An Interview with Pet Care Pioneer and Owner of A Closer Bond Katy Cushing
Is your Boarding business down significantly vs. last year, and are you looking for ways to profitably grow your overall business? Would you be interested in launching a new service offering that will take care of the greatest unmet needs for dogs and clients in your region? As you probably know, across most of the USA COVID-19 is creating a puppy boom, and many of these young dogs need training to ensure they stay happy in their homes. In many places, demand for training is outstripping supply. Furthermore, arguably the best of form of training is Residency Training, aka Lodge & Learn or Board & Train. Despite the attractive revenue and profit opportunities with Residency Training, most facilities still don’t offer this service now. I interviewed pet care industry pioneer Katy Cushing to share some valuable insights to educate you on how and why to launch Residency Services.
Tell us the story of why and how you started A Closer Bond?
When I was 14 years old, I had to give up my dog Patches as it bit a neighbor’s kid as it was not properly trained. At that age, I decided I wanted to become a dog trainer so that I could keep my future dogs. In 1988 I went to training school with Scott Mueller and learned there are many preventable behavior issues and problems linked to lack of social skills that can be prevented or cured by training. So, I decided to start a Closer Bond in 1994 to train dogs to help dogs to stay in their home. It is clear that dog training to help dogs is my passion, which has led me to founding and achieving an extremely successful pet care business in Palatine, IL with two locations. Our success has been so pronounced, we have started to train dog trainers, and will be opening up a school for dog trainers in the near future.
Tell us why and how you started to offer Residency Training, aka Lodge & Learn?
I call it Residency Training as our facility is like a house, and they come here to learn from us. So many pets are given up on or euthanized due to lack of early socialization and training, and dogs deserve the best education. It’s challenging for pet parents to train their own dogs due to a lack of time, knowledge, and patience, combined with inconsistent expectations. Furthermore, it is easier for a dog to be reliably trained by one person who is consistent in their training approach. Any training is a plus. Group training is too generalized, and doesn’t target or solve individual behavior problems. Private classes are better, but they don’t provide any solutions with social development, which is key. Residency training gives the trainer the time that is really needed to provide a dog the right education patiently, without worrying about life’s other stresses like pet parents do. In Residency training dogs can also learn faster, and benefit significantly from a consistent lifestyle at A Closer Bond as opposed to a drop off program where the dogs are spending days here and evenings at home.
Do you have a story you can share with us about how Residency Training truly turned a dog’s life around?
We received a phone call from a crying woman who was just about to take her dog to the Vet to put him down. I asked her to bring her 2-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Duncan in for an evaluation. Duncan had never been trained and had bit a visitor in their home who had reached under a table to pet him despite a clear warning of a growl. So, Duncan entered our Residency Training program, specifically a 4-week rehabilitation program. We started with obedience training first, then worked on distraction, and other techniques including perception modification, conditioned relaxation and behavior training. We also trained Duncan’s pet parents to become more engaged in Duncan’s’ life, especially in applying his new training skills and anticipating his behavior. Duncan quickly became a happier dog, never bit anyone ever again, and lived a long and happy life.
Under what circumstances is Residency Training the best training option available for a dog?
Under most circumstances, Residency Training is the best training option for basically all dogs. It is easiest for the dog to have one person who is consistent in their training and handling. It is important to understand that with Residency Training, the dog is not only learning, but also learning how to learn over time. It is kind of like the human equivalent covering elementary school, then high school, and finally college for the dog in one program. So, Residency Training can be the best and most complete education programs for all dogs. Ideally every dog would go through Residency Training, then their owners need to be trained to follow through. Pet parents need to show the dog that they expect the same results with the training as the trainer did. It needs to be the same approach for it to be optimal for the dog.
For what types of pet parents is Residency Training the best option for their dog?
Especially for super busy pet parents. Anyone who has a very active dog, which can be stressful and test their patience. Dogs with any behavior concerns are perfect for Residency Training. This could include aggression, fear biting, and separation anxiety. It is important to understand that it is easier for a trainer to place higher expectations on a dog vs. a pet parent, and therefore we will get better results. We also need to continue to stress the point that owners then need to follow up at home. People who have puppies who need to be house trained are a perfect fit for Residency Training. Also, shy and under socialized dogs are a good fit, as we have the time and knowledge to build confidence in the dogs. Families with 2+ children under 10 years of age are a great match so that the dog gets all the attention they need during training. Essentially, anyone who wants their pet’s education in the hands of a professional.
For what types of pet care services facilities is Residency Training the best training offering to provide?
For facilities that have overnight stays, i.e. lodging or boarding, Residency Training is the best training offering. We also have drop-off training programs, but it takes longer to get the same results, as the dog goes home at night, and rules are different at home than they are in training. Our Residency Training is a 3 weeks program where we are going to have a dog trained for off leash reliability outside. Without having 100% control of the dog during this time, it takes much longer to get the results.
When is Residency Training not a good training option?
Dogs on medication for seizures or diabetes are probably not the best candidate. Given a change in environment, it can take a dog a few days to adjust. So, if the change is going to cause a seizure, or if they stop eating for more than a day or two, we don’t want them losing weight. In summary, we don’t want them to have any type of medical issue while they are in our care.
If a pet care services facility today is already set up for lodging/boarding, what else do they need to do to successfully launch and attract clients for Residency Training?
First, they need a confident, outspoken, and experienced trainer who has their own well-trained dogs that they can demonstrate to new clients to show the results they can get, and what people can expect to get out of the training. That’s really important. You don’t want a cookie cutter approach, so the trainer needs to be able to adjust to the individual dog’s needs. They need to be able to understand personalities, evaluate them, and discuss behavior problems. They need to come up with a training plan to be successful and use it at home with the owners. This can also include a lot of follow-up lessons afterwards, which we believe is one of the reasons our Residency Training programs are more successful than many others. For example, sometimes we are their 4 or 5th trainer the pet parents have used, but we can pretty much guarantee we will be their last as our results endure the test of time.
How can Residency Training help give you an edge over competition in your region?
Big boxes have group classes and private lessons, but they don’t typically offer Residency Training. Also, most other pet care facilities today do not yet offer Residency training.
What special equipment and capabilities do you need to launch Residency Training?
You really don’t need any specific equipment, but you do need a confident and competent trainer. Nothing should be fearful for dogs. We use lots of treats and lots of encouragement as we believe in a balanced approach to training. We get dogs to want to learn from us, and introduce the word “no” so we can redirect their attention when they get distracted. You really need the capabilities of getting the results that the owners are looking for with their dog. We use our love and affection to get these results. When the owners are happy, we are happy for them.
Vs. lodging, daycare, grooming, and basic training, how do the revenue and profit of Residency Training compare?
A few years ago, we did all these services at one location in 600 square feet. We were training about 10 to 15 dogs a day. We outgrew the space, and relocated our training department to an 8,000 square foot building. The Residency Training today is about 60% of our total revenue, and regular boarding, daycare, and grooming stayed at our original location and makes up 40%. Our income from Residency Training is what is keeping us going. Importantly, the profitability of Residence Training is a lot higher than for the other services. We offer 1, 2, and 3-week programs in Residency Training. Each week of training is going to bring in for us between $600 and $1200 per dog for some of the programs we have. For the 3-week program that usually brings us about $2800 in revenue.
What does your staff think of Residency Training vs. other services you offer and why?
The staff really like the Residency Training vs group classes or private lessons. Group classes can be frustrating as you can only go as fast as your slowest learner. Private classes, as long as the client is motivated and works with their dog in between, can be good. They also like getting to know and understand the dog better and seeing the transforming results with Residency Training.
What educational and marketing tools does a facility need to successfully launch Residency Training with clients?
Go to Vets with a demonstration of the training you do, and give them brochures that talk about the training. Marketing with veterinarians is a must, and you really need a compelling demonstration. When we are asked how to pick a dog trainer, we say look at the trainer’s dog. We tell our trainers that you have to spend 30 minutes a day training your own dog, as that is what you are going to be showing and talking to potential clients about. This also improves the relationships all around.
Additional Takeaways for Success:
Trainer Cultural Fit: The foundation for success is the trainer(s) must be “confident, outspoken, and an experienced trainer who has their own well-trained dogs that they can demonstrate….” The rest of their success will depend largely on your team ensuring they are hiring and/or partnering with someone who shares your values, and is a team player to collaborate with the rest of your staff.
Client Education: Key to success will be having your trainer(s) develop marketing materials to train clients up front on why it is so important to get dogs trained properly, and why Residency Training will provide the best education and long-term results for their dogs. This should also contain content outlining what pet parents must do immediately after the training and ongoing to ensure that the training becomes a way of life and pays long term rewards.
Services Upgrades: Take advantage of your launch of Residency Training to upgrade your overall services offerings. This can include “good, better, best” offerings in Residency Training. It is also a great time to review and upgrade your lodging/boarding experiences as they will end up being important components of your Residency Training program differentiation.
Katy and I both wish you much success launching Residency Training at your facility, and feel great knowing it will benefit so many dogs and clients, while helping to take your business to the next level of service excellence and financial results!