By Gary Wilkes
As if you don’t have enough headaches in keeping a successful salon going, there is a dark cloud hanging over your head. That cloud makes clients’ dogs disappear. That’s because some of your clients’ dogs aren’t growing hair anymore; they aren’t breathing, either.
During the eight years I worked in shelters and 25 more working as a behaviorist, I’ve heard many thousands of people tell me why they couldn’t keep their dog. The most common reasons are behavioral. Either the dog did something unacceptable or it didn’t do something that was required. There are several groups entirely dependent on a supply of dogs to keep them in business. Groomers, vets, and daycare and kennel operators need dogs to stay in their homes to be successful. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t get the memo. Training is a prerequisite to creating and maintaining a long-standing relationship with a client. Untrained dogs tend to disappear into that dark cloud.
A rarely recognized aspect of life in the U. S. is that tens of millions of dogs will die before they are a year old – every year. As a result, groomers, veterinarians, and kennel and daycare operators lose a considerable number of clients. How many is unknown. Most dog professionals don’t routinely look at their cold client files and make a call back to find out. The process is time consuming. A significant number of your lost clients moved, changed their phone numbers or email addresses, or simply don’t take your call. It’s easy to chalk it up to the competition – the client went elsewhere.
However, the best place to find America’s Lost Dogs is at a shelter or rescue group. Many of the animals surrendered at shelters once had grooming, veterinary care, and daycare in their background. Behavior specialists also get a hint that when a client declines training for a dog with a serious behavior problem, it’s likely that it will soon stop growing hair or needing vaccinations. While we may not know the name of the groomer, vet, or kennel that just lost a client, we know the most common outcome of a behavior problem left unsolved. “Cloud time” for Rover.
Getting Rid of the Dark Cloud
The first step in conserving clients begins with realizing that all dogs need training. As infants, they are rewarded for standing on their hind legs and leaping upward to get human attention. Whelping boxes and kiddy gates ensure this. What is cute for a 12-pound puppy is entirely unacceptable for a 60-pound Standard Poodle. From the day the pup comes into your shop, that dark cloud is hanging over the dog’s head. Unless corrected, it can be a one-way trip to a shelter or rescue for even well-bred, highly expensive dogs. Additionally, housetraining is a huge problem for new dog owners. Many dogs are not fully housetrained at the critical “year of age” milestone. Not many people care if their Bichon smells of lavender if their carpet smells like urine.
These are typical problems that a groomer can head off before the owner runs out of patience. There is a big bonus to injecting yourself into the behavioral life of a dog: the owner comes to trust that you are a valuable advisor, confidant, and friend. When problems arise, which could end their relationship with their dog, you will be the person they seek for advice. To keep the client, you need to be in a position to advise them and steer them toward effective training. That doesn’t mean you have to provide the training but merely that you know enough to counsel them wisely.
To achieve a better behavioral handle on your client, include behavioral information in your client files. Whether they are current clients or new dog owners, having information about their dog’s training history can help you greatly. If a dog is fractious at your salon but great at training classes, there may be existing obedience behaviors that can make the dog easier to groom. This gives you an opportunity to discover a trainer that is good at what they do. If a client’s dog is behaviorally perfect, find out how it got that way. Having a go-to name for effective training is a powerful thing. Creating formal obedience behaviors is not a be-all, end-all, but it’s a great way to head off problems like aggression before they become life threatening.
Obviously, the easiest way to ensure that your clients are getting the training they need is to ally your salon with a local trainer who can accomplish a few things in a timely and cost-effective fashion. It can easily turn into a mutual back-scratching relationship. You refer clients to the trainer, and the trainer refers clients to you for grooming. The key to establishing this relationship is to have a protocol that allows you to track the progress of the clients you refer to a specific trainer. This allows for direct feedback from your clients, which can determine if you have the right trainer or not.
Here is a short list of the most lethal dog behaviors. If you can fix them or find someone who can fix them, the dog lives, you keep your client, and everyone will live happily ever after. When you are interviewing trainers, focus on the most common behaviors. Try to pin down the trainer’s actual experience in terms of years and degree of difficulty. Most good trainers work with at least one veterinarian. Ask which one and if you can call for a recommendation. Make sure you check any professional references, and ask the trainer if they know how to deal with the following behaviors:
Jumping on people
Walking on a leash
Darting out the front door
Knocking down kids
Harassing other pets
(name recognition, stay and come)
I wish I could direct you to a certification or professional organization that would make finding a trainer easy, but I can’t. None of the groups claiming to represent professional trainers or behaviorists include certifications based on actual performance in front of expert trainers. All of the tests are written. One friend of mine desired a dog training certification and confided that she passed because she answered with what the review board wanted to hear – not how she actually trains. In the world of professional dog training, there is nothing analogous to a grooming certification. That being said, there is nothing that prevents you from requesting a personal demonstration of a trainer’s talents. Your dog-handling savvy and feedback from your clients will tell you what you need to know. If you get this right, that dark cloud can turn into a sunny day.