Starting Your Own Professional Dog Training Business

 

Because most dog trainers tend to be softies about dogs, we often overlook the practical aspects of running a business. If you’re thinking about starting a dog training business, you’ll want to take the time to assess what you need and where you’re going. Remember: The greater your financial success, the more people you’ll reach and the more dogs you’ll help!

Here are some “insider” tips that have worked well for me and many other dog trainers.

Getting Started

Visualize your business and what you want to be doing in five years. Your vision should be the foundation of your business plan. Your vision can change, but you need goals to help you get started.

As a new business owner, you’ll be faced with a myriad of practical and legal decisions. What type of business will you be—a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation? Will you be selling just services, or both services and products? Will you need a business license? A sales tax account? Should you buy insurance? Should you have clients sign liability waivers? When do the Yellow Pages come out? The choices you make in these and related areas are critical to the success of your business. Research your options, including the pros and cons of each, and ask for help when you need it. (Also see the sidebar, “When To Ask for Help” on page ___.)

Image and Marketing

Many people will benefit financially from investing in a good publishing/graphic design software program to help create a unique business image. You can use the software to design your own business cards, brochures, postcards, and Web site (and many programs even include templates for the creatively challenged). Before you buy software, though, consider your aptitude, interest, and hardware capabilities. If writing and designing marketing materials isn’t for you, you may want to hire an expert for these tasks.

Create at least one brochure outlining your various services and costs. In addition, you’ll save time by having a flyer for each question you are routinely asked. All your brochures and flyers should include your name, logo, phone number, and Web site address. And they should all be complementary in color, style, and layout; nothing looks shabbier than a bunch of hodge-podge flyers from different sources. Use high-quality paper for your brochures and have them professionally folded (this is very inexpensive and well worth the cost).

A Web site, while optional, can be helpful if you do it right. It can serve a variety of purposes, including the following:

  • Provide information about you
  • Provide overviews and tips on various topics (such as how to housebreak a dog)
  • Give class descriptions, times, and locations
  • Provide enrollment forms
  • Keep ex-clients aware of your services by sending a periodic newsletter
  • Keep track of data

An excellent reference book for marketing your services is Lisa Wright’s book, How To Market Your Dog Training Business (Dog Trainers Marketing Resource Center, 1997). Also, I strongly suggest that you set a firm goal of having three referring vets and three referring rescue groups within your first two years of business. These people can keep you busy!

Equipment

A computer is essential. You will save hours by using e-mail rather than the phone, and you’ll save money by designing your own marketing materials. A combination fax/scanner/copier/printer will meet many of your communication needs—and take up very little room in your office. Before you buy any office equipment, though, identify your needs and then do some research and comparison-shopping. You probably don’t need a state-of-the-art computer with a huge hard drive if you’ll use it only for basic word processing and your database. Similarly, you probably do want a stand-alone fax machine if you anticipate sending and receiving dozens of faxes each day.

A separate phone line with an answering machine will add to your professional image. Your message should give helpful information about your business, your hours, when you will get back to the caller, and instructions for skipping your introductory message (e.g., “Press *1 to bypass this message”).

You’ll also need a way to keep track of appointments. I use a Week-at-a-Glance diary, but I know many people who love their Palm Pilots. Your method really doesn’t matter, as long as it works.

Client Relations

Professionalism is very important. Returning phone calls and e-mails, doing what you say you will, and following up with clients will go far to earn you a good reputation and recommendations from clients and veterinarians. Use your day planner, wall calendar, or personal digital assistant to make notes of things you need to do.

Refunds can be problematic. Everyone has his or her own policy, usually based on experience. Put your refund policy (e.g., for classes) in the information sheet that your clients fill out and sign. Consider using or creating a client information sheet that includes “conditions of enrollment” such as policies on aggressive dogs, training methods, disruptive behavior, refunds, and liability waivers.

Mental Health

To avoid burnout, you should set aside at least one day a week when you do not have classes or appointments and don’t even answer the phone. You need time to regroup, be with your family, and play with your dogs. Don’t let yourself get to the point where you don’t enjoy your business because you’re too busy or too exhausted.

Employees

Employees mean more administrative responsibilities for you, and you must decide if that is what you want. It may be difficult to know when to add an employee to your operation, but you can help make the decision easier by looking at the financial pros and cons.

Let’s look at a typical case scenario. You charge $75 an hour for private lessons, and you’re thinking about hiring a receptionist at $10 an hour (which is really $12 when you add 20 percent for hidden costs). Would hiring this employee be a good financial move? If you currently spend two hours a day on the phones but could fill that time with private lessons, you’ll gain $114 a day even if your receptionist spends three hours doing phone work. Sounds good … as long as you actually teach two more hours of private lessons each day the receptionist works.

Or let’s say you teach two one-hour classes per night, but you actually work 3½ hours each night. If you teach alone, you can handle six students in each class. Each student pays $12, so your gross income is $72 per class (or $144 per night) and your gross hourly rate is $41.15. If your receptionist is also your assistant trainer, the two of you can handle 10 students in each class—for a gross income of $240 per night. After you pay your assistant $42 for 3½ hours of work, your gross income for the evening is $198, or $56.58 per hour. That’s a $15.43 increase in your hourly wage. Is it worth it to hire an assistant? Probably yes, as long as you actually get four more students in each class. You should also factor in the time spent in teaching your assistant, expecting that there will be a greater investment of your time at the beginning as you train him or her.

Conclusion

For most of us, dog training is a serious business with a financial bottom line. If you want to join the ranks of dog trainers who are self-employed small business owners, you need to do your homework. Read everything you can—not just about dog training, but about owning a small business. Talk with people who have taken the plunge, and find out what worked for them and what didn’t. Work on achieving a balance of visionary dreams and realistic expectations. Learn from your mistakes, celebrate your successes, and always keep an open mind about what you can do to improve your business. Welcome, all of you newcomers, to an exciting, rewarding profession!

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.