Creativity, Not Cash

A newspaper with the headline How to Get AttentionThe number one rule of marketing is to do it. You can’t expect word of mouth if you don’t build it. But you needn’t take out a loan or pawn your grandmother’s jewelry to market your business. In fact, you may not need much cash at all. It’s not that money can’t be a great help to a marketing plan. But if you don’t possess great start-up capital a little creativity can stand in nicely.

First, sit down with a pen and paper and construct two lists. The first will be a list of your strongest skills. What do you do well and enjoy? Are you a good public speaker? A talented small group or one-on-one teacher? How’s your writing? What about your planning skills?

For your second list, note all the potential networking resources in your area. Consider your environment. What other dog-related businesses are around? Vets, groomers, supply stores and boutiques, shelters and rescue groups? Oh—and don’t forget other trainers, walkers, and sitters, too! They can be a terrific networking resource. What about local activities? Are there dog parks or festivals, adult education or community classes? And what are people reading—any local dailies or weeklies or monthlies? In short, what’s going on in your neighborhood?

Get Creative
As you scan your two lists, you’re looking for good potential match ups between your skill sets on the one side and the resources or potential networking opportunities on the other. If you enjoy writing, perhaps the local neighborhood monthly would like to run a regular “Ask the Trainer” column? Terrific exposure, at no cost! And so much more effective than running an ad, where you’re attempting to sell yourself. A column, on the other hand, establishes your expertise and credibility. You become the sought-after local expert. Or, if you specialize in helping people with puppies and new dogs, wouldn’t it be great if the local shelter recommended you to all of their adopters?

Give, Don’t Ask
Writing a local column and getting shelter referrals are great marketing goals—but how do you make these things happen?

The trick is to give instead of asking. The typical dog training business marketing plan includes drawing up business cards to post around other dog-oriented establishments. Often we ask the owners if we can put our cards on their bulletin boards or in a holder on their counters. If brave enough we might even introduce ourselves, talk a little about what we do, and ask for their referrals.

But why should they refer people to you? They don’t know you or your abilities, they’re busy, and you’ve given them no reason to want to help you. So rather than asking for help, consider what you might have to offer.

If you’d like to write a regular column in the neighborhood paper, first try offering one article, already written, on a dog topic of broad interest. If you would like the shelter to refer their new adopters to you, put together a free adopter’s package of articles or tip handouts the shelter can give to its adopters. (Make sure your name and business information are on all the handouts, and include any of your other marketing material as well!) And maybe they would appreciate some training for their staff—a small series of talks or hands-on seminars. These offerings allow the shelter to get to know you, to come to see you as an expert, and to build loyalty to you. Sure, you can leave your cards on the front counter and hope people pick them up and call, but you’ll no doubt receive many more phone calls if the shelter staff is actively and enthusiastically sending adopters your way.

Be Active, Not Passive

One reason these kinds of approaches are much more powerful marketing tools than simply placing materials around town are that they are examples of active marketing—opportunities for clients to interact with your business rather than just seeing it advertised. Instead of picking up a business card, a shelter staff person hands your materials to potential clients while telling them, “You have to call this trainer. She is amazing and can help you fix this problem.” If you post a flier on a bulletin board, there is no potential for active interaction between your business and your hoped-for clients. If instead you disseminate a quarterly newsletter to the same places, the people who pick it up have a more interactive experience with your business. Rather than a flier that lists “problem behavior solving” as one of your services, an article in each newsletter can highlight an issue and tell the story of one or more dogs and clients whose lives were changed by training. In that narrative they get to “see” an example of the benefits of training and imagine themselves getting similar help, rather than just reading a bullet point.

Get Started Today
Most marketing takes time to be effective—plan to give your efforts a good six months to determine their usefulness—so make your lists right now and see how many great ideas you can create. Start marketing your business today to generate the clients who will help you spread the word tomorrow.


Hilary had been trying for some time to network with her local shelter. The shelter had good standing in the community and was viewed as a source of training and veterinary knowledge, but they did not provide private training services. She knew they were short staffed and thought both she and they could benefit from a referral service. But although the front desk staff had her cards on the counter, it seemed they were rarely given out, and she hardly ever received referrals. Then she offered to help answer the shelter behavior hotline. Together with the behavior manager, she set up a triage system for incoming calls to take pressure off the shelter staff. They determined which calls the staff could easily handle and forwarded the more difficult calls to Hilary. Hilary was careful to limit the time of each call, providing some immediately applicable management advice, then scheduling a consult with anyone interested. The hotline is now Hilary’s number one source of clients.

Debbie couldn’t help notice as she walked her pack of client dogs every day how messy the dog park had gotten—trash, untended piles of feces—it was unsightly and, she felt, gave dogs, dog owners, and dog professionals a bad name. Seeing an opportunity to do something for her community and her dog walking business, she worked with the parks department to co-sponsor, organize, and promote a Dog Park Clean Up Day. The park got cleaned up, her business got lots of free press, including an article in the local paper and a short spot on the local evening news, and Debbie got several new clients.

Suzanne believed that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to puppies and newly adopted dogs. She wanted to focus her business on getting people and dogs off on the right paw, but how to get the word out? The local shelter did a brisk adoption business, and Suzanne decided to start there. She offered to teach a free adopter’s class at the shelter, at no cost to them. She gave the two-hour talk one evening each week, and the shelter scheduled that weeks’ adopters into the lecture. Suzanne’s talk covered the basics of setting up a home for a new dog, house training, and prevention of common behavior problems, and she always made sure to talk about her private training services as well. Her business grew steadily as she signed up occasional clients at the talks, and found that over time people who had attended her class called as they developed training problems, and often referred her to friends and family as well.