For most of us the phrase “dog training class” conjures a picture of a six-week sequential program. Though this is by far the most common public class iteration, there are no rules that say it has to be. We’re seeing clients experience great success with topics classes. These are shorter classes than typical programs — usually three or four weeks long–that generally focus on just one behavior or issue, such as building a strong recall or polite household manners. Innovation is key to business success, and thinking outside the six-week box with topics classes can mean finding better solutions to client problems, a way to differentiate yourself, and a more compelling marketing message. The end result? More new students and more students sticking with you after their initial Basic Manners course.
Shorter classes can be an easier sell, as they require less time and monetary commitment on the part of students. It’s easier to say yes to a four-week time frame and its price tag, for example, than a seven-week one. This can be particularly helpful during the summer months when people are working around vacations, or during the holidays when it becomes difficult to build a class schedule to accommodate the trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
Asking students for a smaller commitment of time and money means better program retention. Clients are more likely to take a second, third, or even fourth class when doing so doesn’t mean blocking out another month and a half and forking over the payment that comes with it. If I’m having a good time and making progress with my dog, what’s another three weeks?
You make more money, too. You make more because a higher percentage of your students come back for additional classes, but also because you can charge more per session for topics classes due to their shorter duration. For example, let’s say you currently charge $150 for a six-week class. At that rate, each session is $25 per student. Say you offer a three-week loose-leash-walking clinic for $90. The price tag looks great to folks graduating from your basic manners program — but you’re now making $30 per class session.
Most often these programs are offered as retention classes — classes to keep students coming back after graduation from basic or puppy. But they can also be an effective entry point into your business. Offering a one-shot teaser or short-run topics class on a commonly desired behavior such as nice leash walking, or one that addresses a particular type of problem such as impulse control, can be a great way to get people to make the training class leap in the first place.
By addressing a specific need or targeting a particular problem, topics classes can appeal to folks not interested in training or classes in general. Perhaps I don’t want to attend a six-week class to learn a bunch of behaviors; I just want my dog to come when called. Or maybe I really enjoyed basic manners class, but the thought of moving into intermediate doesn’t appeal. But some extra practice in a loose-leash-walking class sounds great. (What trainer doesn’t consistently see “Would have liked more work on leash walking” in their class evaluations?)
The trick is to position your topics classes with this in mind. Clearly state who this class is for. Build your class descriptions around what problem your class will solve. Describe the outcomes — what will students be able to do and enjoy as a result of taking your class? How will life be easier?
Class Ideas and Formats
When brainstorming ideas for topics classes, think in terms of categories. There are behavior-based classes such as those focused on recall or loose-leash walking. (You could also combine these into one program.) Behavior-based classes can be entry points into your class business or extra-practice retention programs that follow more traditional entry points such as basic manners or puppy class.
Situational classes are most likely to be retention programs. Examples include a four-week urban outing class that meets in a different location each week or a class focused on applying what was learned in basic manners to common household situations such as guests at the door, polite dinner table manners, etc.
You might choose to offer topics classes aimed at a particular problem, such as a three- or four-week impulse control class or one built around confidence-building exercises for shy dogs.
And don’t forget the fun stuff — tricks and sports like agility, dancing, Rally-O, etc. A short program can be a great way to get students hooked and committed to the longer classes necessary for these sports.
Though topics classes are usually three or four weeks in length, you might also offer single-shot teaser classes aimed at a particular behavior or designed to get students hooked on a longer program. A single fieldtrip experience, for example, can be a great sales tool for an urban outing program. Or a chance to be introduced to some agility equipment or to learn a simple but impressive trick can easily hook students into coming back for more of the same.
A focus on real-life contexts and problem solving — the things that make for good curriculum in any type of class — are even more important in short topics programs. Build your curriculum to deliver the skills and concepts clients need for getting results in the real world and you’ll have students coming back to your classroom again and again. Mistake a list of dog behaviors for a curriculum and you’ll likely be disappointed in your retention numbers regardless of how much students may enjoy your class.
Proofing — for both dogs and humans — is about repeated opportunities to practice in an authentic context instead of a drill. So a strong curriculum will give students many opportunities to apply what they’ve learned to new and increasingly challenging situations that mirror real life as much as possible. And the trick is to remove the prompting (called “scaffolding” in education parlance) as quickly as you can. If you tell students what to do for too long they’ll learn to wait for your next instruction rather than learning to make decisions on their own. This will work fine in class, but will fail them in the real world when you’re not there at their elbow to direct them.
Pursuing topics classes doesn’t require an overhaul of your current class program. Simply add them to your current offerings. Start by making a couple of basic decisions. First, which topics? Which behaviors, problems, and situations are common issues among your clientele? Matching your class content to student needs will make marketing and selling your new classes that much easier. Then decide where each new class fits into your overall program — will it be an entry point or a retention class?
Then get your curriculum in order (consider our Topics Class Curriculum as a quick jump start) and add the classes to your schedule. Use your current marketing outlets to spread the word to new potential clients. And let all current and past students know. These new classes can be a great way to get old students back under your roof, and emails are free.