog walking demands technical skill, physical stamina, and in-depth knowledge of everything from dog behavior and pack management to canine first aid and trail etiquette.

There are advantages, of course. The freedom, for one thing—a dog walker starts her day at whatever time suits her and doesn’t have to dress up for work. 

For another, there’s the daily shower of love. In each house on his route, a dog walker is greeted by his charges with an enthusiasm quite unequaled by anything known in the corporate world. And for the type of person best suited for dog walking, the time on the sidewalk or trail—or at the beach or dog park—is what makes it all worthwhile. Aside from the obvious physical and mental health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and being in a tranquil natural setting for hours every day, some walkers talk of the sheer pleasure of watching dogs sniff and romp. For anyone with an interest in dog behavior, dog walking is fertile study ground, whether it’s a single leashed dog navigating a busy street or unconstrained play and group interaction on a trail far from the city center.

That, however, bring us to what dog walkers often rank as the worst part of the job: the driving. The grind of going from house to house to collect dogs is fine at the outset, but it wears you down over time—how many happy taxi drivers have you met in your life? Most dog walkers keep the driving to a minimum by choosing clients within a limited geographical area and timing their driving cycles to avoid heavy traffic. Still, if you’re considering dog walking as a career, expect to spend at least as much time in the car as on the sidewalk or trail.

If traffic is impossible to control, so is the weather, and as with any outdoor work, bad weather brings its own set of trials for dog walkers. Soaked, muddy dogs have to be cleaned up before they can be let back into their homes, so count toweling off and possibly hosing down each dog plus washing loads of dirty towels as part of the job, too. And finally there’s the loneliness inherent in a job that comprises minimal human contact.

These are the pros and cons most people juggle when they consider dog walking. Freedom, exercise, and doggie love are the major pluses, and too much driving, occasional bad weather, and scant human contact are the minuses. That, however, is not all there is to dog walking. First of all, it is a business like any other and as such it involves paperwork, customer service, marketing, accounting, and so on, all of which the walker has to find time for outside of the hours he or she spends walking and driving. Secondly, it is a common misconception that dog walking is easy. It might be, if you are walking two arthritic dachshunds that you know well, but that won’t pay the rent. Or even buy the movie tickets.

No doubt this fallacy stems from the humble beginnings of dog walking. Once upon the 1950s and 60s we simply paid the kid down the street a dollar to get Fido out for us. As we have packed into tighter urban spaces, the risks involved in little Jimmy walking Fido no longer allow for that solution, but pet owners have even less time to walk Fido, who needs regular, vigorous exercise over and above what he can get in our smaller and smaller backyards. Hence the birth of professional dog walking. And a professional is what it takes to safely navigate dogs through densely populated areas and heavily used natural spaces.

As Mik Moeller, a Dog Walking Academy founder and instructor, puts it, “To manage and train a group of dogs–or even a single one– is much more difficult than people realize. Nobody is surprised that training a sled dog pack requires expert knowledge and skill. I don’t know why anyone thinks dog walking is different.”

Many walkers start out with just their outdoor dreams, a love of dogs, and the experience of walking their own pets, and soon realize the job is also about dog training and being responsible for the safety of someone else’s beloved companion. It’s about interacting with other sidewalk and trail users (some of whom are not dog lovers) in a responsible fashion and having the appropriate licenses and insurance, knowing when and how to say no to a client whose dog would fit badly into your particular group or service, knowing what to do if a fight breaks out on the trail or an unleashed dog rushes you on the street, structuring your route to cut down on driving time and gasoline consumption, and so on.

Despite the challenges, most dog walkers think they have the best job in the world. As one Dog Walking Academy graduate said, “My worst day on the trail is better than the best day in my old job.”

It is pointed out too rarely what a great contribution dog walkers make to the quality of life of the dogs they serve. Instead of being home alone all day, these dogs are given crucial exercise and social interactions, which isn’t just healthy, it keeps dogs safe and in permanent homes, too. Studies show that many dogs given up or returned to shelters are there because of normal expressions of boredom or lack of exercise: barking, chewing, excess energy, and so on. Dogs are doing their level best to fit into our twenty-first century lifestyles, the least we can do in return is to take their physical and mental health seriously. That means entrusting your pet to a professional.

If You Want to Walk Dogs

•    Get educated and certified. Learn dog body language, walk management techniques, building a strong recall, fight prevention and protocols, canine first aid, group composition, business practices, etc.

•    Start a legitimate business—get your business license and other necessary paperwork, obtain professional insurance, and research the rules for walking in your area.

•    Talk to other certified professional walkers to learn of their experiences and ask to join them for some hands-on experience.

This article was originally published on the dog*tec blog

********

veronicaboutelleVeronica Boutelle is the founder of dog*tec, the dog pro industry’s leading business consultancy, through which she has been helping dog professionals create their dream businesses since 2003. She is the author of How to Run a Dog Business: Putting Your Career Where Your Heart Is and The Business of Dog Walking: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, and the coauthor of Minding Your Dog Business: A Practical Guide to Business Success for Dog Professionals, and writes for many industry journals, including a regular business column for the Association of Professional Dog Trainer’s Chronicle of the Dog. Veronica is a sought after speaker at conferences and dog training schools across the country and internationally. She is former Director of Behavior & Training at the San Francisco SPCA.

Go pro!

swmtdog

Do you want to work with dogs full time, but can’t see how? Do you struggle part time, telling yourself you’ll keep the other job just until the training really takes off? It’s a common refrain. Coaching and supporting dog businesses for a living, I’ve seen every kind of business model and every type of owner, from wildly successful full-timers to weekend hobbyists. Mostly, though, dog pros work part or full time at other jobs, and run a dog business on the side, hoping it will one day support them.

Years of experience have taught me the key differences between pros that make it as full-time entrepreneurs and those that don’t. Read on to see if you have the temperament, skill set, and drive necessary to pull it off. If so, you absolutely can bring a new or part-time business into the full-time realm and make a living doing what you love.

The magic of niches

Most successful dog businesses have one simple concept in common: specialization. This is particularly important if a lot of competitors operate in your geographical area. When a potential client opens the phone book or scans the bulletin board at the local vet office, what will make you stand out? A walker who emphasizes a particular breed will draw owners of that breed. A day care specializing in small dogs will no doubt be more attractive to a Yorkie guardian. Trainers who focus on one type of training or behavioral issue set themselves apart and give clients a reason to call them. If, for example, an owner has a dog with separation anxiety and he sees that a particular trainer specializes in that problem, he is much more likely to call that trainer than the fifteen who advertise generic obedience training. This doesn’t mean, however, that the trainer in question will do nothing but home alone training for the rest of her career. On the contrary. Satisfied clients refer their friends, who again refer their friends, and only a few of those new clients are likely to be sep anx cases. The trick is to get those initial calls so you can begin building the all-important word of mouth.

Tip: Find a niche

Think about what you are particularly good at. Working with small dogs? Unruly adolescents? Dog-baby intros? Family training? Look at what other professionals in your area offer. Is there a gap in the market you can fill? Whatever you decide, make sure it is something you enjoy.

Know where you’re going

Most of us are dog professionals because we love dogs, not business development. When we decide to set up shop, we do the bare minimum necessary: think up a name, file for a business license and other paperwork, have stationery and maybe a brochure printed, and post a few fliers around town. And then we wait eagerly for the phone to ring. Which would work well in an ideal world with endless demand for our product and next-to-zero competition. But the reality is that setting up and marketing a new business, let alone building a profitable one, requires sustained focus, attention, and action. Simply hanging out a shingle rarely does the job, especially if there are other trainers and services available in your area. It is critical to develop a business plan and actively build relationships with other dog service providers (vets, supply stores, groomers, etc.).

Tip: Hatch a plan

Trainers often plan to work part time until the business takes off. Sound familiar? The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t provide a framework for making anything happen. For that, you need a comprehensive business plan. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal as long as it helps you assess viability and provides guidance as you move forward. Your plan should include goals for the business, a numbers assessment, a marketing plan—your niche and message, image, services, materials, and how you will get the word out—and an overall checklist of tasks and due dates. If you’re moving from part to full time, decide on a clear set of success indicators (number of clients per month, amount of income, etc.) to help you determine when it’s time to leave your other job.

Tip: Get organized

Scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes doesn’t often inspire confidence. Worse, it hinders the organization that distinguishes a professional business. As soon as you have more than a few clients you need to keep solid records, notes, and training plans. Consider purchasing a ready-made set of tools (diagnostic flowcharts, interview forms, etc.) to save start-up time and effort.

Tip: Establish a schedule and routine

One pitfall of self-employment is the lack of a routine. If a flexible schedule without a boss and specific deadlines makes you feel rudderless, working for yourself can be a challenge. It’s easy to do little or nothing when you have unlimited time. I’ve seen trainers struggle for months to do what could have been done in weeks or even days. To keep yourself working toward your goals without losing focus, make a realistic schedule and commit to deadlines. Avoid wasting time by structuring your workdays carefully. What days will you see clients? When will you work on training plans? When will you take care of administrative tasks? When will you spend time growing your business?

Professional image

A person hunting for a dog pro might look at the cards pinned up on her vet’s bulletin board or at the local dog park. She might do a web search. But how does she choose? As mentioned, a business that specializes in filling a particular need or speaking to a preference is an obvious route. Another vital decision-making factor, however, is the professionalism, or not, of your business materials. Given a choice, any client is going to pick the business card or web site that looks professional and established rather than printed at home on the old ink-jet. The adage ‘it takes money to make money’ applies here. Putting money and time into the development of a professional business image—logo, message, and materials—goes a long way toward building a broader client base.

Tip: Dazzle them

Spend some start-up capital on a professional look. This includes your name and logo design, marketing materials such as business cards and brochures, and any materials you leave with clients—contracts, homework sheets, client instructions.

Relationships

A hallmark of the successful trainer is to prioritize working relationships, and carefully cultivate and maintain them. Letting one client after another fade into the woodwork is a mistake. Smart dog pros follow up with clients, even if they aren’t currently using services, because staying on your clients’ radar screen means you’re at hand when a need arises—for them or for a friend’s dog. Collegial relationships are equally important. They allow you to keep up with industry standards, exchange best practices, and support each other by brainstorming difficult situations, acting as each other’s support systems and, most importantly, through mutual referrals. A separation anxiety trainer, for example, is likely to receive referrals from other trainers not interested in or willing to take sep anx cases if she fosters strong collegial relationships. And she can return the favor when she gets calls outside of her own comfort or skill zone. I’ve seen many niche-based dog pros form strong networks and build prosperous businesses with very little marketing expense.

Tip: Invest time in people

Follow up with former clients. Take an interest in the progress of their pooch beyond your own involvement. And cultivate relationships with pros in the area—how might you be mutually supportive? What do you each do differently and might you trade referrals?

Temperament

How comfortable are you with risks? Starting most dog businesses takes less capital than most enterprises, but you still run the risk of losing money and possibly failing. It takes tenacity and perspective to face such prospects and still work hard and enthusiastically. I’ve seen many trainers quit or go back to part-time work long before their businesses could reasonably be expected to succeed.

Tip: Know thyself

Are you comfortable dipping into your savings or borrowing money? Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you stick with your plans over time? Could you see yourself doing this in five years? Do you enjoy a variety of tasks? If you’ve answered yes to most of these, self-employment could be perfect for you.

Skills

When you run a small business you have to oversee everything. You may be an excellent dog trainer or pet sitter but are you ready to be a bookkeeper, accountant, marketing manager, secretary, and office manager? A key to successful full-time business ownership is to recognize your weaknesses and subcontract tasks that confound you or that require expertise you don’t possess.

Tip: Assess your skills

List the skills required to run your business. Then ask yourself: What are you good at? Where do your interests lie? Which tasks can you readily do? Which will stress you, weaken the business, or possibly be left undone? For those, get help. Trade skills with a friend or hire a contractor.

The must-knows: taxes & insurance

Self-employment unfortunately comes with the 15% so-called ‘Self Employment Tax,’ but this is off-set by a deduction of almost half that. Still, take it into account before you decide to make the jump to full time. Also consider becoming a Limited Liability Company. There are many advantages to operating this way, one of which is that LLCs can choose to be taxed as a sole proprietorship or as a corporation. To be sure what tax implications apply to you and what options you have, consult a qualified tax accountant. But don’t let these issues throw you. Deal with them up front so you can relax and enjoy your work with the pooches.

As for professional liability insurance, it’s easy and inexpensive for dog pros to acquire through professional associations or independent brokers. Health insurance is another matter altogether. Many part-timers stay in non-training jobs solely to retain insurance benefits. If that’s you, contact an insurance broker to discuss your insurability and consider your options. Then look into becoming an LLC. Some trainers hire employees to qualify for group insurance plans, but this is seldom cost-effective when you factor in other employee expenses, such as time spent on paperwork. A two-person LLC, however, can access the same group insurance plans. So if there’s someone you’d like to partner with or you can incorporate a spouse as a silent partner, you can usually form an LLC and get health insurance that way.

Tip: Consult the pros

Consulting a tax accountant before starting a business or going full time is always a good idea, because you will know the financial implications ahead of time. Additionally, having a professional prepare your taxes in your first year has major advantages, like avoiding mistakes and relieving stress. But it also provides a model for doing them yourself in subsequent years, and often saves you money because the professionals know of deductions and other details that can benefit you at tax time. And if you think you might have difficulty procuring private health insurance, talk to an insurance broker before you launch your business.

Will it work?

Finally, if you’re poised to take the plunge, but worry about whether you’ll be able to afford electricity, try this simple assessment: Figure out how much you need to live on each year. Be detailed and realistic and don’t forget the annual or occasional expenses like taxes, insurance, car repair, etc. Then assess your competition—what are others in the area charging, and what services do they provide? Use this information to determine your own rates. Now estimate a reasonable, conservative number of clients per month and year, being careful to consider seasonal variables. Then do the math—does it add up? If it doesn’t, don’t give up—go back to the drawing board to see what kind of creative solutions are waiting. Other people are doing it. You can too.

********

This post was originally published on the dog*tec blog.