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Dog owners beware: Anyone can buy a dog training franchise

Lately, more than ever, I am getting inquiries from clients who have already done dog training with “so and so,” or other companies, and were unsatisfied for one reason or another. These people have spent a lot of money in some cases, but didn’t get the results they were looking for. You may imagine this is sometimes the customers fault– and it is… sometimes. But as a pro myself, I can get a pretty good idea what sort of professionally-trained foundation a dog has, or has not had. I hear complaints about other trainers all the time, and I usually take it with a grain of salt, preferring that they focus on what we’re doing now and going forward. Most of these trainers I have never heard of anyway, but clients are more frequently telling me about dog training companies with multiple locations, or in many cases, franchises. These are not the big-box stores like PetSmart and PetCo that are known for their sub-standard version of “training” and wasting peoples time once a week for 150 bucks, these are companies charging a lot of money and promising big results.

To further investigate this concept, I began with a quick Google search, typing in “dog training franchise.” A flurry of results came up. Some of the names: Bark Busters, Fetch Pet Care, Zoom Room, Off Leash K9 Training, Sit Means Sit, Dog Wizard Academy, and many more. It’s not the route I chose to go in my career seven and a half years ago when I started my own business (after years of apprenticing and working for other companies), but apparently this is a popular thing. I have no particular issue with a well-researched individual purchasing into a dog business franchise to run out of their home, but it’s worth a deeper look behind the marketing.

One of the benefits to a franchise is immediate marketing power, and these companies don’t hesitate to tell you that people are willing to pay good money for dog training, and know the brand names. Each brand has something to boast– amazing fast results, guaranteed programs, a special (ultimately meaningless) certification, “featured on tv,” and soforth. But marketing can be misleading. Let’s say the trainers at the headquarters of your franchise had part in a tv episode on “Animal Planet.” Regardless of the fact that they’re not even in the same state, are staffed with completely different trainers, and did the tv spot years before you even joined the company, you can now advertise on your own website: “As Seen on Animal Planet.” That’s positive marketing power. Unfortunately, it can also work in the opposite way. In the past 2 years alone, three Sit Means Sit trainers were charged with animal abuse. Because it’s a franchise, they are independently responsible, but this is caveat emptor to you dog owners: Regardless of the company’s name, know who is training your dog.

What I am also concerned about is the amount of training these freshly minted dog trainers receive.

To see if my concerns were valid, I viewed the websites of four different dog training franchises. They all advertise solving behavior issues, off-leash training, and more. One called “Bark Busters” did not provide any information on length of franchisee training, they ask you to contact them. I have zero respect for Bark Busters as a training company, and I have nothing more to say about them at this time, other than– if you use their services, best of luck to your dog. The other three franchised companies provided more info on their offerings. A company called “Dog Wizard Academy” had a very bright, informative website and offers 12 weeks of hands-on training for new franchisees. However, the topics covered are broad, naturally, and include “aggression,” which in my professional opinion takes much longer than 3 months to even touch upon, let alone become proficient in. In the other 2 cases, companies called “Off Leash K-9 Training” and “Sit Means Sit,” offer 3 weeks of initial hands-on training to the new franchisee. Yes, that’s right– apparently, 3 weeks is all it takes to learn how to be a dog trainer, work with complex behavior issues, and operate a business… Well, that and anywhere from $15,000-$96,400.

A lot of people nowadays want to start their own business and have a career change in life, and that’s great. But dog training is not just something you jump into by hanging a shingle. You will quickly be out-classed. The following is an example of what I found online (I added the bold):

Are you interested in starting  dog training franchise?  Have you always wanted to be a dog trainer? Turn your passion into a dog training business!

As an Off Leash K9 Training trainer, you will spend 21 days at our facility in Northern Virginia, observing and taking part in over 240+ hours of dog training! … At the end of your 21 day training, you will have all the tools, knowledge, and know-how to deal with basic obedience, advanced obedience, and behavioral modification. You will be able to make dogs look like the dogs in our 500+ before/after videos! You will also have a website and everything else you need to get you started in the dog training world!

Let me get this straight. You will have “all the knowledge” and “a website and everything else” in 3 weeks. In my opinion, that’s simply not possible, particularly not the “everything else.” There is no way to master these sort of skills in 240 hours… You’d be about 9,760 hours short of the “10,000 hour rule” of mastery. But even if you do gain an array of positive training and business skills, what about basic math skills? 21 days to become a dog trainer is advertised as “240+ hours of dog training.” I have never heard of such an intensive program that you go 21 days straight for ELEVEN+ hours each day. It doesn’t seem possible, and lends me a degree of skepticism (something I already have a healthy level of).

To be fair, some of these companies do offer continuing education, yearly seminars, and phone support– but what about the dogs these franchisees will be training fresh out of the gate? Do you want your dog to be a guinea pig for a brand new trainer with only a few months of experience under their belt? If you do, that’s fine, but I personally would not pay that kind of money for my dog to be a newer trainers learning experiment.

So how long does it really take to become a dog trainer? I understand everyone wants to jump in and make money, but the reality is, when I have an apprentice trainer who is learning how to train dogs, they are not even allowed to do a private obedience lesson with a customer with less than SIX MONTHS of training under their belt, and more in some cases. The average time to produce a dog trainer is ONE YEAR, for a basic-level trainer, who works with obedience but not more complex behavior issues or aggression. There is no “quick way to rake in the cash,” and you need more than a fancy website, you need more than a well-trained personal dog– you need to provide quality training from a foundation of knowledge and hands-on experience in a variety of venues.

If you want to become a successful dog trainer, buying into a corporate franchise is certainly one of your options, and it does work out well for some people. But it’s certainly not the only option. To be clear, I am not saying all the franchise-owning trainers are bad or sub-standard trainers– absolutely not– it fully depends on the individual person. If they are a driven self-learner, I’m sure they could find a way to compensate for any lack of experience, and work to become a well-versed, competent trainer. In some cases, a franchise trainer may be an already working and adept dog trainer who decided to make a smart business decision and team up with a company. But as a dog owner myself, I don’t want to simply know what “brand” is training my dog, I want to know who is training my dog. What have they accomplished, what’s the scope of their experience, and will they deliver up to the expectations of a big-name company? To know this, you will have to look past the smoke and mirrors of marketing, and learn how to choose a dog trainer.

Does my dog need “obedience” or “behavior modification”?

In my business I work with a large number of clients who contact our trainers because of specific behavioral problems. They often don’t see the link between obedience training and a well-behaved dog. Training is not just about concrete commands (I mean, who cares if your dog can do a fancy heel and tricks if he’s attacking other dogs). But there is much more value in obedience than a dog who “looks” behaved. Obedience and dog training in general is training of the dogs mind, giving them skills, and teaching them to make appropriate choices. We often say obedience training gives your dog a “job.” That “job” is following your direction. Imagine the confidence and security your dog will feel when he knows what’s expected of him!

I often use analogies with children, not because I equate a dog with a child, but because it’s easy for people to understand and relate to. Imagine raising a child…
Some of the traits you would hope to see in school-aged children:

  • Follows direction
  • Respects the authority of adults
  • Gets along well with others
  • Stays on task
  • Behaves appropriately for the situation, i.e. is quiet when required (in class), and plays when is appropriate (in recess)
  • Drive and desire for learning
  • Confident yet respectful of others

All of the above traits are also qualities we would like to see in a dog. These qualities begin in the home, but they are further instilled in a school environment, where children are taught order, self-discipline, and respect for adults. Just like a child, a dogs desire to learn should be encouraged. Our training encourages dogs to put in more effort, and we reward them for the efforts they give us. A task well done is praised, which builds work ethic in the dog. It builds the desire to do right.

School is not just about the actual academics. In school, we learned algebra, reading, history, etc. but we also learned important social lessons: how to behave, how to sit quietly and listen, how to follow direction. We were not given a choice to attend our classes, we were required to attend. In the evening at home, it was not “Would you rather do your homework, or would you rather go play outside?” It was required that we do our homework, and then we could go play outside. Playing outside was the positive reinforcement for completing a task that we would otherwise probably not choose to do. If we did not comply, pressure was put upon us. Mom would put her hands on her hips, stand squarely at us and command “Sit down and do it, now.” And if we still did not comply, privileges were taken away. We knew mom wouldn’t cave, because she never did. So we did not bother with protesting– it got us no results. We did our homework the first time, every time, and got to play outside or watch tv the rest of the evening.

“We knew mom wouldn’t cave, because she never did. So we did not bother with protesting– it got us no results.”

Your dog is the same way. To a child’s young mind, and a dogs ever-young mind, instant gratification is very attractive. The world is full of interesting and fun things. We all want our dogs focus at times when we need it, so you need to be interesting and fun, but also worthy of respect and able to function as a leader. Obedience training is not just about the tangible actions, no more than school is just about learning facts and figures. Virtually nobody calls a trainer to say “You know, the problem with my dog is he just doesn’t do a good sit-stay.” They call because something is bothering them, or bothering their dog. An insecure, troubled dog often lacks leadership and really we must remember, they are dogs. They have to be taught what’s ok and what’s not ok, and in a manner that is clear to them. That’s where a trainer, someone who “speaks dog,” gets a phone call.

Virtually nobody calls a trainer to say “You know, the problem with my dog is he just doesn’t do a good sit-stay.”

Of clients we work with, there are three main categories:
-My dog just needs to learn “the basics”
-My dog has some annoying habits
-My dog has some concerning behavior issues

“The Basics” Dog
When people refer to “the basics,” I will usually assume they mean obedience training. To me, a dog with basic training can walk on a loose leash (no pulling), heel, come when called (around distractions), sit, down, stay, and has manners such as not jumping, barking, or taking things that aren’t theirs. The training instills a key component: self-control. That is all covered in a basic train, and I can almost guarantee you that with proper obedience training, the dog will be a model citizen. The “basics dog” has few ingrained bad habits, and no serious behavioral problems– and because he will get a good foundation, he has a much lower chance of developing any.
One of the common mistakes I see pet owners make is thinking that just any ol’ trainer will do, since it’s just basic stuff. So they go to PetCo or another big box retail store that isn’t a professional training facility, and they waste their time and money while feeling like they did training. In reality, they are lucky if their dogs learned a couple tricks for a treat, but they certainly won’t have any solid or useful obedience skills. Because we are experienced in higher levels of training, I believe we do a better job on the basics, too. If you wanted to learn tennis, you don’t need to hire Venus Williams, but you do need someone who knows 1) how to teach, 2) how to produce good results. Unfortunately, some trainers are more like a dude down the street who took a couple tennis classes and now thinks he’s good enough to advertise as an instructor.

“In reality, they are lucky if their dogs learned a couple tricks for a treat, but they certainly won’t have any solid or useful obedience skills.”

“Annoying Habits” Dog
This dog will probably be lacking in the basics, which is why he has bad habits. The owner may have already done some obedience training, lessons, or classes, but they did not work, either because the methods were not effective, the trainer was not experienced, or they were non-compliant students and did not follow-up with the training themselves. (When your trainer says you need to practice these new habits and routines every day… you need to practice every day. And because I assume you interact with your dog on some level every day, there is no excuse.) Some of the habits will be more ingrained. The “bad habits” dog may think his name is “No, No, Stop-That!”  The relationship between dog and human may have become strained, and people will often express to me “It’s just not fun anymore.” We may see things like barking, stealing food, mass destruction, chewing furniture, nipping, clawing, bolting away when off-leash, or persistent housebreaking trouble. Once the dog learns more positive and productive behaviors, he will not need to be naughty to get attention. Again, I can almost guarantee you that with proper obedience training, most, if not all of these issues will dissipate. For any remaining issues that are more persistent, we have specific creative solutions. The most fulfilling thing about problem-solving behavior is seeing the dog finally gain clarity. “Oh, this is how you want me to behave.” Once the dog is trained, everyone is happier and more content.

“The ‘Bad Habits’ dog may think his name is ‘No, No, Stop-That!”

“Concerning Issues” Dog
This may be a dog who has social issues, aggression, fear or anxiety, or has bitten a person or another dog. They may have already worked with other trainers or hired a veterinary behaviorist. We work with a good number of dogs with severe issues, and we are known for successful rehabilitation. Often the owners of dogs with behavior problems will specify to me “I am not worried about the obedience stuff, I really want to focus on the behavior problem.” I understand exactly what they mean, but that is a huge flaw in thinking. The goal of training is that they can handle their dog, control their dog, and that the dog makes better choices. Choices like “I have a bone I value greatly, but I am now comfortable with you coming near me and I trust the outcome,” or “I see that little yappy dog lunging at me on the sidewalk, and I kinda want to tell him off, but I am going to ignore him and move on because that produces better results for me.” But the problem is– if the dog does not listen to his owners over the small things (like an obedience command, spoken a single time), why should the dog listen to them over the big things (like not biting that random dude on the street)? You have to start somewhere. It is necessary that your dog obey you– the first time, every time. It is not your dogs job to be judge, jury and executioner of perceived “bad guys” on the street. It is not your dogs job to escape confinement that you put him in. He might think it’s his job to tear through the door to come find you when you’ve left, but we have to communicate to him that this behavior is not necessary.

“If the dog does not listen to his owners over the small things, why should the dog listen to them over the big things?”

In order to modify behavior, you need a clear line of communication. There is no magic wand. Despite what you may see on tv, your dogs issues cannot be magically fixed in a day, they cannot be fixed by being in a pack of dogs, or by pills from the vet. It takes changing the way you think, changing the way you interact, and changing the way you handle your dog. And yes, it takes obedience training.