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.

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Walking reactive dogs: distraction to the rescue!

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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.

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http://dogtec.org/dogwalkingacademy.php

Making behavior a win-win

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

5 things successful dog pros do

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What makes the difference between dog businesses that thrive and those that only survive? Here are the top 5 things we teach our clients to do:

Actively market

If you’re not willing to market your business, you’re running the race with your shoelaces tied together. These days people have lots of dog businesses to choose from; if they don’t know you’re there, they can’t choose you.

Put together a simple marketing plan, outlining one new project per quarter if you’re in growth mode, and at least one new effort per year once you’re where you want to be. Keep track of how people heard about you and what made them decide to call so you know which projects to maintain.

Value yourself and your services

People respond to confidence and quality. They will value what you have to offer only if you do. The first step to valuing your services is pricing them well. Low rates undermine a message of value. They attract bargain hunters who will likely jump ship as soon as they see an even lower price. To attract serious clients who choose you for who you are and what you have to offer, pick a price point that shows them you’re worth it. These are the clients who will reward you with years of loyalty.

Act like you’ve already made it

Be clear with yourself and your clients about your services: What exactly do you do, and how? If you’re a dog walker, decide what that looks like: How long will the walks be? When and where will they take place? What equipment will you use? What are your policies for weekly minimums, payment, and cancellations? Make these decisions clearly and communicate them clearly, then implement and enforce them consistently. Not doing so leads to decisions on the fly, ethical dilemmas, and a business that runs you instead of the other way around. Don’t mistake good customer service for letting clients dictate your business.

It’s tempting when things aren’t going well to make compromises—lower a price here, bend a rule there, accommodate a client with a half day of daycare when your service model is full day, or pet sit a dog 20 minutes outside your service area when you promised yourself you wouldn’t. But letting fear dictate business decisions will leave you with a number of problems that will require fixing down the road. The way to build the business you want is to behave as though you already have it.

 Keep and work with a schedule

You have a lot to do for your business—marketing, taking care of dogs and clients, paperwork, the list goes on. And a lot you’d like to do for yourself—time with family and friends, for hobbies, for your own dogs. There are a few superheroes out there who calmly, easily balance work and life, but most small business owners are either workaholics or given to procrastination. Both create problems and stress.

Finding balance requires structure, and that’s hard to come by when you work for yourself. You can create discipline with a master schedule, in which your work week is broken into discrete chunks of time for each category of items on your to-do list. Assign specific blocks for marketing, appointment slots to offer clients, desk time for administrative tasks, desk time for returning phone calls and emails. Equally as important, set aside the time to walk and train your own dogs, visit friends, run personal errands and tidy the house, and to take that yoga class.

Work ON your businesses as well as IN it

Marketing, systems development for smooth daily operations, and service creation and improvement are just as important as time on the daycare floor or training the dogs and their people. If you don’t tend to behind-the-scenes tasks, you’ll likely have fewer daycare dogs to monitor or private training consults to head to.

Your master schedule will help make the time to work on the business, but success also requires a perspective shift—an understanding that taking care of the business is part of taking care of clients and their dogs. It’s part of taking care of yourself, too—by creating a successful business you reduce your stress and ensure a long career doing what you love.

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