The Ugly Business of Money & Dog Training

Have you ever wondered why your dog trainer charges what they do for their services?  Do you know why they have the cancellation policies they have? I mean, it’s just dog training. There should be no reason a training session can’t be rescheduled to a different time… right?

Where most of my blog posts have something to do with dog behavior, health or training, this post is intended to help dog training clients understand why their dog trainers do what they do when it comes to fees and training schedules.

The truth is, of all the things dog trainers dislike talking about the most money ranks pretty much at the top.  People don’t become dog trainers to make lots of money (far from it), they become dog trainers because of their interest in the science of animal behavior, their love of animals and their desire to help dogs and their families live long and happy lives together.  For most of us professional dog trainers the undesired reality is that to be a successful dog trainer, we must start and run our own businesses because there are few to no places a dog trainer can go to work for somebody else and make a living.  When running a business, there are the financial and time constraint realities that come along for the ride and those realities influence things like available time for training sessions and the cost of doing business.  This is where money begins to raise it’s ugly head.

Professional dog trainers who are worth their salt and who do their clients due diligence, not only spend an hour or so per session training their client’s dogs.  They also spend time developing training plans for each session, updating client records with results and observations, research behavior topics when things get sticky to help resolve issues, reading and answering email and text messages and fielding phone call questions.  For every hour a dog trainer spends with a dog, there are usually 1-2 hours of additional time spent behind the scenes.  More challenging cases like fear and aggression can be even more.  When you look at the hourly rate your dog trainer charges, these activities must be factored in.  Other things that require your dog trainers time are marketing (yikes…not my favorite part), managing business records, returning calls, email and text messages of potential clients, participating in continuing education activities to build skills and stay abreast of new learning in the science of dog training.  Sometimes dog trainers even schedule and stick to time off plans so they can take care of their personal and family needs…though this is usually less regular than it ought to be.  While these latter activities are not directly part of training a client’s dog, they do influence how much available time a dog trainer has in their schedule to allot to training dogs.  What your dog trainer charges for their services is based on many factors.  Location, specialty skills and education they have attained, their experience / time on the job, the type of training service being offered (fear, aggression, anxiety are more difficult and are going to cost more than basic manners), competitive market, the cost of doing business and ultimately what they need after business expenses to pay their bills.

Charging for services and actually obtaining payment are two different things sometimes. For this reason, it is common practice for dog trainers to institute policies such as: no or limited refund periods, no “free” make up sessions if a client misses a session and full payment, or at least a deposit, being required upon scheduling an appointment to reserve a training spot.  These policies often rub dog training clients wrong.  After all, sometimes other things come up that are more important than the dog training session in that moment.  This is true!  We all have things that come up in life that are not planned and we have to roll with the punches.  Getting sick is one of those unplanned things.  Your dog trainer greatly appreciates clients who avoid spreading the YUCK around when they get sick!  Kids activities, opportunities for a unique get away, work schedules change and so on.  The question is not whether or not these things happen.  The question is who should bear the financial brunt of the impact?  I’ve had clients feel penalized for getting sick when I explained that we can certainly not meet at a given time and then schedule a future “make up” date but that new time slot has a new cost to it. Why should they have to pay for a new time slot when they got sick they ask?  Why would you expect me to give you a new time slot for free and thus take a pay cut because you got sick or had something come up I ask?  This often gets head tilts and the realization of the consequences to both parties when things come up.  After all, if you buy tickets to a baseball game, theater event, or other space constrained event and you get sick or something comes up….you don’t get a refund or free ticket to the next event, you simply miss the event.

So why do dog trainers ask for payment or at least a deposit when new clients book their first sessions?  Usually for the same reasons as mentioned above.  If there is not a financial stake and something comes up, it is all too easy to call and cancel and appointment and leave their dog trainer with an open “unpaid” time slot and no opportunity to fill it with a new client.  Imagine going to work and having your boss tell you there is no work today and so no pay when you were counting on a scheduled income…that is what cancellations are for dog trainers.  Remember when you book a training session with a Professional Dog Trainer, you are reserving a unique time slot and that slot is protected for you unlike many other business types who are either not constrained by capacity or who over book time slots to protect themselves from cancellations.

For example, I sat in a doctor’s office recently.  The waiting room was full to the brim.  I luckily knew the doctor had been called out for an emergency and cancellations were happening, I was only there because I had to talk to a PA about a procedure schedule.  Waiting for the PA, I listened to the receptionist make phone calls to people who had appointments.  I was amazed that not one, not two, not even three but four different people had a 4pm appointment with the same doctor that the receptionist needed to reschedule. Flabbergasted, I now know why it is common to wait for more than an hour when coming in to see this doctor.  Overbooking airline seats is another common practice, get to the airport late and you might find yourself in the terminal when the plane takes off due to overbooking.   Many businesses employ the overbooking method to protect themselves from cancellations.  Those that don’t usually don’t have capacity constraints.

The fact is, when talking money with a dog trainer, you will be seeing them at their most uncomfortable, even if they look calm and collected.  The ugly truth is that the trading of financial instruments for goods and services is what makes the world go round and provides us opportunity to attain the things we want and need.   Time is a commodity that is finite and cannot be recovered when lost.  Your dog trainer wants nothing more than to help you with your dog training and behavior goals and to do that, they must be able to make a living and keep their business running.  Giving away free services, not charging for their expertise and taking pay cuts to help their clients may sound wonderful but in the end, it is not a good business practice and results in many very good dog trainers closing down shop in search of jobs that pay a reliable salary.

So now you know why your dog trainer does what they do when it comes to fees and training schedules and how hard it is for them to talk about money instead of how they are going to train your dog.

Dogs In The Workplace… Is it right for your business?

Our dogs wear many hats in our lives.  They are trusted companions, they work for us, they protect us and they often help us to be more social than we would otherwise be on our own.

But is taking your dog to work really a good idea?  The answer is maybe and maybe not. It’s not really a black and white kind of question.  The answer lies in a variety of questions we need to ask ourselves.

The human’s point of view.  It’s easy.  We love our dogs and hate the idea of being separated from them for any period of time.  Taking our dogs to work solves that.  Having the opportunity to talk to and pet our dog during the day helps us to relieve stress and induces a relaxation that is hard to get in other ways.  Taking our dog out for potty breaks, gets us out to walk on our breaks too; so healthy activity is increased when we are with our dogs.  Besides loving our dogs, we love to talk about, brag on and share our dogs.  Studies show that the physical presence of dogs in the environment helps people to relax and be more productive and healthy too.  It’s easy to see why the idea of a workplace allowing dogs would be a draw to any employee.

The dog’s point of view.  Many dogs are very socially secure and are comfortable in the human world and the environmental changes that often come in it.  They like to greet people, they enjoy hanging out where we are.  Noises and new experiences are not bothersome to them.  For these dogs, the biggest concerns tend to be ensuring that our dog is properly trained so that greetings are friendly but not overwhelming or dangerous (no jumping) and making sure that we have a comfortable place for the dog to hang out and things he enjoys to stay occupied while we are busy working.

However, for a good percentage of dogs, the thought of going to out in public or to work with us elicits the same kind of panic and dread as people get when asked to give a public speech or step outside of their comfort zone.  Dogs who are not relaxed and comfortable with attention from non family members, are easily upset by noises and environmental changes or who are uncomfortable when they need to be away from their owner at work are best left in the safety and comfort of their home or with a trusted family member or friend.  Anxiety and fear bring out defensive behaviors in our dogs like barking, growling and biting.  These dogs endure an unnecessary amount of stress and put people or other workplace dogs in danger of injury.  It’s worth mentioning too that stressed dogs often cause stressed people because of the defensive barking and lunging behavior they offer.Keep in mind, this is not a “breed” thing.  It’s an individual dog comfort level kind of thing.

Safety and the decision to allow dogs in the workplace.  Somewhere between the human wants, the dog’s needs and the health and safety of everybody, careful attention must be paid to how dogs will be managed in the workplace.  Dogs must have a place they enjoy hanging out in, where they can feel safe, stay occupied and be prevented from getting into dangerous situations.  Leashes, baby gates, crates, toys and access to food, water and opportunities to eliminate all must be considered.  It’s also imperative that other humans are kept safe from jumping, pawing and other playful behaviors of happy dogs and kept safely protected from dogs who are not comfortable.  If nothing else, the company must protect it’s patrons and employees from the potential dog bites that occur when dogs are trying to stay safe and thus prevent the opportunity for law suits.

If I had my way, all companies would consider allowing dogs in the workplace with some type of guidance and clear criteria for comfort level and containment of the dogs.  What are your thoughts?

 

Resources: 

Benefits of dog ownership: Comparative study of equivalent samples : Mónica Teresa González Ramírez
Companion animals and human health: Benefits, challenges, and the road ahead : Marguerite O’Haire
Canine Aggression Toward Unfamiliar People and Dogs : Lore I. Haug, DVM
The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs : Nancy A. Dreschel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solving Canine Behavior Problems …

Filling in the blanks…

Earlier today I placed a post on Facebook sharing my displeasure with the guidance one of my clients received from her veterinarian regarding her 11 month old intact male dog’s behavior.  The behavior in question is intermittent humping on her leg. The guidance provided by the veterinarian was to “light him up” or in more clear terminology, put a shock collar on him and shock him when ever he humps.

To be sure, placing that post on Facebook allowed me to vent a little bit in support of my client and several of my Facebook followers chimed in with support and suggestions as well.  I’ve since been thinking that I need to do more.  It’s not fair and is quite presumptuous of me to believe that the general population reading my Facebook page actually understand the reasoning behind my displeasure, except of course the knowledge that I take my professional oath of “first do no harm” and that I am very against the use of harsh tools, including shock collars. So I am writing now to clarify some of the reasoning behind my position and hopefully to provide food for thought for folks to share and discuss.

When talking about behavior, the first thing that must be understood is that behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  ALL behavior has a purpose, is intended to meet our needs and is influenced by how we perceive and act on our environment.  Dogs do not bark, jump, hump or fail to follow instructions “just because”.   Often times dogs are just being dogs.  Doing what comes naturally in their exploration of their environment, burning energy, staving off boredom or simply playing.  Frequently the dog has not been trained to fluency to offer a different behavior in the desired situation.  Sometimes the behavior of dogs is influenced more by their emotional or physical state; fear, anxiety, frustration, fatigue, hormones, pain or just not feeling well.

A barking dog may be demanding attention, may be alerting you to a visitor on your property, may be conveying that the dog is not comfortable with the presence of a stranger or may be just something to do when home alone and locked in the back yard.  Similarly, humping comes from a variety of places in a dog’s repertoire.  A dog who is humpy or mounts other dogs, people, pillows, toys, etc. is often times in a state of arousal from play or other interaction with a friend and his (or her) arousal comes out in humping …a biological response to an emotional state.  Likewise, a humpy dog may be anxious about something, uncertain expectations, stress from an uncomfortable interaction or environmental context.  Of course, mounting / humping happens as a function of reproduction and sometimes just for the enjoyment of the behavior.  While less common, social situations and competition for higher rank order placement in a social group may also be a motivator for humping other dogs.  Here in lies the problem…

Before you can resolve or change a behavior, any behavior, you MUST take the time to determine what the motivation for that behavior is and resolve the cause of the behavior.  Jumping to stop the behavior without first attempting to understand and resolve the underlying root cause is at best ineffective and at worst just plain harmful to the dog physically and emotionally.  Imagine having a normal biological response such as blinking, breathing, hiccoughs, sudden reaction to cheer for your team when they score a goal….something you do not plan and just happens, and getting shocked, poked, yelled at, choked, when you do.  Will being shocked stop the behavior?  Maybe for the brief period you are able to forcefully manage it but at some point you will have to blink , breath, etc. Now imagine the stress and anxiety you will experience trying to stop a behavior that is reflexive, something you have limited control over?  Oh, it gets worse.  Imagine now that you are not really sure exactly why you are being shocked (yelled at, hit, or otherwise corrected) or what alternate behavior will save you from the unpleasant and sometimes torturous correction?  Remember, shocking the dog does NOT teach him what to do instead so even if he does have control over the situation, he has no idea what more appropriate behavior to offer. He’s already offering normal dog behavior.

Now, I have another beef with the guidance to put a shock collar on a dog who is humping.  The trusted professional, who must know what he’s talking about because he is after all a veterinarian, did NOT explain to the client the possible side effects of using a shock collar to stop behavior.  He did not explain that the shock is not going to teach the dog what to do instead, so training a desired behavior is still necessary.  He did not explain that the humping behavior is a natural, normal response from the dog and that shocking him is not likely to solve the problem in the long run and he did NOT explain that even the most skilled trainers often lack the necessary timing and consistency to ensure that appropriate intensity (not too high or too low) happen EVERY TIME the behavior happens.  He did not explain that there are common and well documented side effects caused by the use of aversive training methods that include increased fear, anxiety, neurosis, aggression, emotional shut down and overall detrimental health impacts.

In this trainer’s mind, the dog’s owner was not provided the information needed to make an informed decision about how to resolve the unwanted behavior of her dog and she was set up for potentially devastating results.  When professionals are in a position of influencing how people act, we have a responsibility to ensure we are not inadvertently leading folks down a slippery slope.  Thankfully, even though she is a first time dog owner, she has resisted much coaching and guidance from well meaning but misinformed individuals.  Her dog is a lucky dog to have her as his mom.

Side note: I have tremendous respect for and work very closely with many members of the veterinary community.  This blog is in no way intended to shed a bad light on veterinarians; they have a very challenging job and are the everything in our dog’s overall health management.  The intention here is to point out that as dog owners, we need to ask questions, not believe blindly, do research, not on Google but in scientific journals and with professionally educated and skilled behavior professionals.  Ask about side effects and potential dangers of advice given.  Ask the person giving advice what specifically their education in animal behavior is.  Follow your gut…if it feels shady or uncomfortable, it probably is something you want to avoid.  

 

 

 

 

A Day in the Life….

Funny thing today.  I met with a new personal doctor.  In our meet and greet conversation we talked about such things as my work schedule, my sleep, or lack of sleep schedule, the things that cause me stress, etc.  As I was trying to explain to him the reasons I don’t do a better job of taking care of my personal needs, I could see by the look on his face that he wasn’t buying it.  What is so hard about drawing lines, making priorities and following through.  Well….nothing really, I just don’t do it.

So, my doctor asked me to describe a typical day in my life.  I’m sure it’s no different than many of my colleagues and probably easier than some.  As I was going over it, it dawned on me that I have failed miserably at setting up a livable schedule, it’s no wonder my dog looks at me like she does some times and is probably the main reason I sometimes drop balls or disappoint my clients.  For purposes of providing a glimpse into my world, here is what I told him:

Average Day:

  • 6:00 am – Waking up, head to coffee maker. 
  • 6:30 -10am – Hit the computer, typically in jammies with coffee in hand to begin the process of returning email messages, posting training plans for those who need them via remote access, preparing training plans for the days private and group class clients and field phone calls and return messages and facilitate SKYPE sessions with remote clients.  Feed my own dog and if she’s lucky go on a short walk.
  • 10-10:30 am – Hit the showers, get dressed, gather training materials and bait bag, gather training supplies needed and out the door.
  • 10:30 – 4:00 pm Hit the road, travel to first private client (approx 45 min drive) train dogs (11:30-12:30, 1:00-2:00, 2:30-3:30) and then head back toward the training studio in Paradise or our training location in Chico to set up for group classes
  • 4:00-7:00 pm Travel to, Set up for and run group classes (Tue, Wed, Thur sometimes Sat) 
  • 8:00 pm arrive home.  Greeted by a very, very patient dog who is looking for some attention and her dinner.  Some nights (no class nights) we actually make it to play date where she gets to run and play with her friends for an hour.        
  • 8:30-9:00 pm Dinner and off to the office for an hour or two.
  • 9:00 – 11:00 pm  Type and file training notes from the day, send out promised literature, check on critical training clients online notes and begin the decompress process.  Pick up the house, play with the dog (training games or toy play at this hour), etc.
  • 11:30 or 12:00 (sometimes later) it’s hit the hay time.

As you can see,  I have some real work to do on my scheduling and boundary setting skills. It’s not feasible to reduce my client load (fiances you see) but I know there are more effective and creative ways to balance the work load and personal needs.   After this discussion, while waiting for my class clients to arrive, it dawned on me that this has been a recent topic of discussion, again, in many dog training forums I belong to. Dog trainers tell each other and hear from coaches and mentors that in order to prevent burnout, stay healthy and stay motivated, it’s critical to set boundaries and clearly identify what you will do, when you will do it and when you are not available to your clients.  So, if we are setting boundaries and expectations with our clients, why are we still working way past our stated work hours?  It’s because we don’t stick to our guns. We answer text messages, email and phone calls at times clearly past our stated available time.  We, in effect, condition our clients to contact us because it works for them.  Each one we answer off hours sends the message to the clients that there really are no times of day or days of the week when their trainer is not available and thank heavens they can get help when they want it.  Funny how we teach our client’s that “Dogs do what works” and then we trainers are flabbergasted when a client continues to call, text or expect immediate email responses from us after hours…duh!

So, what is the message here?  Dog trainers, and I’m speaking about this one for sure, must learn how to more effectively balance their work and their personal lives, making time for the latter.  We love our clients and we know they love and depend on us. In order for us to continue doing what we do so well, we need to be at our best.  We need to sleep well so we can think clearly and stay safe with the growly crowd (I mean dogs but humans too if it fits:).  We need to eat healthy food at regular times, take days off and we absolutely must be fair to our clients and let them know what our policies are and stick to them…strictly and professionally.  We must take care of our own houses before we can help others….like putting oxygen on first on a plane.  Remember too, a burned out dog trainer who quits the profession or one who suffers physically and emotionally from lack of good health is not available to the very clients we work so hard to to help!

Why did I put this in a public blog post?  It has taken me a while to convince my own mom that I do have a “real” job, that it is not all puppy play and fun and games, it is often difficult, frequently emotionally challenging and usually very, very rewarding.  I think anything we can do to bridge better communication and set clear expectations with our clients is a win-win.

Have A Good Dog Day!