Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
The Business of Separation Anxiety
For trainers, having read the book this far, you may be thinking that you can make treating separation anxiety a major part of your training business. And that is indeed possible. In this section, you will find great resources to help you with the business side of separation anxiety. I encourage you to not skip over it. Take it from me, the business side of this work is just as important to your success as all the other skills learned in this book.
Your success, both with the dog and the bottom line of your business, depends on your wise selection of clients. Applying strict criteria to the client selection process isn’t distasteful; it’s the only way to be effective. Like most trainers, I want to save every last dog, but accepting every case indiscriminately is a waste of your time and your client’s money. If a client isn’t able to devote the necessary amount of time, money or other resources to a treatment plan, don’t take her on. By all means, make your rejection kind and diplomatic, explain your reasoning, give some management options and suggest helpful books and articles (maybe even this book). But to only get a client halfway through a program won’t help the dog—and it will hurt your reputation.
Some of the questions you ask as part of your questionnaire during your initial consultations will serve as barometers for an owner’s commitment level. A potential client who states that she can’t suspend any absences, can’t use a dog walker or another outside service, and who has a goal of leaving her dog for ten hours a day immediately isn’t a good candidate for a successful program.
Scheduling and pricing
When you take on separation anxiety clients, be prepared to devote a lot of time to your clients—and no kidding. Plan on the initial consultation, where you ask them the questions in the questionnaire and go over what a treatment protocol entails and the client’s management options, lasting an hour and a half. You should charge and collect a fee for the initial consultation for your time, and this fee can be a barometer of the client’s commitment. After that, you need to create an initial individualized treatment plan, a process also requiring a fair investment of time. I suggest emailing the initial behavior treatment plan within a day or so after your initial consult. (For a sample treatment plan, see Appendix 3.) Then there will typically be a phone consult (or email) to review questions about the behavior plan with your client before you both can get started.
At this point, you will have put in quite a few hours and no major training has yet taken place. See how separation anxiety cases can be time-consuming?
Once you begin the training in earnest, you need to keep in regular communication with your client. Beyond any in-person visits you may need to make, allow for two consults per week (one likely by phone, definitely one web meeting) and a few email check-ins. Each week you will be providing new criteria steps based on the dog’s progress. Because of the way separation anxiety training is conducted, it’s a good idea to set up pricing by having a fixed fee for your initial consult that covers your in-person consult time, and then switch to a weekly support fee for ongoing training.
Note: I ask my clients to commit to working with me for a minimum of four weeks. I know it will take at least that long to get them to the point where they can effectively set criteria on their own. After that, we evaluate. If the clients feel comfortable moving forward on their own and just checking in with me on an ad hoc basis (paid, of course), great. If not, we proceed with the weekly support fee.
Dog*tec’s advise on operating a separation anxiety treatment business
I invited the experts at dog*tec to write this section of the business chapter of this book. Below is excellent advice from dog*tec consultant Gina Phairas on packaging, pricing, scheduling and marketing separation anxiety training services.
The case for separation anxiety services
If you ask trainers about their favorite types of behavior cases, you’re not likely to hear too many mention separation anxiety. Which isn’t really a surprise. Separation anxiety cases require more client support, often in the form of late night phone calls from frantic owners, and are notoriously long running. Add to that the devastating consequences of failed cases, and who wouldn’t rather train a puppy?
Unfortunately (and not surprisingly) separation anxiety specialists are in great need and by not taking these cases, trainers leave a good deal of money on the table. Because so few trainers treat it, SA can be a powerful niche to help grow your business. But SA cases are tremendously demanding, and just as Malena’s innovative approaches to treating SA greatly improve case outcome, adopting new approaches to structuring, pricing, and marketing your SA service will be key to business success. With the proper practices in place, you can help dogs suffering from separation anxiety while protecting yourself from burnout.
Structuring SA services
The typical private training model is to charge for in-person time with the client only. This model doesn’t work for separation anxiety treatment. These clients need much more access to you, and our current business model leaves SA trainers working untold numbers of unpaid hours providing email and phone support between appointments. This support time, and the time spent reviewing video recordings and adjusting training plans, must be compensated to make taking SA cases workable over the long haul.
Owners struggling with separation anxiety need different kinds of support than the average client. Rather than spending time in their home teaching mechanical skills, most of your time will be spent helping clients understand their dog’s body language and reviewing the next steps of the training plan. Clients don’t need you there in person to watch them leave the house while they practice an absence. They need you to watch their dog while they leave, to teach them how to gauge when they should return, and to help determine their next criteria steps—all of which can be done remotely. So while you’ll need to give these clients more of your time, you’ll be spending much less time in your car to do it. Let’s take a look at the details.
1. Initial consult
As with most behavior modification cases, you’ll need an initial consultation to gather a behavior history and create a treatment plan. Plan for a 90-minute consult, as you’ll need to spend some time history-taking, assessing, creating a management plan, and outlining the initial steps of the training plan for clients who decide to hire you on.
2. Training plan development and review
Next, you’ll need some time to develop the training plan and to review it with the client. You may choose to review the training plan on the phone rather than doing an in-person visit, but you’ll still need to factor this into your fees.
3. Weekly support
Finally, you’ll need to provide weekly support to clients. This support includes time for pre-scheduled phone calls, reviewing videotape or watching live absences, emailing criteria steps to clients and emergency phone calls or emails.
This expanded structure allows you to provide the support clients need by building it into your schedule. The next step is to make sure the hours of expertise and support you dedicate to SA clients are properly compensated.
Pricing SA services
In dog training, generally what’s good for business is also good for clients and their dogs. That is particularly true when it comes to pricing and packaging SA services. Packaging—requiring clients to commit up front to a minimum number of training weeks—helps you maximize your revenue while ensuring clients purchase enough training and support to put them on a path to success.
A typical weekly support package might look like this:
Three to four days of contact per week / two hours a week of support:
One phone appointment (30 minutes)
Review tape or web meeting (30 minutes)
Email support (two exchanges of fifteen minutes each)
Emergency support by phone or email (30 minutes)
Time is crucial here. Because separation anxiety is no quick-fix, require that your clients commit to a minimum number of weeks up front (a four-week commitment as Malena does, for example). Because cases don’t usually resolve in less than four weeks, committing to less wastes clients’ time and money. Making this commitment up front will help clients see the process through when there’s a setback or progress isn’t as fast as they’d hoped, despite your best attempts to set realistic expectations. Your ultimate goal is to change the dog’s behavior and give him and his owner relief from this tragic situation. Set everyone up for success by ensuring there will be enough time to make real progress.
Be clear with clients that four weeks won’t likely be enough to wrap the case. But it will be enough to make headway and be able to more accurately predict the total time needed. And as you set up additional weeks after the first four week package, you’ll be able to reduce the number of weekly support hours. While many cases will take up to three months to complete, as the weeks go on, you’ll be spending less time holding the clients’ hands. You’ll have taught them how to read their dogs and set criteria steps for themselves; they won’t need you as much, which means they’ll be spending less. By weeks nine through twelve you’ll likely just need time for a weekly check-in and some cheerleading.
So what’s the bottom line for the client? Let’s look at a couple of examples, keeping in mind that the rates here aren’t a specific suggestion of what your rates should be. In this example, I’ve chosen $100 per hour as a base rate to make the math easy:
Sample package Fee for initial consult (1.5 hrs) = $150
Weeks 1-4: 2 hrs per week = $200 x 4 weeks = $800
Weeks 5-8: 1 hour per week = $100 x 4 weeks = $400
Weeks 9-12: 30 minutes per week = $50 x 4 = $200
Total Cost: $1,550
Cost of replacing carpet and front door = More than $1,550!
This may sound expensive, at least until you compare it to the costs of replacing a front door or shredded carpet. And don’t underestimate the impact your service can have on quality of life, not just for the dog, but for the human holding the checkbook, too. Relief from the stress, guilt and frustration of living with separation anxiety is well worth the price of your service.
With a twelve-week commitment, you can also afford to give clients a discount for purchasing the package upfront. We recommend around 10%. The drive time SA cases save you makes this discount easy to offer. In the case of our example, a 10% discount would make the total package price $1,395.
Setting polices for SA services
Packages are designed to help clients commit to the training plan. For that same reason, ask that packages be paid up front as well. By asking clients to make not just a verbal commitment, but a financial one, you increase the likelihood that they’ll complete the training. Since SA packages tend to run longer and require larger investments, you’ll want to take credit cards. Credit cards will allow clients who don’t have the cash on hand to say yes to your service. Taking credit cards is pretty easy these days. You can set up a merchant services account with your bank, utilize online services like PayPal, or go with smartphone apps like Square.
In addition to taking credit cards, setting up payment plans also helps give clients easier access to your services. When setting up a payment plan, be sure the clients understand they’re committing to the entire training package, even though they’re paying in installments. Your client contract should reflect this commitment and indicate the specific dates payments will be paid, the amount of each payment and the client’s signature authorizing each payment. Taking time to review the contract carefully with clients can prevent misunderstandings while pressing upon them the importance of consistency and follow through to training success.
As you approach the end of these packages, you may find some clients reticent to give up their weekly cheerleading sessions with you. They may want to check in when they need a boost or hit a training plateau. These clients feel a bit of separation anxiety themselves. You may be tempted to offer to keep checking in. After all, you’ve spent a lot of time together and likely feel very invested in their long-term success, but don’t fall into the trap of giving your services away. Instead, offer clients who wish to continue with you weekly support time, paid up front, for as long as needed or until they feel ready to stand on their own.
Consistency is the key to all training, and that’s especially true of SA cases. Not working an SA plan regularly can result in setbacks. Each setback increases the length of the training process and puts the dog at risk for re-homing or euthanasia. The stakes are high. That’s why the best cancellation policy for SA cases is a no cancellation policy. Anything less says to the client that it’s okay to cancel, in fact that you’re expecting them to. And cancelling SA appointments can be tempting, particularly when things are coming along slowly. So be clear with clients that they pay for your time whether they use it or not, and be firm about sticking to the schedule. You need clients to stay focused on the plan and in touch with you so you can help them push toward their goal even when progress feels slow.
Scheduling SA services
Adding all these extra support hours into your schedule may require rethinking how you manage your time in general. A master calendar designed to provide time for all the activities involved in your work can help. A master calendar splits your work week into specific slots for each task, ensuring time for everything without rushing, borrowing from your days off, or watching balls fall from the air.
All trainers need specific time slots for client appointments, blocks of time for business administration (regular emails and calls, billing, paperwork, etc.), time for client preparation like homework and blocks of time for working on marketing.
If you take on separation anxiety cases, you’ll also want to add specific time each week for viewing video tape or monitoring online video feeds, either alone or with the client, making support calls and answering support emails, plus the inevitable emergency appointments.
Instead of feeling frustrated by emergency appointments, expect them and build them into your calendar. While it won’t always be possible to plan when an emergency might happen, having time for them in your schedule gives you room to move things around when necessary without cutting into personal time or pushing something off into next week or beyond.
Keep proper boundaries in mind when designing your schedule. Even SA trainers should have set business hours and their counterpart: set non-business hours. Let your clients know what these are and turn your phone off when you aren’t supposed to be working. You’ll help many more dogs over the course of your career if you avoid early burnout from being constantly on call.
Here’s an example of what your master calendar might look like if you have four separation anxiety clients per week, assuming two hours per week for each.
* Italic indicates personal activities
* Bold indicates SA related activities
Of course, this is just an example. This trainer happens to take two day training clients per week and teaches classes on Monday nights, in addition to her four SA clients. Your schedule will need to accommodate your particular mix of services. What’s important to note is that each task in this trainer’s business has its place—and that she has dedicated time off.
Marketing SA services
So you have some new technology and treatment protocols. You have new ways of packaging and pricing your services. Now it’s time for new clients. How will they find you?
Solid community marketing is the most effective and affordable way to market a dog business. Community marketing seeks to show, rather than tell. It provides referral sources and potential clients an experience of your expertise and how you can help, rather than simply announcing your existence the way more passive forms of marketing like ads, business cards and brochures generally do. The first step is to hone your marketing message for the SA niche. Then choose projects that share this message with the right people.
Building your SA message
If you want to increase your SA business, you need a message that takes advantage of this powerful niche. Reaching potential clients by simply saying you take SA cases isn’t enough. Your marketing message should offer relief from the problem and the worry it causes. It should focus on outcomes, on change. It should stress why potential clients should call you, not simply what services you offer.
Until dogs learn to sign checks, your potential client is the human, not the dog, so your marketing message must let the human know what training will do for them. Tell them the benefits of SA training: Peace of mind that their dog is safe rather than escaping while they’re away, relief from the guilt of leaving behind a dog who is panicked, the comfort of knowing they won’t come home to destruction they can’t afford to fix. Painting a specific picture of how the human’s life will be better after training is powerful and motivating. It’s also pretty easy with SA. The possibility of being able to leave the house without a doggie meltdown is music to a potential client’s ears and is enough to get her off the couch and to the telephone.
So what does it look like to translate the benefits of your service into a complete marketing message?
Niche: Separation Anxiety Benefits: Relief from guilt, peace of mind, ability to get out more, no more expensive home repairs.
Message: Neighbors complaining about all the barking? Tired of coming home to a chewed up house? Fido’s stress when you’re gone got you stressed out? We can help. Separation anxiety is a stressful and sometimes tragic condition for dog and owner. Our effective training solutions build Fido’s confidence so you can leave him home without worry or guilt.
This message not only stresses the benefits of your services, it tells them that you understand and can help. It paints a picture of training outcomes—being able to leave the dog home without worry or guilt.
Highlighting your SA expertise in your marketing can help you standout from your competition and grow your business. By specializing, you give people a reason to call you over anyone else. And when you help solve a problem like SA, when you make that kind of quality of life impact, clients tend to refer to friends and family for any training needs they have at much higher rates than after other kinds of training. Which means your business grows even faster.
SA marketing projects
Once you’ve honed your message, it’s time to think about how to deliver it. SA cases are most likely to come to you through referral sources, so focus on marketing your separation anxiety niche to vets, shelters and rescues, dog walkers and daycares, and pet stores, ensuring that you’ll be the first trainer on their minds when they come across dogs with SA. And don’t forget your fellow trainers. Most of them are likely to refer separation anxiety cases on—make sure they know who to send them to.
How to let all of these referral sources in on your specialty? Use community marketing projects that show off your expertise, such as creating a branded handout about separation anxiety. Offer a staff training lecture to vet clinics, shelters and rescue groups about recognizing signs of SA and how to counsel owners of dogs with separation anxiety to get professional assistance from a qualified trainer. Do the same for dog daycares and dog walkers, who are often hired by owners tired of coming home to irate neighbors or chewed door frames. Send copies of your behavior reports for separation anxiety clients to their vets and to the shelter they adopted from (with the client’s permission, always). Write an article about separation anxiety for local publishing and/or distribute it among your fellow dog professionals. Create a brochure specifically about home-alone training problems that seeks to educate referral sources and the public about the signs of SA, and what SA is.
The point is to cultivate relationships with referral sources and stay in their line of sight—don’t let them forget that you’re the SA specialist in the area.
Leveraging your current marketing projects
While working away at your new marketing projects, don’t forget to leverage any current marketing efforts to promote your SA services. Chances are you have channels for delivering your new marketing message already in place.
Your website is likely your biggest marketing project and has the largest reach, so don’t forget to highlight separation anxiety services here. Use separate pages, text boxes, articles and creative copy to tell potential clients (and search engines) that you’re a SA specialist.
When writing about SA on your website and other marketing materials, describe the presenting behaviors, as many owners won’t connect the symptoms they see at home with the overall SA assessment, and they may not have encountered the term separation anxiety. Think in terms like home-alone training, house destruction, house soiling or potty training problems, barking, etc.
Newsletters are a great way to tell potential clients, as well as past and current clients, about your SA specialty. Give readers insight into your SA services, write an article about the signs of separation anxiety, or share a client’s success story. Let readers see what working with you might be like and how you can help.
If you already find yourself on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media channels, leverage that presence to get people talking about your SA work. Use these outlets to let other dog pros know you do this work, answer questions, and post information that shares your SA expertise. Here are some ideas for posts to get people talking:
Articles on meds or brain chemistry
New work-to-eat toys
Games and exercises to build out-of-sight confidence
Build your own sitter-sharing network
Create a SA support group
There’s a lot of SA work out there, people just need to be able to find you. Strong community marketing can give you the exposure you need to become the “go-to” trainer for SA in your area.
Armed with new tech tools and business strategies, treating separation anxiety can be a powerful niche for growing your training business. And for a dog trainer there is little else as satisfying as a resolved separation anxiety case. After all, we’re all in this game to keep dogs happily in their homes.