At one of my Beginner classes recently, a student who is also a local veterinarian stayed late to chat. She was lamenting the fact that so many puppies that she sees in her practice never return as adult dogs. As we talked we both wondered, where DO the puppies go? Do they just die young, or do their owners move away or change veterinarians? Or are they given away to new homes or maybe relinquished to the pound? We had to accept the fact that many, many young puppies simply don’t reach adulthood in the homes they start out in. Although they may have had the best medical care, superior food, a big fenced yard, and the good intentions of their owners, they are still cast aside when the puppy cuteness wears off. Many times, early training and owner education are what buy that puppy a long life.
If you are an instructor, you will get many phone calls that sadden you, try your patience, or cause you to wonder why we aren’t doing a better job selling our obedience classes. For example, the lady who calls up with an 10 month old lab. She invariably has small kids too, because “I was told labs are perfect with children.” But she has to find him another home because he jumps up on the children and chews the water hoses in the yard. Of course this dog is kept outside all the time, because he runs amok if brought in and is not housebroken. So you take a deep breath, and try your best to explain that she most probably has a perfectly normal untrained, unmanaged, and unsocialized dog. Hopefully, you will change the lady’s mind about getting rid of the dog, and get them both to class. The thing is though, that class should have been “sold” to her months before!
How can we effectively reach puppy owners before they begin to think about dumping the dog? The truth is, promoting your dog obedience classes should start before the owner even gets the dog. A big part of the success of the average pet owner with a new puppy is just as simple as getting the “right” dog. This fact is obvious but as instructors we often overlook it. Volunteer as an adoption counselor at your city and private shelters. Offer to educate potential puppy owners ahead of time about choosing a breed or mix for their family and lifestyle. Talk to puppy “shoppers” on the phone and be willing to refer them to area breed clubs, respected breeders, rescue, or other reputable sources of dogs. If you really feel that the caller doesn’t need a flock guardian breed, for example, tell them why and give them some resources they can check into for information. Write up a guide for potential puppy buyers and leave it at the veterinarian’s, the local library, or ask that it be run in the local newspaper. People come with their own ideas about what they want or need in a dog, but they often will listen to someone knowledgeable if you provide common sense ideas and solutions. No potential puppy owner wants to fail!
Obedience instructors know the value of early training for the puppy and early education for the owner. Our job is to convince the dog owning public. Do local veterinarians object to you taking really young puppies into class? It is not uncommon in areas where parvovirus is a year round threat. Not a problem; you simply offer a “head start” class for the owners only. Being good puppy parents early on may be just a matter of getting the right information on housebreaking, chewing and mouthing, and jumping up. By the time the pups have completed their inoculations, you have already sold the owners on Puppy or Beginner class!
And whether you are running your own business or instruct for a club, don’t forget about the “unconventional” ways of promoting training and your classes, in addition to the usual cards and flyers around town. Being a guest speaker at the Lion’s Club lunch or putting your students on display in the Independence Day Parade are great ways to get your message out and attract attention to what you do. Children’s reading day at the library will get you lots of 4 year olds, but it will also bring out many moms who only want to do the very best for their kids, so bring a dog and do a demo. Write a question and answer column for the paper, or do a program for the PTA. Walks and runs for all kinds of charities often accept participants with dogs, so put on your company t-shirt and go! Wear your identification badge for your training school everywhere you go; you never know where you can strike up a conversation about the necessity of training. Offer discounts on your classes to other dog professionals who will help you get the word out, or even offer them free classes; it will be great advertising. Give a big discount to anyone who gives a discarded dog a second chance, ie shelter and rescue dogs, and encourage shelters to promote it (and you) in their literature and on their web pages. And speaking of classes, run at least a few outdoors where you will attract lots of attention. Donate a class or two to the Chamber of Commerce auction. Ask your veterinarian if he will put up “class photos”of your graduates that are his clients. Be assertive and creative. Every person you educate may be a dog’s life saved.
Those of us in dogs know how beneficial dog ownership is to us, our children, our society, and to our dogs. For these wonderful relationships to work, dogs must be welcome members of our families and communities. And that depends all too often on whether or not the dog and their people receive training. So promoting our classes effectively not only means we’ll have a successful business, but in a very real sense it means we will continue to have students to teach!