Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Mary Thompson and I am the owner and founder of my dog training business, Happy Hound University, LLC. I offer private dog training, group classes, and in my home puppy board and train in the suburbs of Chicago, IL (Elk Grove Village, to be exact!)
When I started my business it was just my side job, but over the last 6 years, I’ve gone from a few clients a month to a full-time dog business, working with dozens of dogs every week and making an average of $6,000 a month and growing.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have always loved animals of all kinds, dogs especially, but when I went off to college I knew I didn’t want to go to vet school (WAY too much math and chemistry, there was no way I’d make it!). I couldn’t think of many other careers with animals, so I pursued my other passion, music, and ended up getting a degree in music education.
After college, I started teaching private voice and piano lessons but on the side, I was working a LOT with my dog, Regis. I adopted Regis, a 6-month-old beagle mix puppy, as a “graduation” gift to myself. I figured if I was going to be an “adult” I might as well have the one thing that makes being an adult good, a dog!
Regis was a normal puppy but as he grew into adolescence he started to develop some pretty scary-looking behaviors, barking and lunging at other dogs, snapping at visitors, snapping at ME when I tried to do his nails or take something from him. I didn’t know what to do and honestly thought I would have to give him up, but I took it upon myself to learn how to work with him using positive reinforcement-based training and saw a ton of progress.
Working with Regis and his behavior issues has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. From my learning, with my dog, I pursued a mentorship with another local trainer and signed up for multiple educational programs to get experience before fully entering the field.
As I immersed myself in the world of dog training I realized that it would be possible to turn my passion for helping dogs into a career and make a living. It was honestly terrifying, and as someone who comes from a family where we try a DIY approach before hiring a professional the idea of people hiring me to train their dogs was foreign, but the more I read and learned the more I realized how common it was.
For a while, I was juggling my business, plus working two other part-time positions (at a music school and for a dog walking company), so it was a lot of work and pretty nerve-wracking to finally go full time, but I went full time in 2018 and never looked back!
Take us through the process of designing your initial service.
I started my business only offering in-home private training. To offer other services like board and train or group classes you have to have a facility, and I didn’t have the capital to invest in or rent a facility right off the bat. Once I had my private training up and running I found a local place to host my group classes one night a week as well, and I’m now offering two nights a week with full classes.
Hire a professional when it’s something you don’t know a ton about. If you can afford to hire the pro, just do it.
The only real start-up fees I had to deal with were the cost of waivers and contracts (working with animals means you need to have AIRTIGHT contracts), the cost of forming an LLC, the cost for my website (I designed it myself on Wix so this was not expensive), and the cost for marketing materials.
Describe the process of launching the business.
It honestly took a while for me to start to attract a large client base; dog training in some areas can be a very competitive market, and there are a LOT of trainers in my area (Chicago Suburbs). The first year or two I only had a few clients a month. Luckily because the overhead cost of my business was minimal I was able to grow the business without needing to worry about rent or other fees, so despite the time it took, I was never really in a “pinch”. It did leap of faith to go full time for myself 3 years ago, but it was so worth it!
I was able to build my business after really making relationships in the rescue world; I let the rescuers know that I was a trainer and that I would like to volunteer with them while I had free time. It’s important when you’re trying to network that you don’t just show up and say “Hi would you please advertise for me?”; coming off that way usually seems pretty disingenuous and turns people off. So instead I made sure to show up and say “Here’s what I can offer you” and I let the relationship build before expecting anything to come from it! So with the rescue connections plus the improving SEO of my website I was able to start getting more and more clients.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Because the dog training market is pretty saturated, patience was key while growing my business. I just didn’t have the funds to hire tons of amazon and Facebook ad services, but as word of mouth got around and people heard about me my business grew. I also got much better about specifically asking clients for reviews and testimonials to help other clients find me.
A service-based industry like dog training is different than a business that sells a product, or even a business like a plumber or a computer repair guy. A dog is a member of your family, and now more than ever people want to use humane training methods for their dogs and want to treat their dogs with kindness. So getting personal referrals from vets, animal shelters, and other dog owners was the real turning point for my business, and once I had those new client inquiries exploded.
The two greatest tools, in addition to word of mouth, that I have used to grow my business have been
- Learning how SEO works.
- Blogging consistently.
Blogging has allowed my website to grow, and sharing my new blog posts on various social media platforms has increased traffic to my website.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
My business is doing better than ever today. I am currently (as of September 2021) booked until November 2021 with new clients and there’s no sign of slowing down. I was incredibly fortunate in 2020 with my business; I was able to pivot to entirely online dog training while Covid 19 was at its worst, which kept me and my family safe while continuing to bring in money.
Because of the minimal overhead, my business has been profitable since day 1; right now I am averaging $7,000 a month for private lessons and group classes, with my best month bringing in over $12,000.
In 2021 and 2022 we will start offering in-home boarding and training for puppies under 16 weeks of age so I imagine our business will only continue to grow.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
LIMITS AND BOUNDARIES. The hardest lessons for me have all been about finding my limit for how much I can work, and setting boundaries, and keeping them. I got into dog training because I LOVE working with dogs and their people, and want to help both parties live together peacefully. But that passion and empathy can cause problems when you start to squeeze people in here and there because you feel bad for them and don’t want to ask them to wait for your next availability. I did NOT get into this business because I wanted to work 12 hours a day, but that’s what I ended up doing for a while.
When you are a small business owner it’s easy for your business to become your entire life; they say do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, but my truth has been: do what you’ll love and you’ll always be working hard and will not be thinking of work and how you can improve your business. So for me, it’s a constant challenge to set boundaries, hold myself accountable, and not allow myself to overbook or overextend myself.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I will say, for a service-based business, Acuity or other scheduling software are GAME CHANGERS. Being able to send potential clients my availability and openings without needing a ton of back and forth has been an absolute lifesaver, and it’s one of the first things I recommend to other dog trainers when they’re getting overwhelmed.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I like anything by Brene Brown and Adam Grant, and for anyone in the pet care or dog training industry, Dog Biz is a company that specializes in resources and business consulting for our field.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Remember that your job is just that: a job. It’s not WHO YOU ARE. It’s great to be passionate about your work, and it’s great to love what you do, but it’s not healthy to let your entire identity become your job.
Also: for stuff that you don’t know about, HIRE A PROFESSIONAL. Does hiring a lawyer for contracts and waivers cost a lot upfront? Yes. But will it be a bigger headache down the line when you find out your contract wasn’t as airtight as you thought and you’re in a dispute with a client? Also yes. When it’s something you don’t know a ton about, if you can afford to hire the pro, just do it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I would love eventually to be able to hire some certified dog trainers, but that’s a ways off!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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