Expand your practice by building canine good citizens


By going out into the community, you could gain more than you ever expected.

The team at Nassau Veterinary Clinic in Nassau, N.Y., realized about 15 years ago that too many of the practice's clients were giving up their pets either to shelters or euthanization because of behavioral issues. So they got into the dog training business.

The practice started by offering a life skills training class, and has since added puppy kindergarten, adolescent classes, agility training, and several other courses. A year ago, organizers added a new class called "Tails on Trails," a program in which trainers take dogs and their owners out to different spots in the community and teach the dogs how to function in the real world. "We had people telling us that their dogs would listen in class, but when they got into real situations, they didn't do as well," says Marlene Wagner, a certified professional dog trainer. The course has become so popular that some clients travel up to 40 miles to attend.

The two certified dog trainers at the Nassau Veterinary Clinic didn't have a road map of how to implement such a program, but after having completed three Tails on Trails sessions, they've learned what works. Here's what they recommend.

1. Establish a time frame for a complete session and decide on your fees. Wagner first drew up a four-week session, which met at a different place one hour per week, for $85. But the trainers realized dog owners wanted more—many had signed up for multiple sessions—so they expanded the program to eight weeks for $100.

2. Scout out the best places to train. Tails on Trails participants have taken their dogs to a local outlet mall, entered dog-friendly stores (one or two at a time), walked along hiking and biking trails, dropped in on farms, and even visited the concourse at the state capitol. "We don't want crazy-busy places where the dogs will be overwhelmed," says Wagner. "We want it to be safe and also where there's a mix of foot, bike, and other dog traffic."

3. Define your target market. Decide what dogs are eligible for your program, then inform clients about the guidelines. In most cases, dogs should have at least one prior positive-reinforcement obedience course under their belt before joining Tails on Trails. Also, this class takes canine good citizenship to the next level, so it's reasonable to assume that the people most likely interested in the class would be people who are interested in taking their dog's training further.

4. Get the whole team, including the doctors, involved. Wagner says the sessions double as social gatherings for the dog owners and practice team members who attend, which is why it's important to get the whole team, including the doctors, involved. "The participants chitchat with the doctors and staff, and it's a very bonding experience for them—they feel connected to the clinic," says Wagner.

5. Develop a marketing plan. Nassau advertises the program in the newspapers and sends fliers to shelters, breeders, and, of course, people who've attended the practice's behavior classes. Each canine participant also receives a safety vest branded with the Nassau logo to wear while out training.

The main point, Wagner says, is to have fun with the program. It not only provides a valuable service to your clients, it helps you and your staff build relationships with clients—and potential clients—out in the community.

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