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Hitting the Brakes

Kristine Hayes

FOR MORE THAN 30 years, my primary hobby has been training dogs. I’ve trained my own dogs, winning multiple performance titles along the way. I’ve also devoted years to coaching dogs, and their owners, as part of a dog sports team. I’ve spent thousands of hours—and thousands of dollars—attending dog competitions.

My husband shares my passion for dog training. He spent nearly three years training one of our German shepherds to be a member of a canine search and rescue team. I’m adept at training dogs to perform tricks and various obedience behaviors. My husband prefers to work on solving the complex behavioral issues that plague certain dogs.

Late last year, we began contemplating whether to start our own dog training business. The retirement community where we live is home to thousands of dogs. We assumed their owners might be interested in tapping into our dog training knowledge. We thought a training business might be the ideal way to provide us with some supplemental income.

In June, my husband and I launched our business. We started small, handing out business cards and brochures at our neighborhood dog park and veterinary office. I posted a couple of advertisements on Nextdoor and Facebook. In the first week, I fielded four phone calls from people interested in learning more about our training programs. I became convinced there was a need for our services.

We landed our first paying client within two weeks of starting to advertise. Soon after, we attended a gathering of local small business owners. It seemed everyone we spoke to was enthusiastic and encouraging about our business model. This fueled my belief we were destined for success.

I registered our business name with the state, opened a business banking account and filed the appropriate forms with the IRS. Since we didn’t have a facility where we could hold classes, we offered to train dogs at their owner’s home. We were convinced, however, that we would need to rent a location if we wanted our business to prosper. How could we possibly compete with the training offered by a big-box pet retailer—located just a couple of miles away—if we didn’t have our own facility?

Our search for a location began in July. Within a couple of weeks, we found an ideal location. The 1,300-square-foot retail space was located four doors down from a busy veterinary clinic and directly across the street from a dog grooming salon. I contacted a real estate agent and we began negotiating the terms of the lease.

For the next three weeks, I had visions of both overwhelming business success and dismal failure. One minute, I imagined we would be so busy we’d be turning people and their dogs away. The next minute, I’d picture our space completely devoid of customers.

At the same time, I noticed how—despite spending more time and money on advertising—we were no longer getting inquiries from potential clients. I chalked it up to people being on vacation or too busy with other activities.

When the lease negotiations were nearly finalized, I sat down and looked at the financial implications of our business model. Between startup costs, three years of rent and various other expenses, we’d be out at least $100,000. Even with a steady stream of clients taking classes, I questioned if we’d be able to make a profit.

I began to wonder if I was projecting my own enthusiasm for dog training onto the population as a whole. It was easy to believe the activity I’m passionate about must be the same thing everyone else loves to do. I knew I needed to step back and look at our business plan like an outside investor rather than as a dog-crazy entrepreneur.

I started to assess our customer base. My husband and I own four high-drive working dogs. We spend several hours a day training and working with them. By contrast, the majority of people in our community own one low-drive pet. For most of those dogs, going for an early morning walk or a trip to the dog park may be enough to satisfy them mentally and physically.

I began to think about economic realities. My husband and I have a stream of income from a state pension, Social Security and a rental property. We’ve been able to maintain a reasonable level of disposable income despite recent increases in the cost of living. But many of our neighbors may not be as lucky. For them, spending money on dog training would be a luxury, not a necessity.

On the day we were to sign the lease, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 1,300 points.  A worse-than-expected inflation report was also released. My husband and I decided that starting a business, when the country may be on the brink of a recession, was not the best idea.

For now, we will continue to offer to train dogs in people’s homes. We’re also considering alternatives. Local shelters are often in need of trainers to work with clients who adopt dogs. In addition, we may look into starting a dog training club in our community.

Kristine Hayes Nibler recently retired, and she and her husband now live in Arizona. She enjoys spending her time reading, writing and training their four dogsCheck out Kristine’s earlier articles.

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