If your new year resolutions are now a hazy fog (something about giving up chocolate? Now where did I put that Snickers…), you know how difficult behavior change can be. Dog trainers are in the business of persuasion and motivation – supporting habit, mindset, and relationship change for humans and canines alike. These changes are rarely instant. Lasting and meaningful shifts require effort, commitment, and a whole lot of repetition.
By the time prospective clients are contacting you for help, they are often frustrated and desperate. They want their problem solved yesterday. If they can’t see the big picture, they can quickly become despondent about progress. This is a danger point in the client journey – the promise of shiny instant results, even delivered with aversives, may be enough for them to jump ship. So how can we keep them engaged? How can we promote the longer game?
Manage expectations (without freaking them out)
When discussing training timelines, transparency is key. It’s important to be honest about what can be achieved and how much work will be involved. Part of your work as a dog trainer is being able to assess this and consider the variables, such as the individual dog and its learning history, client goals, client capacity, and the severity of the issue. By establishing expectations from the start, it’s easier to set realistic goals. This conversation requires a delicate approach. If you start your assessment with, “yikes, this is going to take a really long time and be a whole lot of work”, you’re likely to see sudden dread in your client’s eyes. Avoid phrases such as “it definitely won’t be an overnight fix” or “there is no quick fix for this” and focus instead on the desired outcomes and steps along the way. This applies to your marketing approach as well. While you don’t want to make false promises, you also don’t want to give the impression that training will be one big slog.
Ask clients how much time they can spend on training each week and encourage them to be realistic. We all tend to overestimate our abilities to get things done. Break things down into smaller goals so there are frequent wins you can all celebrate. If the expectations of the client aren’t realistic, help them with a re-frame: “I hear that you really want Banjo to be best friends with all the other dogs at the park. It sounds like Banjo finds these situations pretty challenging and that makes walks with him stressful. How would it feel if Banjo had some dog friends he could go on regular on-leash walks with instead?”
Prioritize the biggest pain point
What are clients seeking when they contact us? While we may be passionate about empathy and relationship building with dogs, most clients are looking for relief. They want to solve a problem which is causing stress and frustration (and yep, therefore impacting the relationship!). In many cases, they want help with a long laundry list of problems. As trainers our job is to listen deeply and identify which area will provide the most relief.
By prioritizing one area at a time, we avoid overwhelming the dogs and humans involved. If we get it right, it can often have a positive knock on effect on other issues as well. If Coco is pulling so intensely on leash that she is no longer being walked, resolving this will also mean she gets increased exercise and enrichment. This may mean she no longer zooms around the house in frustration every evening, and the dinner time madness her humans told you about stops being an issue. If you pull the right thread, sometimes the messy behavior knot unravels remarkably quickly.
Quick wins over fixes
While prioritizing pain points is a solid approach, sometimes it makes sense to pull a rabbit from your magic training hat. If you can identify an easy win at the start of the client journey, this can be a great way to get early buy-in. Anything that improves safety and reduces stress is a good quick win to go for. If a dog regularly bolts out the front door towards a busy road, a simple baby gate to prevent this can have a massive impact. Placing frosting on a window may reduce barking to such an extent that you will be lauded a ‘miracle worker’ by your clients as they relax in their now quieter home. Don’t underestimate your expertise in simple management strategies. Insights that seem obvious to trainers often aren’t to the average dog lover.
Most of us live in cultures that revere the ‘quick fix’ solution – from same-day deliveries to our doors, to crash diets and lifestyle ‘hacks’ on social media. Selling slow may feel like a tough task. Yet by carefully considering the approach and messaging along the client journey, it’s possible to demonstrate why ‘slow and steady’ wins the race.