By Veronica Boutelle
I have loved and served this industry for 20 years, but I have never been prouder to be part of it than I am in this moment.
I’m writing this from my home office in late April while sheltered in place. You’re probably reading it sometime in July. I’ve no way of knowing, as I write now, what things will be looking like when you read my words. I feel fairly certain, though, that whatever the specific circumstances, we’ll still be dealing individually, as a nation, and as a world, with the COVID-19 crisis. We’ll be dealing with it as dog trainers, business owners, and as an industry, too. And so, I thought I might share some thoughts about that.
Here at dogbiz, we’re currently halfway through our Survive & Thrive group coaching program. We offered this program free of charge to +R dog trainers with the aim of helping us all make it successfully through this unprecedented time and into a stronger position once we get to the other side of it. Currently just three weeks in, we’ve already learned a lot. We’ve talked about marketing and pricing during a crisis, about creating online training services, about the available technology, and more. But it’s the big-picture things we’re learning together that have really captured our attention at dogbiz. Here are our three biggest takeaways from this crazy moment:
- We Are Stronger Together
I’m sure by July this concept will be sounding stale. (Is there any company that’s not using it in their marketing these days?) But I don’t mean it as a marketing jingle. I mean it as an honest observation.
It has been amazing watching industry organizations fly into action to offer free content and support when the virus hit, and how many joined forces to do so. PPG, for example, started a free webinar series and invited people from all over the industry to participate. I wasn’t surprised by any of this, but it was still lovely to see and be part of.
Even more inspiring is watching individual trainers come together in a tighter, more supportive way than I’ve ever seen. This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our Survive & Thrive program. Trainers are actively sharing their best ideas, their vulnerable moments of fear and doubt and exhaustion, supporting each other through the hard days, and enthusiastically cheerleading each other’s successes. As historian Jon Meacham (2018) puts it, we’ve “reached for our better angels,” i.e. our best selves.
And already this is working. As a collective brain trust we’re developing better ideas and learning faster what works and doesn’t. Trainers in the group are feeling less isolated and bolder, finding the courage to try new things with the support of their colleagues behind them, and they’re succeeding.
I am hoping we will carry this new way of being together well past this challenging moment. Just imagine what we could accomplish individually and as an industry if this were our everyday way of working.
- Innovation Is Our New Friend—Let’s Keep Her
Speaking of trying new things, one of the themes we carried into Survive & Thrive was the need to step outside of the box in these times of social distancing and lockdown, to begin imagining other ways of serving dogs and their people with our professional knowledge and skills.
As an industry, I would say we tend to be a bit conservative, getting stuck in business ruts and, when we do adopt new ideas or approaches, we may do so without deliberate strategy and clear goals. It’s understandable in many ways. Change can be uncomfortable and running a small business—especially one you rely on for your food and home—can be stressful and nerve-wracking enough without throwing curve balls.
But wow. It’s been amazing to watch trainers lean into this moment, even in the midst of fear, anxiety, exhaustion, and COVID-19 brain fog. The ideas generated and shared and built upon in Survive & Thrive have been inspiring. I’ve never witnessed such an open willingness to think so boldly outside the box in this industry. I predict the ideas we’re creating together will push individual trainers, businesses, and the industry as a whole to new heights.
Necessity breeds invention, of course, but I do hope this explosion of creativity and innovation lasts well beyond the virus.
- Perfection Is Our Enemy—Let’s Dump Her
This has been a program theme, too. Perfection and its close cousins—anxiety, lack of confidence, fear—have long stood in the way of many talented, creative trainers pursuing their wonderful ideas. For many of us perfection is a personality trait. For others, a belief of sorts. Our industry culture has reinforced it, too. We’ve been quick to criticize each other, to pick at small mistakes and faults.
This isn’t to say that getting something right or doing a thorough, professional job isn’t something to strive for. But innovation requires a willingness to learn as you go. The pressure of this moment has pushed many trainers to take faster action than normal, to jump in with a new service idea before they had all the details worked out, and trust that they’d land. We’ve realized what we can accomplish (and how quickly) if we take a deep breath and just start. If we land awkwardly, we’ll brush ourselves off and adjust. But in the meantime, we’re making progress and helping people and dogs.
Or think of it this way: If you begin a painting and it’s not quite right, you can paint right over it. The only mistake is to do nothing, to not pick up the brush and start creating. I hope as a result of this moment that our industry will come to embrace and even enjoy the creative process, seeing failures and mistakes for what they are: steps toward success.
Taking these Lessons to Heart
Sure, the moment demanded action. But we could have rolled into a fetal position. That was always a choice. Instead we’ve risen to the occasion individually and as an industry because the crisis brought us together, because we let our guard down and let each other in. That gave us the collective power to innovate on a faster, smarter, grander scale, and the courage to set our perfectionism and fear aside to take action on our great ideas, big and small.
I am hopeful that we will take these lessons to heart, carrying them with us into the post-pandemic world when we finally get there. I can’t wait to see what all we accomplish.
Meacham, J. (2018). The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. London, UK: Random House
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2020, pp.24-25. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Veronica Boutelle is the founder of dogbiz and the author of How To Run A Dog Business, Putting Your Career Where Your Heart Is, among other Dogwise titles. Learn what dogbiz is currently doing to support +R dog trainers, and to put the lessons learned from the pandemic into practice, at www.dogbizsuccess.com.