If you’re teaching group classes, chances are you’ve encountered at least a few common challenges. Like the students who confide in you their dogs “only behave during class” or “when the trainer is around.” Or having to decide between canceling or postponing classes that don’t fill on time, or going ahead with them half-full. There’s the disappointment of starting a class with six students who have dwindled down to three by graduation week. And the frustration of watching students check training off their to-do list after Puppy or Basic Manners, never to return again.
There are also the students who enroll but miss sessions, creating all sorts of scheduling issues to accommodate make-ups. Beyond all of this is the never-ending puzzle of teaching students who come with a wide variety of skill levels and needs. If that all weren’t enough, there’s the stress of an income that fluctuates from month to month to keep you up at night.
Building a successful group class program that really works for you, your students, and the dogs is a tremendous undertaking, whether you’re a one-trainer show offering a few classes a week or a multi-trainer operation sporting a 30-class/week schedule.
If you struggle with any of these all-too-common challenges, it can help to shore up the four pillars of a successful group class program.
1. The Right Structure
Structure is how your classes are made available and delivered. Traditionally dog training classes have been sequential. All students start together and (we hope!) finish together. You might have a 6-week sequential course or an 8-week one, etc., and all class sessions are scheduled for the same day and time each week.
The last decade or so has seen a lot of experimentation and innovation in class structure, from open enrollment classes allowing students to start whenever they’re ready, to more complicated arrangements like levels and modular classes, where students progress through a course at their own pace or even chart their own learning path.
If you’re struggling with under-enrolled classes, consider a more flexible structure like open enrollment that allows students to jump in when they’re ready. This helps align your scheduling stars by removing start dates. No more just-missed students, and you can start classes half full, gradually filling them up as you go. Open enrollment is particularly helpful for small businesses that don’t have lots of class options on offer, and for avoiding lost socialization time for puppies.
A good class structure should also be simple and streamlined. Complicated structures like levels and modular programs tend to require complicated administration, adding time and cost to the business. More often than not they also require teaching approximately 30% more sessions in order to accommodate program features like allowing students to attend different or multiple days of the week. That means teaching 30% more class hours for the same revenue! If you’re currently using one of these structures, take a good look at your admin load, student retention, and session-to-student ratio data. You may find the benefits of levels and modular structures come with a heavier cost than is readily apparent on the surface.
2. The Right Curriculum
Curriculum—what you teach and how you teach it—has a large and often overlooked impact on student retention. The single most important factor determining whether or not a student finishes a class and whether or not they come back for additional classes afterward is curriculum. What matters isn’t the list of behaviors or cues covered, but whether the class is relevant to students’ lives. If you’re hearing “He only behaves in class,” that’s a curriculum problem. Unfortunately, it’s a common one.
The root of this issue is our misunderstanding of curriculum as a list of cues to teach the dog. Focusing on teaching behaviors in the classroom usually results in dogs being successful with behaviors in the classroom. But students don’t live in our classrooms. To motivate students to return, classes must improve the experience and relationship between dog and owner outside the classroom, in their real lives together. This requires classes to focus on teaching human students the skills and concepts they need to be better handlers—interrelated things like problem solving, working at the dog’s level (i.e., setting and adjusting criteria), situational awareness, and handling distraction. If we accomplish teaching these goals, the cues will follow.
Curriculum also has to match structure. If you’ve ever taught an open enrollment, levels, or modular class and had that “headless chicken” feeling as you ran from student to student trying to provide mini-lessons appropriate for each dog-handler team, you’ve experienced a mismatch of curriculum and structure. A non-sequential structure demands an entirely different approach to curriculum, one that doesn’t require teaching topics in a specific order, and doesn’t require students who are all at the same experience or skill level. (Let’s be honest, that never happens anyway, no matter how many levels we offer.) Forcing old sequential ways of teaching into a more modern course structure generally produces disappointing real-life results for students and a lot of extra work for the instructor.
3. The Right Class Offerings
If one half of retention is about good curriculum, the other is about offering the right classes. The one-and-done training mentality is a frustration to trainers everywhere. We tear our hair out over students who take a puppy or basic class and then check training off their to-do lists as though dogs aren’t living, breathing, learning organisms. But we have to own our part in this frustration.
Even the most dedicated dog lovers are busy people with many things vying for their time and financial resources. If we want students to come back after entry level classes, we have to make it truly worth their while. Giving them an entry level experience that’s relevant and useful to their real lives will make half the argument. The other is promising to do it again and making it easy for them to say yes.
Intermediate and advanced classes tend to sound dull and irrelevant to non-trainers. 6 or 8 more weeks of the same stuff at a higher level—that’s a dull sell and a hard ask.
What you offer after puppy and basic, how you structure these offerings, and how you message them matters. Consider, for example, the relative enticement of a 6-week Intermediate Manners class versus a 3-week Reliable Recall Intensive or a 4-week Loose Leash Fieldtrip Class. Which is a harried dog lover with a tight budget, who wants a well-trained dog but isn’t a training geek, likely to choose?
Short, topics-based classes are just one example of thinking outside the box to create a set of class offerings to improve retention and get your program thriving. Ultimately, you’ve got to understand your audience and offer them exactly what resonates for their lives with their dogs. Trying to convince students that intermediate and advanced basic manners are “good for them” will only leave you frustrated, and your classes unfilled.
4. The Right Business Choices
Now that you’ve designed a class program built to thrive, we’ve got one more thing to look at: The business angle. There’s not much point getting the rest right if we don’t get this down, too. What you charge for your classes, the policies you set to govern them, and the way you market will all have their say on whether your classes fill and your program thrives.
Your class fees must be set high enough to signal your quality. Ironically, pricing yourself too low is often a major culprit in empty classes. If you look cheap, people will assume you must not be as good a trainer as the one across town who charges more. Your class tuition should also be high enough to sustain your ability to make your living as a dog trainer, allowing you to touch the lives of student-dog teams for many years to come.
Your policies must protect your revenue and your students’ success. It is a common pitfall to mistake customer service for policy. Good customer service is returning calls and emails on time, providing a smooth registration process, greeting students at your classroom door. Good policy is protecting your business success and your students’ success.
Take make-ups as just one example. When your program allows students to miss class without consequence, they will miss class more often. That’s a shame, because consistency is key to successful training results. If your program structure and policies allow students a level of flexibility that inadvertently encourages inconsistency, look for ways to close that policy loophole. You’ll see retention levels rise and your income rise, too. When you provide make-ups, you eat into your revenue and time, working harder for the same amount of income and robbing yourself of downtime with your own dogs or time to put into growing your business. If you allow students makeup time in other sessions, you shortchange the students and dogs in those classes. And the reality is this: It does not do the student or dog you’re trying to help the best service.
Finally, marketing. It’s hard to fill a class no one knows about, so the first rule of marketing is that it must be done. (I know, and I’m sorry—I’d wave a magic wand on this one if I had it!) The second rule is that it must be done consistently. As in training, consistency is a key ingredient to successful marketing. This is particularly true for classes. Part of avoiding cyclical attendance and income slumps is keeping up on marketing year-round, even when classes are filling with ease. Building a marketing calendar of projects that suit your skill and comfort zones, one that strategically anticipates and battles slow times, means more consistent revenue and far less stress running your class business.
And remember to focus your messaging on what’s relevant to the dog lovers in your community—think why, not what. What are the behaviors you’ll teach. Why is so much more compelling—what will your class make it possible for your students to do with their dogs? What problems will it solve? How will it make them feel? How will it make their lives easier?
Group classes are challenging. They’ve got a lot of moving parts. Each student comes with his or her own needs, skill levels, experiences, and challenges. Each dog comes with his or her own needs, skill levels, experiences, and challenges, too. That doesn’t even include scheduling complexities, structural decisions, curriculum choices, and developing instructional skills. But for all this challenge, classes hold capacity for enormous positive impact for students and dogs, and the communities they live in. And enormous capacity for revenue, too. It’s well worth the effort to get the four components of a thriving dog training class business just right for yours.
For more ideas about success with group classes: