My new work
In difficult economic times, how can a dog trainer establish and develop a thriving professional enterprise?
This question has been at the forefront of my mind for the past year. I left my job as a contract negotiator for an academic publishing company to pursue study through Karen Pryor Academy (KPA). My ultimate goal was to establish my own dog training business, of course.
Casey's dog Mokie (left) and Leila
(belonging to student Nicole Stankeiwicz, right)
relax after class at Clicking with Canines.
I graduated from Karen Pryor Academy in August, 2008, and started my own company, Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training. I am now partnered in business with another KPA graduate, Abbie Tamber, and with KPA faculty member, Steve Benjamin (my teacher at the KPA Dog Trainer Program), at Clicking with Canines in Endicott, New York.
Our area is saturated with dog trainers, representing a broad spectrum of training approaches. In fact, one dog training professional is located within half a city block of our facility. Naturally, the following questions are among our primary concerns:
How can we set ourselves apart from the rest?
How does the value of our services compare with what is offered by our competition?
The traditional approach to training classes—and the drawbacks
The traditional model for dog training group classes centers on each individual student purchasing attendance to one class per week for a designated number of weeks (generally an hour-long class, at the same time every week). What are the drawbacks of this approach? Is it time to rethink this tradition and consider a new model?
Let's say that a local trainer offers eight weeks of classes, every Monday night from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., at a rate of $100 for the course. Built into the traditional model is the fact that each student in the class must commit two months' worth of Mondays to attend class. If a student has to miss a class for some reason, make-up classes may need to be scheduled, or, worse, the student ends up missing that particular lesson. The price is low for these classes, but so is the service rating on the "convenience-meter" scale.
What if the student's son has a soccer game one Monday night, and then, a few Monday nights later, her daughter has a ballet recital? The student misses 25% of her scheduled classes. Rescheduling can be a hassle for both the trainer and the individual.
Those of us who teach know that each dog/handler team will learn and progress at a different rate. In a traditionally structured class, unless an assistant trainer is available, some dogs get left behind. Owners become frustrated when the teacher proceeds to the next exercise when they are still struggling with the current lesson.
Instructors teaching a traditional style class may enroll new students every few weeks, waiting until enough applications have been received to fill a class. Students who want to start training usually like to begin as soon as possible—being added to a waiting list may prompt those students to search for another trainer/class where they can start training right away.
Convenience, achievement, and immediacy can become issues for a dog/handler team attending a traditional-model class. Is there a better way, an approach that resolves some of these issues? I believe the answer is yes. The solution: stop selling classes and start selling memberships!The solution: stop selling classes and start selling memberships!
The membership approach to training classes
At Clicking with Canines, we offer six weeks of foundation classes for $120. Because we offer weekly orientations, a student never has to wait more than one week to start classes.
For the membership fee, a student can attend classes multiple times per week. We generally offer 5-10 foundation classes per week, at least three weeknights per week plus weekends. An average week could look like this:
- Monday—no Foundation class
- Tuesday—Foundation class at 6:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
- Wednesday—Foundation class at 6:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
- Thursday—no Foundation class
- Friday—Foundation class at 6:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
- Saturday—Foundation class at 12:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.
- Sunday—no Foundation class
An exceptionally dedicated student could attend class on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. A busy mom may only be able to attend once a week, on Saturday afternoon, with an occasional Thursday night class, too. The membership approach allows both students to be accommodated with maximum convenience and value for their tuition.
Initially, $120 for six weeks sounds like it is more costly than an eight-week class selling for $100. But when you think about it critically, the membership option works out to be a much better value. Would you rather pay $100 for eight one-hour classes, the same night every week, or $120 for six weeks, when you can attend as many classes as you want in a manner flexible enough to accommodate your busy schedule? Price is not the only determining factor.
Making it work—the need for record keeping
Rolling enrollment means that there will be students of various skill levels within a single class. This system requires careful record-keeping, particularly if multiple trainers are on staff. To address this need at our business, we have created record-keeping forms that list each of the behaviors included in the foundation modules, broken out into three or four steps of development and four levels of fluency.
We use a web-based calendar and invite our students to sign up for class electronically. Each student has a "report card" that is kept at our facility. The instructor for that night's class will check the calendar to see what dog/handler teams are signed up, before going to the classroom. The files for those students are pulled so that the trainer knows the level of the behaviors the dog is working at before the class begins, and can update the records at the end of class. Keeping records in this manner allows me to pick up with a student where Steve left off, for example.
To train a dog name response, the first step of developing the behavior may be to click for eye contact. For that behavior, in our records we list levels of competency (started, good progress, fluent, and stimulus control). The second step may be to add the name as the cue. I can pull a student's report card and see quickly the level the dog/handler pair has reached for each behavior, and what competency level they were at during the last class. The records allow students to work at their own pace, and not feel frustrated if their dogs are taking a bit longer than another dog in class to "get" the exercise.
We also record attendance dates for each student. This data allows us to see what nights/class times are most popular so that we can adjust our schedule according to the needs of our clients.
A welcome problem
The foundation classes have become so popular that our class enrollment has increased over 250% from this time last year.
The foundation classes have become so popular that our class enrollment has increased over 250% from this time last year. The classes have become so popular, in fact, that I ran into a problem. We had only developed a curriculum for a foundation membership, and when our students finished that membership they asked, "What's the next logical step?"
I began developing a number of four-week classes in the traditional style for our foundation graduates. As I worked on the curricula I realized that, after participating in a membership-type program, our students would be disappointed with a traditional-style class. I also felt that with the membership model, we offered new students a better service than what was available to our returning customers. That was certainly not reinforcing or fair to our dedicated, continuing students.
Taking membership to the next level
I believe that I have found a solution to take both the convenience and value of our class offerings to another level. In addition to the foundation module (based on the Karen Pryor Academy Curriculum for Beginning Dog Trainers), I am working on developing a puppy module and two advanced modules.
The puppy module concentrates on appropriate socialization, and addresses common puppy concerns such as nipping, house training, crate training, and jumping, and will include some instruction on basic manners and husbandry exercises.
In sequence, the next level is the foundation class. Of the ten basic foundation behaviors from the KPA curriculum, we train: sit, recall, loose-leash walking, mine/take it, down, settle, name response/recognition, and wait at a boundary.
The two advanced modules are called Canine Graduate Academy (CGA) and At Your Service (AYS). The CGA module is likely to include the following modules: games class, tricks class, introduction to agility, introduction to rally obedience, retrieving, scent work, and, possibly, seasonal modules that could include swimming and backpacking/hiking. The AYS module will include Canine Good Citizen (CGC) instruction and evaluation, a Service Dog Task Training module, and an "On the Town" module (classes at a different public location each week to work on proofing behaviors around distractions).
Students will be able to purchase a one-month membership, a quarterly membership, or an annual membership (payment plan available for annual membership). New students will be enrolled directly into a puppy or foundation module, depending on the age of the dog. CGA and AYS modules will only be available to students who have been through a foundation module and whose dogs can demonstrate foundation behaviors on cue.
A one-month or three-month membership will provide access to either the CGA or AYS advanced module. Full enrollment for both modules will be restricted to annual members. For the price of an annual membership, an advanced student could attend a tricks class, a retrieving class, and an agility class—all in the same week. The following week the same student could check out an agility class, a game night, and a CGC class. One week a student could attend one class, the next week three classes. For any/every class, students work at their own pace and attend according to their own schedules.
To give clients an added incentive to purchase the annual membership, we have considered offering "Members Only" modules. These modules could include an Advanced Recall module, a crate training/games module, a module for grooming and veterinary procedure desensitization, and a "Play with Your Dog: Becoming Your Dog's Greatest Reinforcer" module. These "Members Only" modules offer a substantial value to clients, and are a great way to reinforce positively those students who commit to the annual membership.Price should reflect the value of services without being cost-prohibitive for clients.
Pricing the membership
With the development of monthly, quarterly, and annual memberships, new pricing strategies are necessary. Price should reflect the value of services without being cost-prohibitive for clients. People are willing to pay more for convenience; providing flexibility in both scheduling and payment policies will dramatically increase your rating on the "convenience-meter" scale.
Our tentative pricing plan for monthly, quarterly, and annual memberships is:
- One-month membership: $100
- Three-month membership: $275
- Annual membership: $900 ($300 down/$50 per month)
Believe it or not, when I discussed this plan with my clients, many of them replied enthusiastically, "I want an annual membership—when can we start? I'll write you a check right now!"
They loved the idea that they could enroll in both of the advanced modules and have the opportunity to attend a wide variety of classes, all at a price that fit their wallet and with a schedule that is flexible and convenient. I expected more people to balk at the price of the annual membership, but so far all of our students have considered this rate to be exceptionally reasonable. Payment plans make the price more feasible for individuals who are passionate about training, but face limited budgets.
Note: Prices will obviously vary according to your location, and this pricing scheme may not be effective for all trainers in all areas.
Increasing your value
How else can you improve the value of your offerings?
Education: Having three Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners (KPA CTP) on staff at Clicking with Canines sets us apart from the competition. Conference attendances, CPDT or TAGteach certification, and similar educational endeavors send the clear message that you are serious about establishing yourself as a well-credentialed and educated trainer.
References from local businesses: Consider sending marketing packages (including business cards, brochures, letters of reference, and other promotional materials) to local veterinarians, groomers, boarding kennels, pet stores, responsible breeders, shelters, and rescue operations in your area. Also consider offering free training for the staff of those businesses on issues like desensitization for veterinary visits, grooming appointments, and more. This will help you develop connections and relationships with professionals who may become potential sources of referral and revenue.
Dog Scouts: Dog Scouts isn't a money-making endeavor, but it's a great opportunity to educate community members on responsible dog ownership. Dog Scots gets people to the classroom for some fun activities, and may eventually lead to higher class enrollment and increased references from Dog Scout members.
Writing: If you like to write, start a training blog, and consider submitting your articles to the editor of your local newspaper.
Demonstrations: We were approached recently to do a demonstration on clicker training for a local television station. Contact your local stations and see if they would be interested in something similar—it's free advertising!
Website: As a part of the "Internet generation," I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good website. I know that when I am looking to find a professional service provider, Google is one of the first places I look. Create and develop a positive and unique web identity for your business.
Reinforce your clients! Endeavor to make your classes fun and rewarding for both your human and canine clients. Word of mouth advertising is free and effective; do not underestimate the importance of a happy client!Do not underestimate the importance of a happy client!
Dog training in the 21st century
In order to thrive professionally in a time when schedules and wallets are stretched to the limit, dog trainers have to adjust both their training methods and business models. Consumers are increasingly discriminating, and want services that are affordable and convenient.
The membership model of teaching and price structuring addresses these concerns. The class revenue increase we've seen since adopting the membership model has thus far supported that conclusion—the trainers and the students love the changes!