Dog Care Professionals Today
Where are We Going & How Will We Get There?
By Doug Duncan
I remember as a boy of twelve years old letting my neighbor’s dog out to use the bathroom. Every week or so my neighbor would get home late from work, and on those days she’d ask me to go over to take Tilly, her English Springer Spaniel, out for a short potty walk. I was paid in cookies, which I felt was a bargain because I loved cookies and I loved Tilly, too. It was a win–win!
But though I loved Tilly, looking back now I realize that I did not understand her. Tilly was old and could be uncomfortable at times. I could get her out the back door and walk her up and down the street, but I did not know how to help her to feel better. I did not understand the physical limitations she was experiencing or how they might impact her life. I did not understand the possibility that age–related cognitive impairment might be effecting her behavior, making her less comfortable with handling around certain parts of her body. And I certainly did not know how to have a conversation about these topics with Tilly’s owner.
As dog professionals, we’ve come a long way from the days of paying the kid next door to take out the dog. In most cities today, you can find someone with some level of training in dog behavior and body language to help with the family dog. In larger cities, there are dozens of dog walkers, trainers, and dog daycare operations ready to help raise, exercise, and train dogs for busy dog owners. We have come a long way.
Still, dog care—dog walking, pet sitting, dog training, boarding, and dog daycare—remains an unregulated industry. In the vast majority of cities and towns, there are no special requirements needed to own and operate a dog business, except for those regulations that any business owner must observe—a business license and paying taxes being the most obvious. There are professional organizations that work to set guidelines that dog professionals can ascribe to, and many of these organizations do a fantastic job. They’ve created codes of ethics and professionalism, and exams that test a dog professional’s knowledge and abilities. Some even require continuing education to keep dog professionals at the top of their game.
But these steps remain voluntary. We still work in an industry grappling with how best to organize its practitioners. As we nurture this fledgling profession of ours, we should recognize the progress we have made while acknowledging we have a lot of work yet to be done. We are on the right track, but there is a long journey ahead as we try to define and address just what dog professionals must be able to do and what they must know.
What We Need to Understand About Dogs
What does it mean to be a dog professional anyway? At this stage in our development, there’s no consensus regarding what a dog professional is. What kinds of things do we expect dog professionals to know?
Doing the work well clearly demands much more than just a love of dogs. Growing up with dogs might set you on a path toward working with dogs as a professional, but it certainly doesn’t prepare you to understand and care for dogs as a professional. Personal experience just isn’t enough. Professionals have a responsibility to learn about dogs from trusted and reliable sources.
This means attending seminars and conferences to better understand how dogs learn and how they communicate using body language. We should listen to experts in the field to better understand how arousal, fear, and aggression impact a dog’s physiology and how behaviors function to change a dog’s environment. Our understanding of dogs is increasing and changing very quickly. We need to keep up with this increasing knowledge by reading articles by the experts who do the research. All of this, in addition to mastering the mechanics of training—how to elicit behaviors and how to reinforce them well and at the right moment—is what modern dog professionals do.
What We Need To Understand About Business
To be successful, dog professionals also need to know how to run a business. Many people begin working with dogs before even thinking about how to run a business. We get into working with dogs because, well, we love them. Far fewer of us go into working with dogs in order to be business owners. Working with animals just doesn’t conjure up images of a desk job. But, to be successful at what you do, you have to be able to work on your business as well as in it. This means tackling the business planning, the bookkeeping, the scheduling, the policy writing, and the marketing. There are a lot of things that support being successful at working with dogs, and confronting them early is important. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to focus on the dogs once you’re up and running.
Marketing Your Business
To work with dogs you first have to attract your customers to your services. In a competitive market, word of mouth simply is not enough. Your website is the face of your business, and you’ll want it to smile. How your business looks, to your competition and to your potential clients, matters. How can you craft your website so that it attracts the kind of customers you want to work with? You have to be adept at communicating effectively and efficiently just what your business does. The right website can do that for you. The wrong one can actually work against you.
How and where you market your business also matters. If your business is focused in a small neighborhood, it probably doesn’t make sense to broadcast television ads to the entire state. Some advertising efforts will have much greater impact than others, and they don’t have to be expensive. What kinds of marketing projects, for example, work best to reach out to those veterinarians you’ve been wanting to connect with? What is the best way to reach new clients and what works to keep the ones you already have? Every cent you spend on your website and your marketing materials can come back to you many times over, and professionals learn how to maximize their time spent on marketing so that it generates the impact they need to succeed.
Charging What You’re Worth
Professionals also charge what they are worth. Your knowledge and abilities are worth something, just as the knowledge and abilities that your doctor possesses are worth something. If you need legal help, you are going to pay the professional rates that attorneys charge because they worked hard to learn how to do what they do. Professionals are people with special knowledge, skills, and abilities—with experience—and people seek them out because that is worth something. Setting your rates too low can communicate the wrong message to your customers. Are you looking for bargain hunters or people who value your knowledge and abilities, and are willing to pay for them?
Establishing Sound Policies
Professionals also have well thought out policies and procedures so their customers know just what kind of service they are working with. Good policies and procedures spell out what you do and how you do it. How do you handle your dog walking clients during inclement weather, for example? What kind of cancellation policy does your training business have to protect your income and your clients’ training success? Does your dog daycare give discounts for signing up for multiple days or for signing up with multiple dogs? (I actually counsel against such discounts because dog daycare is not, and should not, be a volume industry. Such discounts might attract customers, but they can destroy your bottom line).
Taking Care of Yourself
People who work with dogs professionally must learn to take good care of themselves as well as the dogs. You’re no good to the dogs or to your customers if you let yourself become burned out with your business. Your time is valuable and how you use it matters. How can you set yourself up to be there for your clients while also being there for yourself? Successful professionals prioritize their time well, carving out time for their clients, their friends and family, and themselves. To succeed, you’ve got to take care of yourself, too.
I love dogs. I’m a dog lover. Taking care of my neighbor’s dog may have been the catalyst that sent me on my own path toward becoming a dog professional, but it did not teach me what I needed to know to succeed as a dog professional. We are all dog professionals, and we’ve made some great strides forward. We care about our profession. We want to see it continue to transform into a strong profession with agreed upon standards and practices. You can help us all reach a place where we are all valued for what we know and how we do what we do. You can get there by valuing your education, your business, and most importantly, yourself.
Doug Duncan helps fellow dog professionals succeed across the country as a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy instructor and business consultant. Learn more at www.dogtec.org or reach out to Doug at [email protected]. Doug enjoys his own successful dog training and daycare business, Doggy Business, in Portland, Oregon.