Starting a Dog Training Business

Interview with Jonathan Klein, Owner of I Said Sit! Personalized Dog Training

An unruly pet inspired Jonathan Klein to begin learning about dog training, then begin training the humans and dogs himself. He took his passion for canines, married it to his sales and marketing experience, and began "I Said Sit!", his successful dog-training business.

His love of dogs has enabled Jonathan Klein to run his own dog-training business for over 20 years.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

My focus is two-fold: Training dogs, and educating their owners to create a harmonious co-existence. Clients can choose between two basic training programs. The first is a weekly interactive hands-on training program where we teach clients how to train their dogs. The second is a daily training program where we handle all the training and solve any problems while concurrently holding lessons with the owners so that the training transfers seamlessly. Training takes place at our day care and boarding facility in West Los Angeles or at the client's home.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

My background was in sales & marketing and advertising. Eventually, I set out on my own and began working independently but started to realize that even though I was very successful, I wanted a career that I was passionate about and where I could really make a difference in other peoples and dogs lives. I started "I Said Sit!" in November of 1988, and I still love what I do!

How did you come up with your business idea?

I've always loved animals and had a great connection with dogs but had never thought of it in terms of a career. I give credit to an overly rambunctious dog I adopted as a puppy. When I first got him he was literally unmanageable so I started taking him to dog training classes. I found myself really enjoying the training and discovered I had a knack for it. I set out to gain firsthand experience by assisting other trainers. I started reading every dog book I could get my hands on and eventually began taking classes to become a professional trainer.

After graduating from dog training school and as I became more confident in my abilities, I designed my own training program and started a private in-home dog training business, which grew exponentially through word-of-mouth. I also got into the habit of attending continuing education seminars, something I still do on a regular basis. I cannot overstate the importance of staying current with dog training methods because there is always something you can learn from watching others.

As the demand for my services grew the constant traveling to and from sessions left me with much less time to train so I decided to open my own facility. At that time, there wasn't much emphasis on the type of environment where dogs were trained or boarded. I wanted to open a facility that felt more like a "home" and create an environment where people felt safe leaving their dogs. My goal then, as it is now, is for dogs to go back to their owners better behaved and happier than when they arrived.

Finding employees to work in a new and growing business can be a challenge. How did you find your employees?

I had a clear vision of the type of person I wanted to hire, and the patience to find them.

First, I need to make sure someone has a real love of dogs. This may seem obvious, but many people are just looking for a job, any job, to pay the bills. But this kind of job requires more than just a good work ethic. I look for people who understand and readily accept the level of responsibility that comes with caring for an animal and keeping it safe -- responsibilities that take precedence over anything else. Trust, reliability, strong interpersonal skills, compassion, and constant attention to detail are also essential.

One thing I have always felt very strongly about is that someone's past experience isn't as important as their passion for working with dogs. My preference is to hire someone new to the field as my training methods are very specific and it's easier to train someone starting from scratch than to re-train a person who has worked at other dog training facilities. Most of my employees have been with me for years, which I attribute to my hiring criteria.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Having a background in sales, marketing and management has really helped me distinguish between the training side and business side of my work and recognize the importance of each component. Just knowing how to manage payroll, taxes and operating expenses has been invaluable. I've worked hard to develop a strong sales and marketing strategy but in truth it always comes down to consistently providing excellent customer service. Getting our company name out there will only go so far if we don't have a strong reputation to back it up. Word of mouth goes a long way in this field and we do everything we can to make sure our clients are completely satisfied with their experience at "I Said Sit!"

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

While dog training itself is not regulated, some of the licensing processes for boarding and dog care can be a bit they should be. For many years there was not a lot of competition. Then, for some reason, becoming a dog trainer became trendy. Thankfully, I was established enough that my business didn't suffer greatly and most of the inexperienced trainers ended up leaving the field almost as quickly as they arrived.

One thing I have had to learn is how to address the burn-out factor. Dog training work can be very stressful - whether you're dealing with a difficult dog or a difficult owner, or both! Couple that with constantly cycling clients in and out and you can easily find yourself looking up and realizing you haven't had a vacation in years. Now I make it a point to set aside some 'human' time to recharge my batteries, which has made me a better trainer and businessman.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

There are a lot of good reasons for getting in to this business but glamour isn't one of them. This is not just a matter of playing with other people's dogs. You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and make sure you really know your stuff because bad advice can prove to be quite damaging and even dangerous, especially when dealing with aggressive dogs. This business also requires excellent communication skills to reach both dog and owner, often at the same time.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Not really, and I attribute that to the fact that since I started my business, I've always tried to keep my eye on the bigger picture and not sweat the small stuff. I generally take a "What If...?" approach to my business, which helps me look at a situation from all angles, determine my goals and then take the necessary steps to get there. So far, so good!

We wish you continued success, Jonathan. Thanks for speaking with us today.

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