Help Your Dog Business By Helping Shelter Dogs

One of the best things about content marketing, what we at dogbiz sometimes also call community marketing, is that it allows you to do good in the world while promoting your business. The concept is to share your expertise so referral sources and potential clients get to see you in action, benefit from your knowledge, and thus imagine themselves working with you. It’s education as marketing—a win for your business and a win for your community and the dogs who live in it.

Shelters and rescue groups are an obvious target for community marketing. But proceed carefully to make sure they—and you—experience the full benefits of your efforts. Here’s how:

Assess their needs.
Your offer to help is more likely to be taken up—and appreciated—if it meets the organization’s needs. Before jumping in to offer your services, get to know the shelter or rescue a bit. Learn their processes, observe where they’re shorthanded or struggling to meet goals or missing an opportunity. Reach out to ask them about their needs, or begin as a regular volunteer to get a closer look.

Use your time wisely.
Community marketing tends to be inexpensive, but it is very time consuming. If you’re like most dog pros, your marketing time is tight. Look for ways to expand your impact to help the most number of dogs while getting the most out of the effort for your business.

Here are some ideas to give your volunteer time a much larger ripple effect. These projects also put your skills on display to more people—more shelter personnel, other referral sources, and the public—which means a higher likelihood of referrals and business for you.

Get the dogs out. Dog walkers and pet sitters, do what you do best: get the dogs out for some exercise. Kennel stress often leads to poor behavior which can reduce a dog’s chances of scoring a new home. Some one-on-one attention and exercise can help quite a bit. Push beyond the quick potty jaunt if at all possible. Run with the dogs, take longer walks, or play vigorous games of fetch or tug (always following the rules of the game) to help reduce excess energy and anxiety.

Train people rather than dogs. Trainers, you can help more dogs by training other people. For example, use your expertise to train staff to evaluate dogs. Or teach volunteers to walk dogs more safely or train simple behaviors to increase adoptability and kennel presentation. Teach foster parents simple protocols for instilling basic house manners and helping to avoid separation anxiety. Each staff member, volunteer, or foster parent you reach has the opportunity to apply your teaching to many more dogs over the course of their relationship with the shelter than you could get to on your own.

Create good publicity. As a rule, shelter and rescue staff are overworked. Many helpful tasks simply go undone, including reaching out to the public for help. Use your skills and professional network to help get the organization in front of your community. For example, trainers can offer to take shelter dogs on local TV stations to generate awareness and adopters. The dogs will show much better with you at the other end of the leash, and you get some publicity for your business, too. Walkers, volunteer to help wrangle dogs at adoption events—more hands on deck means the capacity for more adoption events and more animals at each one.

Trainers, offer to give a public talk about dog behavior—or even a series of talks—to benefit the organization. The talk might be held at the shelter or, if no adequate space exists, at a local daycare or pet store, etc. Ask that all involved help spread the word through their websites and email blasts, and provide the language and a schedule to make doing so easy. Charge a small donation fee at the door for the shelter or rescue.

Any dog pro looking to help homeless dogs and raise awareness of their own services can team up with local veterinarians, pet stores, or fellow dog pros to organize a toy or food drive over the holidays. This is good marketing for all involved, and a chance to cement or create new referral relationships for you, too.

Send materials home
Create branded adoption materials to go home with all dogs when their lucky day comes. For example, a flier about how to choose a dog walker or dog daycare, branded with your logo and contact information. Or a copy of your print newsletter or brochure along with a personalized letter about each dog you’ve spent time with, detailing personality and likes and dislikes you’ve noticed while hanging out. You can include a small discount card as well—perhaps a special rate for the first pet sitting stay or week of walks or daycare.

Trainers, create an adoption folder to go home with each dog. Put your logo on the front of the folder (a clear sticker label keeps print costs down), and then fill the inside with useful information to help get new dog parents off on the right paw. Put information about your business and services in the left-side pocket and 8-12 tip sheets in the right, covering topics like basic learning theory, tips for the first few days, house training, puppy socialization, a few basic obedience cues, etc.

For any dogs you work with individually, you can personalize the folders with an individual report card outlining what you’ve worked on with the dog and your personal tips for next training steps.

Before you begin.
As you can see, this sort of marketing is time intensive. So before you decide on shelter marketing projects, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is the audience a good match?
    There are plenty of very good reasons to volunteer your expertise to shelters and rescue groups. But if growing your business is one of them, you must gauge whether the audience matches your target clientele. Who does the organization adopt to? Do a large enough percentage of adopters live within your geographic range? Do they have the socio-economic ability to take advantage of your services? Do their values around dogs match your marketing message and services?
  2. Do I have the time?
    It’s never a good idea to put all your marketing eggs in a single basket, so be sure that whatever you choose to do for an organization leaves time in your marketing schedule for other projects as well.
  3. What’s my scope?
    How big do you want to go? For example, training volunteers could mean anything from a 60-minute talk once per quarter to developing, implementing, and overseeing a comprehensive volunteer training program. Assess both the start-up and ongoing effort involved for a project to make sure you can comfortably sustain it over time.

Make it easy.
Tight budgetary and personnel resources mean most shelter and rescue staff are desperately overworked. They may find it difficult to take advantage of an offer to help, even when it could make their lives easier or move them toward a goal. When you’re struggling to get the basics done, stopping to do something new—no matter how valuable—can seem impossible.

Keep this in mind when you approach an organization. Put together a written proposal that clearly outlines not just the idea you’re sharing and the benefits it will bring to the shelter, but also explicitly what you will do to make it happen with as minimal work on their part as possible. Most proposals focus too much on what. Give the why much more weight—what will it do for them? And then make the how seem doable.

The document should be short and easy to read—no more than two pages, with headers, subheads, bullet points, and numbered lists. Make it easy to scan, with no bulky paragraphs. Remember that your audience is busy and short on time—a heavy document can make your project seem too big or complicated right out of the gate.

Don’t forget to market.
Your first step is to get in there and start making a difference. No need to ask for anything in return up front. But be sure to watch over time for opportunities to put your business forward by offering materials for the adoption counter or lobby, asking for a link on the organization’s website, and suggesting (and even producing) articles about your programs for their email or print newsletters.

And always be quick to thank the organization for resulting business. You can send a hand-written card or make a bigger splash by dropping in once per quarter on a busy day with lunch for staff or ice cream for all on a hot afternoon, etc. Be creative and have fun with it, always remembering the power of positive reinforcement to increase behavior. You’ll be spending a lot of time and energy creating this marketing relationship—be sure to nurture and protect it.