At the School for Dog Trainers, we are extremely passionate about helping our students to achieve success in the dog training industry after graduation. Our programs are designed to offer graduates the tools and information they need, not only to become an expert dog trainer, but to give them the business expertise they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment.
The pet industry continues to thrive, with over $70 billion spent in the United States in 2018 on pets. With so many different dog training career options available, prospective and current students can learn by studying the paths of those who have attended our school and are now running their own successful businesses in the pet industry.
With this in mind, we recently caught up with a former graduate from the School for Dog Trainers, Anna Shreeves. Anna now owns Walk SLO Pet Care, based in California.
We asked Anna about her business, what she learned from attending the School for Dog Trainers, and any advice she has for future graduates.
What does Walk SLO offer?
Walk SLO Pet Care provides services for senior citizens who live in assisted living facilities with their pets. At Walk SLO, our main service is walking dogs, but we also provide pet transportation to the veterinarian and groomer, supply pick up, medication administration, accident clean up and daily coat maintenance. We work with our clients every day and in most cases multiple times a day (up to 4 times a day). Our services are unique in that not only do we walk dogs but with every walk we ensure that every dog gets fed, receives any medication he or she may need and gets brushed. Since our clients live in such small spaces with their pets, we also include accident cleanup to ensure a clean living space for the human and the pets.
Can you tell us about the process that led to you starting Walk SLO? What inspired you to start your business?
There were a couple of things that happened.
The first thing to happen: A couple years after graduating high school, I wanted to become a veterinarian so I decided I needed to get some experience and I applied for a veterinary receptionist job that I had seen in the local newspaper. After getting hired for the job, I was shocked at how many phone calls we received on a regular basis from seniors in our community needing help with their pets. They were needing help with a variety of things but the most common problems I noticed were that there was no one available to assist with the daily tasks and transportation. The calls came in so frequently that the other receptionists and I joked that we would start a pet taxi service.
The second thing: A couple years after working at the vet, I was accepted into the Animal Science program at California Polytechnic State University SLO. Not long after I started Cal poly, I knew that being a vet was not what I wanted. I was far more interested in animal behavior, specifically canine behavior. So, I decided I needed to look into other options. After a couple of Google searches, I found Highland Canine. I decided to quit Cal poly and head to North Carolina.
When I got to Highland, I was very excited about the variety of dogs we would get to work with. I was very interested in behavior but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with it. I had originally thought that I wanted to work with shelter dogs who had behavior problems and help make them more adoptable. One thing that I did not know coming into Highland was that we would get to take the service dogs in training to nursing homes to visit seniors. I loved seeing the reaction on their faces when we brought the dogs in. They were always so excited! It reminded me so much of the seniors that I had spoken to on the phone when I was a receptionist. They loved their animals and got so much joy and companionship out of them. When I finished my schooling in NC, I knew I had to go back home and use my education to ensure that they would never be without the proper care for their pets.
How did your education at the School for Dog Trainers help you to start your own business?
As a student, we were required to come up with a business. I knew I wanted to work with seniors and dogs but I wasn’t exactly sure what the business would look like. I wanted to include pet transportation since that was something I knew the seniors in my community needed. During my time at Highland, I had started a website. It was nothing fancy but enough to get me started with my business. I was offering dog training, dog walking and transportation at the time.
A couple months after getting back to California, I received a phone call from a young woman whose grandparents were getting ready to move into assisted living with their dog. She had requested that I meet them because they were desperate for help. When I met them, they had asked me if I could walk their dog, Lobo, 3 to 5 times a day. It was important that he went out multiple times a day because Lobo needed to be potty trained and neither individual could safely walk him on their own. The facility they were moving into was pet friendly ONLY if the owner was able to provide care on his/her own. Well, this couple knew that wasn’t possible for them but giving Lobo up was not an option.
I was intrigued by their request so I decided to give it a shot. So, I showed up three times a day (the agreed upon amount of walks) every single day. The facility saw how often I was there and how well behaved Lobo was with the staff and noticed how he never had accidents in the room. The administrator approached me and asked about my business. They had wanted to accept pets on a more regular basis but they did not want their staff to be distracted or harmed by them. We use our services on a daily basis to make sure that all dogs are potty trained and we teach all of staff how to enter the rooms/approach the dogs safely. From then on out, I decided to focus my business solely on seniors who live in assisted living. Our biggest service is walking dogs not only for exercise but also for potty training purposes. We also help the pets adjust to a new home. Most of the dogs are not used to strangers coming in and out of their rooms multiple times a day so we teach our clients and the staff how to safely handle them.
To this day, we still walk Lobo.
After you returned to California after attending the School for Dog Trainers, how did you find transitioning into running your own business?
The hardest part has been explaining to people what my business is and getting the word out there. It is not your typical dog walking business. Walking dogs is our main service but there is a lot more that goes into it than that.
The other challenges have been just learning how to run a business. When I started this I never anticipated having employees. I thought I would maybe have one other person to help with the work but now I have a staff of eight people and counting.
What is your favorite aspect of running your own business?
I love that this is a functioning business that started from nothing. It is exciting for me to see how far I’ve come since my time at Highland six years ago. I love meeting new employees who see the larger purpose of this business and seeing the impact that our services have on our clients and their pets. It’s rewarding to go to work every day knowing that we’re making a difference.
Could you explain the importance of maintaining these human-canine relationships - both for seniors who may be less active in their old age, and for their dogs too?
When I was at Highland, all of the seniors at the nursing homes talked about how they loved dogs and about the dogs they used to have. It made me sad to hear that most of them had no choice but to give up their pets because they could no longer care for them. The most common theme I see among my clients is that they got their pet with their spouse and now that their spouse has passed, the pet is the only connection that they have left. For these people to give up their pet it would be like losing their spouse all over again. The pets are also great ice breakers. Moving into an assisted living facility is like starting at a new school. The dogs help their owners be more social and often the dog owners become friends with one another. For many of our clients, the dogs are their main source of entertainment and companionship. Most of their families don’t live close by and the ones that do are often busy.
One of the other benefits is that people who may have had no other choice but to surrender their pets now have an option. Keeping pets out of shelters has been a passion of mine since I was a child and this service allows us to do our part to keep them with their owners.
Today’s students at Highland are graduating into an industry which is experiencing significant year-on-year growth. This obviously has many positives, but it also makes it a very competitive industry to be successful in. Do you have any advice for graduates from Highland who are thinking of starting their own business working with dogs?
Think outside the box and work with as many different dogs and people as possible. I got laughed at numerous times when I told people I was starting a business and they laughed even harder when I told them what I was doing. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to any of my critics. When I started at Highland, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do but I’m glad I was able to work with a variety of dogs and figure out my purpose.
What are your future aspirations for your business?
My big dream is to franchise this business so that every assisted living facility can accept pets if they don’t already and use our services to provide the daily care for the pets.