You love your job. You wake up every day with a passion for working with animals and their people, for making the world a slightly better place one case at a time. You shed light on challenging situations between humans and their critter companions and place valuable solutions in the hands of those who desperately need them. You know the great value of what you provide, and own your specialization with confidence. The gratitude you see in the eyes of those you help, benefiting from the awesome services of a professional committed to science and the cutting edge of the field, fills your cup. Your life’s work has meaning and that counts for something.
But it doesn’t necessarily pay that stack of bills sitting on the table over there – the looming, haunting, mounting paper tower that keeps you up at night. Oh, well. Such is a day in the life of a self-sacrificing pet professional. It’s hard to make a living in this line of work. We all know that. That’s just how it is, right? Isn’t this the price we pay for following our calling to work with animals?
It is a rarely disputed belief among us in the animal behavior and training field, a complaint we commiserate about with each other on social media and professional gatherings. It is also a belief that needs some serious examination and challenging.
Far too many of us in the animal training and behavior industry are struggling to make ends meet. It’s as if the concept of intrinsic martyrdom has become a strange badge of honor for those of us working in the industry, as if we were doomed to a life of financial struggle as a result of our decision to make a career out of animal behavior. The notion that we pet people will just have to grit our teeth and scrape by for the sake of doing what we love has been so prevalent for so long that we have failed to stop and ask ourselves, as business owners, if it really has to be this way and what the cost of our assumptions might actually be.
Doing the math
If we stop and look at the numbers, it doesn’t add up that we should be destined to a life of poverty as pet professionals. In fact, the pet industry has been steadily growing for decades, despite national recessions and economic struggles in other markets. Pet owners clearly are willing to spend money on their companion animals, even when they stop spending money on themselves. So why have we concluded that any chance of making a decent living is out of the question?
Truth be told, most of us simply are just not business people. We are behavior and training people. Our time, energy, attention, and efforts are invested in making sure we are educated and well-skilled. We have a great deal to stay on top of when it comes to the specialization required of us as tradespeople in an increasingly scientific and professional community. As a result, the “running a business” part of being a companion animal behavior consultant or trainer falls off of our priority list.
Many highly qualified and experienced behavior consultants therefore continue to struggle to make a comfortable salary year after year. We tell ourselves that it is not our priority to make money, run a business, develop and market our companies. We rationalize that our interest lies in the animals, not all that unimportant, boring other stuff. The problem, however, is that we might be failing to see the bigger picture. Not only is it possible for us to personally benefit from doing what we love as successful business owners or partners. The animals we serve actually urgently need us to do so. How many animals can we help if their people don’t become our customers in the first place? Do the math. Not so many.
Motivations, lures, and shaping
People desperately need help with their companion animal behavior problems these days. We surely can all agree on that. How they find that help, if they find that help in the first place, what attracts them to that help, and the value they place on that help – these things have everything to do with whether or not those animals will ultimately receive the help they need. Whether we like it or not, our clients are, after all, human consumers.
Like the four-legged and winged creatures we work with, these two-legged animals are going to be attracted by certain shiny, alluring, powerful symbols that capture their motivations and promise rewards. They will reflexively be drawn to the messages that hook their attention, and will almost helplessly invest in that which they perceive as having real value to them in their daily lives. They will be motivated to act on that which lures their interest and meets their needs, and they will work harder for those rewards with the greatest value to them – just like our fuzzy and feathered friends. They will, therefore, continue to completely overlook the professionals and companies that fail to speak to their personal needs and operatives, no matter how qualified we experts might be.
We can’t help the animals if their people don’t hire us, invest in the process, and follow our instructions. We can have all the justifications in the world for how impressive our accomplishments are, and all kinds of cool letters behind our names, and those potential clients out there still won’t pick up the phone and give us a call. Or even worse, they will contact us and we will fail to convince them that they have come to the right place.
As we all know, their animals’ lives might very well depend on who they hire. We are obligated to work as tirelessly as we can to ensure that it is, in fact, our companies that find themselves in the position to help them. All of our expertise as behavior professionals will otherwise be for naught, and animals will continue to suffer at the hands of perpetuated misinformation. Not only can we not afford to be beaten at the game of successful business structuring, development, and marketing – the animals we so passionately defend can’t afford our handicapped business efforts either.
If we want to be taken seriously as professionals, we will have to take ourselves seriously. Being a highly qualified companion animal behavior consultant is only half of your job if you own a business. The other half is ensuring that the people and their pets end up working with you in the first place, and continue to return to you year after year, eager to invest mightily in a happy future with their beloved companions and confident you are everything they need to make that future possible. We need to pay those bills, and struggling companion animals and their people need us to pay them as well. Animals need qualified professionals to be in business, to stay in business, and to stand out in the marketplace so their people can find them.
Looking back and stepping up
It took me years to learn from my own (many) mistakes as a behavior consultant practice owner. I am happy to share what I have learned, which has ultimately positioned my own company and career in a position of financial stability and success. I have had to learn most of my lessons the hard way, losing thousands of dollars going down the wrong roads. Like most of us, I was just a behavior geek. I didn’t have a business or marketing background. I did, however, have some unique opportunities to participate in business boot-camp programs, and to learn from the influences of some experienced business men and women from other arenas who were generous enough to share their wisdom with me.
We have been asked so often by colleagues about how our company, The Dog Door, has become successful that we recently started offering a behavior consultant business service in order to guide others through the process of development step by step. Sharing great business concepts with others is exciting for us because it means more animals will be helped. I am excited to share these ideas with you here in the IAABC journal, envisioning the ripple effects that good business can have for so many.
In the upcoming issues, we will be exploring the key components for strengthening and developing a company in a competitive marketplace – IDENTITY, AVATAR, and HOOK. We will acquire a fresh perspective of our clients and potential customers, understand their behavior as consumers, and learn to reach them effectively as we solidify who we are in the pet marketplace. We will enjoy greater job satisfaction, and a new and profound recognition of our influence in the lives of thousands of animals and people. We will also enjoy a guilt-free, well-deserved experience of a manageable pile of bills on the table as we become successful professionals well-positioned to confidently make a difference in our careers for years to come.
We are building something important. We are building businesses, and a specialized new market as IAABC behavior consultants. We are learning how to become companies strong enough to consistently attract and serve pets and their people worldwide, so that we can finally make the difference we long to make. We are re-inventing our industry.
So hang up the notion of the starving pet trainer and put on a new hat. You are about to become a successful business owner as part of an elite group of professionals hell-bent on stepping up their game. It’s time to get our act together and be competitive in the market in order to reach those who need us. Becoming a successful business in the 21st century is not only a dream within our reach – it is a critical necessity if we are to be of service for the animals who we respect, admire, and love.
Kim Brophey, CDBC, is the owner of The Dog Door behavior center, store, and dog welcome center in Asheville, NC, and serves on the board of the IAABC and Asheville Humane Society. Incorrigibly passionate about humane education and innovation in applied ethology, Kim juggles a full-time behavior consulting and service/ therapy dog training career with her service positions, community initiatives, and book writing. She is determined to deliver practical science to the masses for the benefit of all species.