By Gail Radtke
Looking back to March-April time, it seems like the entire dog training business as we know it pretty much crashed overnight. As COVID-19 started to take hold, decisions had to be made fast – especially for those of us who run a business at a physical location that is under a lease who realized we were not going to earn any income at that venue for the foreseeable future. Of course, we had all heard about the coronavirus and what was happening overseas but had no idea that the entire world was about to be affected in a way that our generation – or any before us – had never experienced.
I have since learned that coronaviruses are a large family of viruses and that human coronaviruses are common and typically associated with mild illnesses, similar to the common cold (Government of Canada, 2020). However, as we all know, COVID-19 has turned out to be so much more. I am in no way mathematically inclined, but the term “exponential growth” has been forever etched in my mind and I now fully understand that a pandemic is quite different to an epidemic. Just to be clear, “[a]n epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide. Follow declarations of public health officials. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.” (Associated Press, 2020).
In British Columbia, Canada, where I live and have my training facility, our provincial government-imposed mandates as to what was considered an “Essential Service.” Other, “non-essential” businesses, facilities, schools, and many other public places were abruptly closed. We learned very quickly that, in an effort to slow or even contain the spread of COVID-19, we would need to take measures to socially distance ourselves from all persons, again, as mandated by our local authorities. This meant not having direct contact with anyone other than persons living in our immediate households. It was if the world had suddenly just stopped and everything was standing still. For me personally, not only did I take immediate action and close my physical training location, I also moved out of the premises completely. In tandem, I started delivering training services to my clients in a format I would never have previously imagined. Welcome to virtual training, aka Zoom, a name that everyone became familiar with almost overnight. Zoom is a cloud-based video conferencing platform you can use to virtually meet with others, either by video or audio only, or both. It’s all live and is interactive in that everyone is able to live chat and see each other. Plus, it lets you record your sessions to view later.
Undeterred, I gathered my client email list and sent out my first meeting invites. I included an explanation of exactly what we would be setting out to do. While virtual meetings have been common in the business world for some time, virtual training has now taken the dog training industry by storm. Admittedly, in addition to watching the tutorials, it took me a few sessions to get a handle on how to use this new platform to deliver a training session and also how to manage a group of people, live, via the use of technology. As I have now experienced, and I am sure many of you reading this will also have experienced, Zoom provides several options for assigning hosts and co-hosts. Trainer Laura McKay, who had been working with me at my facility, and I thus figured out how to move back and forth so that, while one of us was demonstrating the training exercises, the other would jump in to be the host and manage the virtual room.
As I mentioned, Zoom gives you the option to record your training sessions and I have found this to be helpful for sending out to clients who were not able to attend the live meetings or if someone wants to view the session again for practice. I’ve really been enjoying the sessions and I think, through this stressful and often isolating experience, they have become more than just a dog training session in that they have provided a social outlet for the many of us who have been mostly confined at home.
I am fortunate to have a large garage so that is where I have been doing my online training. With my training facility closing, all of my equipment is conveniently right there. I also have my three dogs waiting anxiously to see who will be asked first to go into the garage to participate. I’ve been working quite a bit with my red heeler, Gertrude Mae, who doesn’t often get to attend training with me due to her reactivity to new dogs and people, so it is so nice to be able to share her talents with the virtual groups, as well as her funny quirks. We joke in our training group about how long it will take Gertie to be removed from the garage due to her demand barking. Meanwhile Gertie, being the smart little cattle dog she is, has made the connection between her barking and having to leave the garage, so has recognized that her behavior drives the outcome. Whenever Gertie attends first, towards the end of the session I invite my other dogs, Lanie and Trixie Mae, to come and say hello and forage on the ground for any treats Gertie might have missed. The group then has an informal chat and we get to say hi to each other, check in on how everyone is doing and see all the dogs! That’s one thing virtual training will never be able to replace, seeing all the pups and enjoying hanging out with them! Nevertheless, I can see myself continuing some form of virtual training in the future even when things get back to what we think of as normal.
During this pandemic, social media has become abuzz with trainers offering virtual training for just about everything and, in my opinion, it has become a cornerstone for the survival of our industry. In addition, many professional organizations have had to reschedule their conferences to a virtual platform, which I actually think could boost attendance due to people who did not have either the time or the funds to travel now being able to attend. In the meantime, I spend my days looking for the rainbows that keep appearing during this storm that has yet to end. As an industry, I believe we adapted quickly and embraced the change. Personally, now I have a bit more time on my hands, I have also been able to join some virtual classes. As an example, I have always wanted to learn Rally, so have signed up with Jeanne Shaw of Love 2 Play Dog Training in the Kootenays, British Columbia. Jeanne is a well-known trainer in the area who has started a virtual group. I would have never thought of signing up for virtual training prior to COVID-19 and due to the logistics of where we both live, have never had the opportunity to train with Jeanne. I asked Jeanne about how she set up her virtual training and discovered she has been offering virtual services for a while due to the challenging winter weather conditions where she lives, so she was ready to go when the time came to change everything over. I have to say I am loving the virtual training and being able to reach out and make connections I previously would not have had so much time for, another rainbow during this storm.
Overall, I think we will see virtual training become a permanent fixture in the dog training industry. There are enormous benefits for reactive dogs, for dogs find group classes challenging, and for people who prefer a more private setting or whose lives do not allow for attend in person training for a variety of reasons.
Some of the challenges we do face with virtual training are puppy play groups for socialization skills (although plenty of trainers have come up with alternatives tailored specifically to the pandemic) and dogs who need positive exposures to other dogs in a controlled environment. From a business point of view, we are now competing with dog trainers from all over the country, or, indeed, the world, whereas prior to COVID-19 we were concerned mainly with trainers from our local area. The latter, of course, provides us with the opportunity to collaborate with and refer to each other depending on which specialized skills are required for any one client or case. I realized this when I was on my community Facebook group and saw a dog trainer advertising virtual training classes. When I inquired about where they were physically located, it was on the other side of the country. It was quite the wake-up call. People who would normally look for dog training classes close to home can now attend virtual classes with a trainer who is located anywhere. I am not sure what the impact of this will be on trying to maintain our businesses now that we have a larger number of competitors. Hopefully, there will be enough work to go around but only time will tell.
What, then, does the future look like for dog training? I think it’s too early to say as, at the time of writing, we don’t quite know how long the social restrictions will be in place and what the new normal is going to look like. The economic impact of the pandemic has yet to unfold but I am sure we will be experiencing it for a while. This may, in turn, impact a trainer’s decision about opening a physical location and taking on the financial responsibility in such uncertain times.
For now, keep counting the rainbows! The dog training industry adapted quickly and is finding new and novel ways to keep people engaging with their dogs, enabling trainers to maintain their livelihoods. Somehow, so far, we are riding the wave and surviving the storm.
Associated Press. (2020). Coronavirus Topical Guide: Available at: https://www.apstylebook.com/topical_most_recent
Government of Canada. (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19.html
Dictionary.com. (2020). “Epidemic” vs. “Pandemic”: What Do These Terms Mean? Available at: https://www.dictionary.com/e/epidemic-vs-pandemic/
Wikipedia. (2020). Exponential Growth. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exponential_growth
Zoom Video Conferencing: https://zoom.us/about
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2020, pp.20-22. 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.