Sarah Filipiak, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, is a skilled professional dog behavior expert and has now turned to helping others become professional dog trainers. On today’s podcast, she talks to us about what it takes to be a true “professional” in the dog training industry. She’s started her own online “Becoming a Pro Dog Trainer” course, beginning May 22nd, to help other dog trainers starting out or improve their practice as dog trainers. (Should you click the link and purchase the course, The Modern Dog Trainer will make a small commission. These commissions help us maintain our website, Facebook groups, and keep more materials available for free.)
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One of the best referrals for a dog trainer is a veterinarian. They are the first ones to see the puppy at 8 weeks, sooner if a breeder brings a litter into the office for a health exam. The veterinarian will discuss the importance of socialization and starting young with training but sometimes the conversation stops there. The client is left to search all the listings for a dog trainer in their area. So what do you do to get those referrals? Drop off some business cards and brochures and hope the referrals start coming?
Image via Bessey’s Positive Paws
I am in a unique position as I am a dog trainer and I work in a veterinary office. Removing myself from the training position, here’s what I have seen for successfully establishing a relationship with veterinarians and their staff.
Go to the office in person! If the vet clinics are within driving distance, take the time and deliver the material (cards, brochures, packets, etc.) in person. Block off a day dedicated to making these deliveries and call ahead to try and schedule a meet and greet. Not that this speaks for all clinics but when packets were received from trainers, boarding kennels, groomers, etc. they were read and then placed aside and often forgot about. The business cards might get placed on the bulletin board but there was no relationship established with the staff to make it personal. The referrals might be given but without enthusiasm and often a list is provided, once again, leaving it to the client to sort through and decide which one is best.
When you go to the clinic in person, you are being interviewed. Discuss with anyone who is available your training techniques, method, and position on training. If they work at a vet clinic chances are they have a pet or two of their own. Offer some tips to help them with any issues they might mention their pet has. This shows them you are easy to talk to and that you have valuable information to help them. Be open to any and all questions that they have. At the end of your meet and greet you then leave them with the material you would have otherwise mailed to them for them to review and have available to their clients.
Now that the clinic has had a positive experience with you as a trainer, your brochures and business cards aren’t just pieces of paper anymore, they are a visible reminder and representation of you, the person they met.
If you are unable to go in person, call ahead and ask if you can mail along some material for them to display. If you have brochures send along a brochure stand; don’t assume they will have one empty and available to fill. Get the name of the person you spoke to when you called to inquire about sending along information and put a friendly note inside and use the persons name, “I spoke with Jane the other day on the phone…” – anything to make it more personal. Ask them to follow up if they have any questions, or better yet, let them know you will follow up in a few days to see if they received it and have any questions.
If you use an intake sheets for clients have a space available for them to let you know how they found you. Did someone refer them? The vet? If so who and/or which vet clinic? Then encourage them to tell the vet if they are happy with your services. Word of mouth is power! If clients start to rave about you it will speak volumes to the veterinarians and other staff members.
Lastly, don’t forget to thank the veterinary clinic for any referrals. You can do this once a year, twice a year or quarterly. How often may depend on how many referrals are being pushed your way. Bring by a thank you card and maybe something tasty, since we know food can be a powerful motivator. Again, delivering in person is always best because you become a familiar, friendly face, and you continue to establish and build the relationship with the staff.
How have you established a relationship with local veterinarians?
As we hit the beginning of November it’s time to start planning for the usual annual holiday downtime. Other than much needed days off, how should we prioritize annual administration tasks? What gets us the most bang for the time spent?
Get holiday/thank you cards and gifts ordered
Even if you’re not comfortable sending out cards wishing clients a happy holiday, you can still send out thank you cards. “Thank you for making this year so special.” Why send out cards? Those clients you worked with back in March may be having new problems or may have neighbors who are getting a new puppy. Getting your name in front of them again encourages referrals. Watch for deals on printing websites such as VistaPrint and FedEx/Kinkos.
Send thank you gifts to clients and veterinarians with the largest referrals. A gift basket with healthy snacks that can be shared by the veterinarian team or family can be cheap and easy to make. Delivering gifts in person allows you to see if referrers need more cards, brochures, or are planning any events that you might be able to participate in.
Review accounting software and systems to prepare for tax time
Tax time is typically a busy time for dog trainers since it follows on the heels of holiday puppy season. Taking the time to review your system, whether it’s working, and whether there is a better alternative can save you hours in the next year. How are you tracking your income each day? How are you tracking income and expenses? How are you tracking client packages, discounts, and referral bonuses? If you have a sliding scale of rates, which one did you charge most this year? Are you decreasing your income more than you think? Are items you supply such as treats really eating into your bottom line?
The best accounting system to use is the one you’ll actually use. If you find yourself trying to recreate income and enter receipts weeks after you’ve earned or spent the money, your system isn’t working. If your system requires hours of work each week, it may be time to spend some money on an automated or semi-automated system such as Wave, Xero, QuickBooks or Godaddy Bookkeeping.
Are you saving for retirement or emergencies? This is an area most dog trainers neglect. Just do it. Even $10 a month in a savings account is better than nothing.
Review time-tracking, scheduling, and client management systems.
Are you spending hours each week sending reminders or calling clients to remind them of appointments? Are you entering appointments in multiple places? Have you missed multiple appointments this year? How do you track client applications and waivers?
There are as many systems as there are dog trainers. The one to use is the one that saves you the most time and gets you where you’re supposed to be at the right time. Online forms built into your website can save you some typing, and most forms can forward to a newsletter email list through Zapier.
There are numerous CRM’s (Customer Relationship Management systems) out there. Some are as simple as a spreadsheet, and some have the ability to send reminders, schedule appointments, and store homework. Popular paid solutions include Evernote, Nimble, DogBizPro, SuperSaas, Google for Work, Highrise, and PocketSuite.
How much time are you spending doing individual homework instructions for each client? Should you spend some time building your own library so you can just copy/paste/individualize for new clients?
Review website design, keywords, and search engine optimization.
If you haven’t done it already, first on your list is to set up a Google Search Console account. Formerly known as Webmaster Tools, this service will tell you how Google sees your website, from the density of important keywords like, “dog training,” to which page people leave your website from. The last page they see is important. For example, if visitors are getting to your Contact page and then bailing, your form may be too long.
Is information easy to find? How far into your website does a visitor need to go to find scheduling times, group class start dates, registration, and pricing information? Is your location and phone number on every page? Does your layout and content look professional?
Google yourself. What page of Google does your business appear on? Who are your biggest competitors and how do they rank higher? Check out their keywords, descriptions that appear on the Google search results, page titles, etc. They’re doing it right. Take notes and see how to incorporate some of those ideas into your own website.
Make plans and goals for the new year.
Will you be giving yourself a raise? If so, is it in-line with your competition? Will you announce it on your website or just charge new clients the new amount and old clients the old amount? While it may seem nicer to grandfather in existing clients, the more charging tiers you have the more difficult it is to track exactly how much you’re making each week.
Are you planning a certification or organization membership or do you really want to go to a conference? Work on your budget now so you have the money to do it. Conference registration costs are about $40 a month without airfare and hotel. Can you set aside $5 per client hour for ongoing education and certification costs? How will you remember to do it and put those funds in a safe place?
Are you low on veterinarian referrals? How can you make yourself more desirable and promote yourself to that group of people? Spend some time setting up a plan and the materials you’ll need to introduce yourself.
Can you pivot by adding a new service? Could you be making some money on retail sales? If you’re always sending links to online sources for treats, harnesses, interactive toys, treat bags, etc., does it make sense to do a minimum wholesale order and charge retail prices at the client’s session? The client gets the item right away, and you get a little extra money. Warning, this will usually require a wholesaler’s license and more accounting due to taxes. It may not be worth the headache, but it’s something you should review.
Catch up on learning. Are you behind in some of the newest techniques and training protocols? You might consider signing up with Tawzer Dog DVD Rentals for a few months to catch up. You can also read some of those books you purchased through the year and incorporate them into new training plans for next year.
What items are on your “to do” list for the end of the year?
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The Modern Dog Trainer blog contributors invite the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers President, Brad Phifer, to discuss how to prepare yourself to become a full-time dog trainer. See the CPDT’s accompanying article on going full-time as you listen to the podcast!
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The Modern Dog Trainer Podcast – Episode 1 Podcast Show Notes
Links mentioned in the show:
Dog Training Business Tips
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The New Social Platform
Gone are the days of mailers, a back page newspaper brief, university class, or waiting for the monthly journal to arrive a-la-mailbox for the latest training buzz from the top world instructor. Access to millions of bits of intellectual property float incessantly around every social media platform that exists and much of it without a footnote or resource listed. Social media is now how we get our information out to people and often educate ourselves. These platforms can certainly be invaluable avenues for teaching, demonstrating and exposing wonderful new articles and sharing training tips and advice quickly and with wonderful accessibility. What comes along with digital accessibility, however, is anonymity and interaction.
Platform Or Soap Box?
When accessibility and anonymity meet online, the interactions can become, at best, thought-provoking or educating. At worst, attacking, bullying, ugly, demeaning or misinforming. Even dangerous. The purpose of this blog is to bring these conditions to light, and for us as educators and professionals to really use social media carefully and expertly. Regardless of what your method of delivering information is, use caution when opening a can of worms….
Each person is an individual. When our online ideas are attacked some of us will tend toward standing up to our aggressors and others of us may just sit reading the thread, seething (yours truly). Let me be clear about what I’m suggesting: It’s not our difference of opinion that’s no good; it’s how we share it.
Copernicus, Columbus, Newton and Einstein were all brilliant men that had to prove to the masses something that was outside of a current belief system, even beyond opinion. Wait, isn’t science always right? Why would we challenge science? Well, to move forward and ask, “is there a better way?” Questioning science is the best part of science. If we can remember that science isn’t static we can be better at keeping our mind open to new theories and practices in the world of training and behavior.
Things change when discoveries are made. Just this month, six female anthropologists found a new type of human! As we know, new information added to current knowledge is how we advance. When we as individuals are so rooted in “the one way” that something works, we are closing off the possibility of becoming more skilled and effective.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a strong intellectual scientific conversation online, but I have a set of criteria that must be followed for an intelligent conversation.
• Facts – back up thoughts with credited articles and/or journals.
• Politeness – comment and ask respectfully, ask for clarification first (yes, this goes for me, too!).
• Topic Focused – as we respond, are we discussing facts or are we taking things personally?
• Reputability – spend your time in groups that have a great code of conduct and that monitors their threads.
Here’s an excerpt I like from Lisa White of Positive Pet Advice:
CODE OF CONDUCT
• Treat people with respect. Even if you disagree with them, they, like you, are entitled to feel free to express their opinions.
• Do not bash, put down or insult anyone, no negative personal attacks/comments. You may argue the idea, the method or the opinion, but do not attack the people.
• There is a difference between being passionate about something and being aggressive. Aggression will not be tolerated.
• Rudeness of any kind will not be tolerated.
• Name-calling will absolutely not be tolerated.
• You will avoid criticizing others for their choices. By refraining from criticizing, you are opening up an audience to listen to your message instead of making them defensive.
• Follow your own training advice: Ignore what you don’t like and acknowledge and reward what you do like. Also, give alternative options.
• Positive reinforcement is also expected to be used for people too.
Choose Your Camp
The sheer magnitude of people online is amazing, and the beauty of life is having choice. Even with choice, some people will choose to believe in dominance theories and the use of force and coercion. Rather than feeling it my job to change their mind, I chose a long time ago to know that it’s not my job to sway people that are happy shocking dogs and popping collars, but to focus my energy on those who want my knowledge. Otherwise I sometimes feel like I’m spitting at the rain. By focusing my energy on people that are craving knowledge and want to do what’s right (in my opinion) for their dogs, I can be most effective. This way my energy spent can be most effective if I work in the forums where the people and advice is congruent to whom I am. In other forums, I have found sometimes it’s best to just walk (or click) away.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:
“Never argue with a fool or a drunk; people standing by won’t know who the fool or the drunk is.”
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As a modern dog trainer, you have invested a lot of time and energy into becoming the best, most educated trainer you can be. Throughout this journey, many basic ideas were hammered into your head time and again, until they just became basic knowledge. Unfortunately, sometimes these basic things are taken for granted by dog trainers and our clients are left hanging without this information. Here are several things that dog trainers take as common knowledge but clients might not realize.
Click And THEN Treat
When teaching clients that are new to clicker training the basic mechanics, a lot of time is often spent repeating the mantra, “click and THEN treat.” It seems a very natural behavior to click and offer the treat simultaneously. As a modern dog trainer, you will gently remind your clients of the proper sequence of this until it becomes second nature to them, too.
“Have A Ton Of Treats”
When a dog trainer says, “have a ton of treats handy,” they are envisioning a gallon-size ziploc bag of small, soft, stinky treats. When new clients hear this, however, their vision is slightly different. What you often walk into is a client proudly bearing one small ziploc bag of crunchy cookies (see below!). Make sure when you plan your first meeting with a client that you specify what you mean by, “have a ton of treats.” And then take extras of your own. *wink*
High Value Treats =/= Milkbones
Every modern dog trainer has been there – they meet with a client after telling them what kind/amount of treats to have, and the client has big hard biscuit-style treats. As a pre-emptive strike, always specify, “small, soft, stinky, and lots of them!”
You Have To Work Outside Your Formal Training Sessions
Working on skills learned in formal training with their dog trainer must occur even when the trainer is not present. Five to ten minutes, once or twice a day is all that is needed, but even that can be difficult for some clients. Emphasize that short sessions are okay, and even preferable!
“He Was Hungry”
As a modern dog trainer who understands the power that food can have as a reinforcer, you naturally know that a dog that is slightly hungry will work even harder. However, your clients are unwitting victims of the “hungry dog” eyes and prone to feed their dog a large meal right before training. Remind your clients that they should skip the meal right before training, or at least reduce it in size.
“His Tail Was Wagging, So He Was Happy”
This phrase can make even the most hardened dog trainer cringe. It is vitally important that you help your clients learn basic dog body language, for their safety and their dog’s safety.
Sometimes He DOESN’T “Just Want To Say Hi”
Yet another phrase that can bring a dog trainer crashing to their knees in despair. This can result from a couple different options. First, your client’s dog is truly super friendly and they don’t realize how horrifying it can be to other dog owners to have a loose dog come rushing up to them and their dog. Or second, their dog wants to do much more nefarious things than just say hi, but your client doesn’t understand body language. Explain the importance of keeping dogs on leash when not safely contained, and not permitting their dogs to get in the face of every other dog in the neighborhood.
Training Is Not A Luxury
As a modern dog trainer, you realize the importance that training provides in a dog’s life in the form of mental stimulation, ability to adapt to different situations, and just providing the dog guidelines for living in a human world. Make sure your clients realize that budgeting for dog training is just as important as budgeting for basic veterinary care.
What other concepts do you find yourself taking for granted while your clients are left hanging?
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