As the American folk song goes, “The times, they are a changing.” Yes, indeed, and in today’s economy, if your dog training business doesn’t change too, you may be left behind. All it takes to know this is a quick look around. Novice A entries are way down at most trials, 10 week long training courses that used to sell easily now have been replaced by 8, 6, or even 5 weeklong sessions, and clients are flocking to the agility class down the road, by-passing even the basic obedience class. Mom and Dad are both working, and the kids are involved in sports, dance, and music lessons. No one seems to have any time for the dog anymore, and what little they do have, dog owners want to be useful and above all, enjoyable.
As dog trainers and obedience instructors, we need to provide what the client wants in order to stay in business, yet at the same time we know we have to offer services that get the dog trained…that is, after all, what we do. The trick is to be able to combine an enjoyable experience for the owner and his dog with results which will enable that dog to stay in the owner’s home permanently. Given the priorities of most dog owners nowadays, if we depend only on their motivation to get a well-trained companion dog it may be a mistake. In other words, the most well-intentioned owner may not stick with the program if he doesn’t have at least some fun doing it. Even the most basic program is open to a little diversity. If all you are doing is Puppy and Beginner classes, you will lose a good percentage of students when they run out of things to do as their dogs grow up. We all know it is easier to keep a client than to go out and find a new one, so it is to our advantage to keep that student busy in our program. In past years it was logical to move students up to the advanced classes, perhaps getting them interested in competition as well, which has its own built-in rewards. But for the student who is squeezing out time as it is just to do 6 or 7 weeks of beginner, you may need to come up with something more to entice them.
Of course, if you have your own large building, or an acre or two of nice, fenced-in grass, you can put up an agility course. It helps to have good weather if you are outdoors, or at least students and equipment that are extra hardy! Flyball is fun, but once more, plan on having the needed space and props. How about starting with some field stuff? All you really need is LAND, or how about some water work…only a lake or pond required! These training venues can be lots of fun for all involved, but if you don’t have the needed space, or money to buy the needed paraphernalia, you may be out of luck.
So what are some of the programs you can add to your business that don’t take lots of space and/or outlay of funds? Some schools and clubs have added “lateral” classes to their curriculum. Instead of pushing students to do advanced work which may take more of their time and motivation, they are encouraged to try training that is pretty much on the same level, but different. You might want to add Rally Obedience to your existing Novice class, for example. It is easy to do, doesn’t take a lot of space, and you can make up your own props easily. The AKC already has information available on Rally on its web site, and word has it that the UKC may begin its own program soon.
How about adding one-day “workshops” to your training programs? Dog people have been going to workshops and seminars for years. There is no reason to think that pet people won’t too, as long as they are being offered something that interests them. At my school, we have had well-attended work-shops on teaching tricks, getting started with the clicker, and whistle training (getting started on field work). Dog owners like things that they can teach their dogs that are fun and a little different, so be imaginative. I am planning a workshop on teaching your dog to catch a flying disc, and also one on retrieving (no, not dumb-bells, but things the owners bring). The workshop format is great, because it is only a half-day, and some of our sessions have been shorter than that. Busy dog owners will commit to a half-day faster than they will to 8 weeks.
Sometimes shorter courses may be a good way to attract and retain clients. Try a “power” or accelerated Beginner for those folks that you just can’t get into your regular basic session. Be sure to keep the commands taught to the nuts-and-bolts…maybe a rock-solid sit and down stay for starters, with polite lead walking the last week or two. Or perhaps what you really need is a “social skills” class for those folks with 10 month old rotties and GSDs who should have called you 6 months ago! These are examples of classes that don’t require extra space or an investment in equipment.
One thing I have noticed in the last few years is that more and more dog owners call up and say they want their dog to be a therapy dog. They probably don’t have any knowledge or experience in this field beyond watching Animal Planet on TV, but they are sure their dog can do the job! Why not offer a therapy dog class for your Beginner graduates who are so inclined? If you aren’t qualified, or don’t want to hassle with the needed props, you might ask your local therapy dog group if they need a place to train/certify dogs. If they are non-profit, and many are, you may not make any money off this class, but it will be good PR and keep your students in your loop.
These are just a few examples of training that is outside the obedience “box” yet still good for dogs and for dog owners. More than ever before, dog owners want to do fun things with their dogs. It is up to us to provide that enjoyment, yet at the same time provide the training that all dogs need and deserve. By being creative, obedience trainers and instructors can lure dog owners in the right direction!