We all know the importance of being dog smart—of keeping up-to-date on solid, scientific knowledge of dogs and dog behavior. Not only is knowing dogs critical to our success, whether we’re training, walking, or otherwise caring for them, it’s also critical to taking responsible, professional care of these creatures we all love.
But what about the importance of business smarts? If loving and working with dogs is how you make your living (or how you dream about and plan to do so), developing business smarts is just as important. After all, without business smarts you have far fewer opportunities to put your dog smarts to good use.
So what are the basics that make up dog business smarts? What do you need to know to be successful as a dog pro?
How To Value Yourself
Too many dog professionals set their rates without true strategy—and the result is usually to undervalue themselves.
Most dog trainers, dog walkers, dog daycares, and the like set rates based either on the lemming strategy, the “No one will pay that” strategy (also known as the “I couldn’t charge that” strategy), or a combination of both. The lemming strategy consists of looking up other local dog pros’ rates and copying them. The problem with this approach is that most businesses copied haven’t set rates with good strategy, either, so we perpetuate an industry where our services are undervalued.
The “No one will pay that” or “I couldn’t charge that” approach to rate setting simply projects our insecurities onto our clients, and turns those insecurities into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because serious dog owners look for the best trainers, walkers, daycares, etc. in their area, they’ll assume the cheaper businesses aren’t the best and look right past dog pros who are afraid to charge their worth. (If you doubt this, just look at the traditional compulsion trainers in your area. Most likely they charge far more than educated, reputable positive reinforcement trainers. Which group has the most businesses in your community?)
One key to dog pro business success is setting your rates with strategy, both so that you make what you actually need to stay in business and live a financially safe and stable life, and so that you draw the clients who are the right match for you and your services.
How To Protect Yourself—Legal Protection
Protecting your business has two central components. The first is protecting yourself legally with solid professional service contracts, a professional insurance policy, and if you and your CPA feel it’s warranted, by organizing as a limited liability company or LLC. Though the last decade has seen much improvement, too many dog lovers still provide services without these steps in place, putting themselves at personal liability risk and also contributing to the perception of dog pros as hobbyists rather than professionals.
We also see too many dog pros seeking to cut corners and save costs in this arena. It’s common, for example, to see trainers and walkers post on online forums asking if others have service contracts they’re willing to share. This is a potentially dangerous practice in an industry known for its lack of business acumen and rigor. It’s also common to see forum conversations about who offers the cheapest liability insurance, instead of asking the question that really matters: Who offers the best?
If you are serious about running a successful professional business and making your living as a dog pro, cutting corners on your business foundation undermines that professionalism and your business’ solidity.
How To Protect Yourself—Policies
The other component of protecting yourself is setting—and enforcing—strong policies. Many dog pros either do not set policies, or set them by copying others. The common policy approaches in our industry are generally not worth copying, as they do not do the job they’re meant to do. And then there’s the issue of enforcing policies, which so many of us are uncomfortable doing, and so simply do not.
Your policies should do several jobs for you. They should protect your revenue by guarding against cancellations and by requiring clients to use your services as intended. For example, dog walkers and dog daycares often struggle with wildly inconsistent income from month to month due to cancellations as well as clients using the service on an as-needed instead of regular, consistent basis. The right policies remove this stress, putting the business on safe financial footing.
Good policies don’t just protect and stabilize your income. They also set clients up for success. For example, clients are much more likely to see the impact of your dog walking service if their dogs are getting regular exercise with you instead of joining you intermittently. And dog training clients will enjoy much stronger results if training is consistent—i.e., if they aren’t losing ground due to cancelled training sessions.
Finally, setting, explaining, and enforcing smart policies encourages clients to respect you as a professional service provider and expert in your field, rather than merely a dog lover-turned-hobbyist. Not only do you deserve this, establishing such rapport with your clients will also mean fewer client service conflicts, and clients who are much quicker to respond to your requests, whether to pay an invoice or to take important action regarding their dogs’ health, behavioral wellness, or emotional well-being.
How To Market Yourself
This is such an area of discomfort for most R+ dog pros that we simply don’t do much of it. And what we do generally isn’t particularly effective. Between this and the rate and policy issues we struggle with, it’s no wonder there’s a pervasive (but entirely untrue) perception that you can’t make a good living as a dog professional.
Most dog pros are altruistic by nature rather an entrepreneurial, and the idea of selling ourselves feels tacky and distasteful. Add in the human fear of rejection and it can be a tall order to get a dog trainer or dog walker to throw themselves into serious marketing efforts.
But without marketing there are precious few dogs to serve. The good news: There are approaches to marketing in our industry that are entirely consistent with an authentic desire to do good for dogs and their people. These ways of marketing focus on community education rather than self-aggrandizement, and on doing for others instead of asking for favors.
Learning these approaches to marketing, along with a solid understanding of the principles of marketing, including branding, marketing messages, and message delivery, are the difference between the stress of waiting for inquiries and the stress of too much business. (Which problem would you rather have?)
How To Pace Yourself
Most dog pros are driven by their passion for dogs. That passion generally starts at home, with our own four-legged companions. Which is why it’s such a tragedy when dog pros—we see this especially among dog trainers—wake up one day to realize they don’t have the time they want with their own dogs.
Then there are the other goals you may have had in starting a business—the freedom, the ability to spend more time with family or friends or on hobbies and other interests. So many of the pre-consulting questionnaires we receive share frustrations and stress around impossible schedules, lack of downtime and regular time off, years without a break or vacation, and the guilt around not having more time and energy for one’s own four-legged best friends.
None of the rest of this matters—the rates, the policies, the marketing—if you don’t create a sustainable business and existence. Learning efficient business systems and time management strategies is critical to the longevity of your business, which is critical to helping as many dogs over as long a career as possible.
How To Set Yourself—and Your Clients & The Dogs—Up For Success
And all of this—the rates, policies, marketing, and scheduling—must be predicated on what it is you actually do for clients and dogs, and how you package and deliver those services. Dog training services can be provided in all sorts of ways, as can dog walking or dog daycare or pet sitting or boarding.
Take private training as just one example. There are the high-level questions, such as whether to teach clients how to train their dog or whether you’ll do the training for them via day training or board & train. But there are so many levels below this. How will you package your services, and will those packages be customized or pre-set? What will your pre-set packages be designed to address—which types of situations, behaviors, dogs, clients? What will the support component of your packages look like? Will you hybridize and combine services, such as a program combining private training and a group class for leash reactivity, or a weekend socialization/proofing field trip class for your private puppy training or puppy day school clients?
The options are endless, and what you choose to offer will have significant impact on which dog owners—and how many—take you up on those offers. Too many trainers copy what others are doing instead of learning how to assess their community and make strategic choices to set themselves up for success.
Getting Business Smart
While it may never be as exciting as learning dog smarts (or as wriggly and slobbery), deliberately building your dog business smarts is every bit as important if your goal is make your living helping as many dogs as possible.
Just as responsible dog professionals do not leave their dog smarts to experience alone and the vagaries of conventional wisdom, instead seeking quality education through reputable schools for dog trainers, dog walkers, etc., it is equally important to seek quality dog business education.