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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.

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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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Richard Hayman
Richard Hayman
2 months ago

As a former salesperson, I was taught that it was my job to find a need and fill it. May I suggest you advertise specific problems you can solve, such as barking, walking properly on a leash, biting, getting along with other dogs, etc. I found my kids suffering with dog problems and not knowing who to go to. You do not need a facility; great decision to pass on it at this time.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
5 days ago
Reply to  Richard Hayman

It’s tricky to try and specify which issues can be solved. Some dogs are very easy to work with and just need one or two lessons to help resolve their issues. Other dogs have so many issues (or so many years of bad behavior), it may not ever be possible to completely resolve their various behavioral problems. I will say we seem to be attracting a large number of people with six-month-old puppies. That’s the age when the dog no longer looks like a puppy but still has puppy brain!

Derek R. Austin
Derek R. Austin
3 months ago

As the pandemic showed, commercial office space is a huge liability on balance sheets, and it’s generally unneeded. I’m glad you didn’t sign the lease!

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
5 days ago

I’m glad too. Looking back now, I realize it probably would have been a huge financial mistake.

AnthonyClan
AnthonyClan
3 months ago

Maybe an AirB&B model where folks come to you with their dog for intensive training for a few day/week…. A U-Tube training series? Create a series of videos and sell as a training package. Many options for selling your very valuable training knowledge.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
5 days ago
Reply to  AnthonyClan

Online dog training is very much a ‘thing’ these days. There are many great programs out there. There are also many trainers who offer ‘board and train’ packages where the dog stays with the trainer for several days (or weeks). These two approaches seem to be the future of dog training.

Jackie
Jackie
3 months ago

I am sure your business will continue to pick up with local word-of-mouth recommendations. That’s how we found our trainer. I agree with the others that not renting a facility right now was the wise choice. However, you may want to consider investing in a decent website. That is how I was able to verify that our trainer was experienced with the particular type of training I wanted (e-collar). Also, consider making contacts with vets/pet store owners and groomers in affluent areas. The well-off will have money to spend regardless of market turmoil.
We have a group of recently retired/part-time employed folks that hang out at dog beach every morning. My crazy, high-energy mutt and I both loved the social outing. Then my dog learned to get around the fence and was running away every day. She is super fast and impossible to catch and was in danger of getting hit by a car; I had to quit taking her to the beach. But thanks to our trainer, my dog can again run free at the beach because I have 100% recall. Happy dog, happy me.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
5 days ago
Reply to  Jackie

That’s great that you were able to get your dog trained so you could let her run loose again. It’s nice to be able to let them expend some energy just running around!

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
3 months ago

Kristine, as a fellow dog lover, I always enjoy your articles about your experiences with them.

I think you did the right thing by not committing to the lease and all the trappings of a full time business. That would have made for so much pressure to earn enough to cover your substantial fixed expenses and eke out a profit. Your revised plan provides a lot more flexibility and a lot less stress.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago

Thanks for the kind comment Andrew.

And yes, I really feel like we did make a good decision. I feel even better about it today. We had to take our puppy to the local vet to get her final puppy booster shot. The groomer at the clinic came to talk to me about our training business. I told her about the high cost of leasing a place to hold classes and she suggested that I contact the owner of the vet clinic. Their lobby is quite large (large enough to hold a class in) and they aren’t open on the weekends. So, we may have just found an ideal spot to hold a couple of classes.

Richard Connor
Richard Connor
3 months ago

Thanks for the interesting article Kristine. It sounds like you are approaching this next adventure with enthusiasm and wisdom. Based on my observations of family, friends, and our neighborhood, people’s love for dogs is not going away. Taking some time to figure out a business model that is right for both you and your husband, and for your customers, is a smart way to approach things. Thanks to your husband for training S&R dogs – they are amazing.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  Richard Connor

Thanks Richard! My husband and I feel confident we made the right decision to throttle back our enthusiasm. We’ve decided to stay with a ‘train in the home’ model for our business and it seems to be working out well. We’ve had three new clients in the past few weeks. We’re also happy we decided to limit our clientele to residents who live within our small community. If we had expanded our reach, we’d likely spend way more time driving places than either of us wants.

I agree about the SAR dogs. They are truly amazing. If I were (much) younger, I’d probably have SAR dog training as a focus of mine.

parkslope
parkslope
3 months ago
Reply to  Kristine Hayes

I agree that this was the right move. The trainer we worked with last year is able to support herself and her disabled husband with a combination of in-home training, group lessons in her back yard, and training two service dogs who live with her M-F. As word of mouth picks up, I think the two of you will have as many clients as you want.

Last edited 3 months ago by parkslope
Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

We have received a lot of positive feedback from our clients and they seem to do a good job of spreading the word about our business.

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
3 months ago

While I don’t have any words of wisdom about the business, I love your idea of starting a dog training club! Forty-five years ago we got our first German Shepherd Dog as a puppy and started “obedience school” when he was about 3 mos. old. For those who have never seen such a class, each owner in a group of eight or so works with his or her dog, while the instructor trains each handler how to train the dog. All of us owners were rank amateurs and had a lot of fun. The key was to make the activity seem like play for the dog. Some enjoyed continuing with advanced training and competing in shows, while others were content to just finish the basic classes, but all benefited from owning a dog they could more easily control.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  Jack Hannam

What a great experience you had with your GSD! And yes, it’s all about making the training fun (for both dog AND owner). We are currently training our 4 month old German Shepherd and it’s been fun to watch her figure things out.

I think most people underestimate the benefit of putting some basic training on their dog. Most dogs thrive when they are offered any training, even if it’s just something as simple as learning a couple of silly tricks.

John Yeigh
John Yeigh
3 months ago

To increase her dog fix, my wife has done occasional dog walking\petsitting via Rover.com. Rover requires zero capital and allows the walker to establish preferred dog types and set personal schedules. My wife does it as a “dog-love” hobby, but two neighbors regularly dog walk as a serious side gig.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  John Yeigh

It’s great that there are these types of side gigs available to dog lovers. I know there’s also a program called “SniffSpot” that allows homeowners to rent out their yards as ‘personal dog parks’.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Sounds like a prudent decision to me and besides, you’re retired right? Think of the hours and hassle of running a business. That’s not retirement.

I think your assessment of retirees and their pets is correct. They want a pet, a companion more than a trained dog.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

We feel confident we made the correct decision. We’ve been working with three client dogs over the past few weeks and it’s a nice compromise. A little bit of income without an overwhelming amount of work.

John Goodell
John Goodell
3 months ago

No journey is a straight line up and to the right. What a cool career pivot – I’d bet this ends up being a very successful venture in time! Long live HD dog articles!

Last edited 3 months ago by John Goodell
Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
3 months ago
Reply to  John Goodell

After not having any new clients for weeks, we recently found ourselves working with three new neighborhood dogs. It’s been rewarding to see the dogs learn some new behaviors and manners.

I will happily contribute HD dog articles as needed :-).

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