Please Unmute Your Mutt
Dog trainers are turning to video sessions to work with pets and their owners.,
This article is part of our Business Transformation special report, about how the pandemic has changed how the world does business.
With his salt-and-pepper beard and glasses, Mark Bennett looks like a dissertation adviser, offering thoughtful advice to a graduate student.
“The routine is broken,” he said in a gentle but authoritative voice, to Imelda Suriato. “Somehow he’s getting the wrong cues.”
Despite his scholarly mien, Mr. Bennett, 63, is a certified dog trainer who has been doing business since 2014 as Brooklyn’s Finest Dog Training.
But he is currently not in Brooklyn.
Ms. Suriato is. She is in her house in the Bay Ridge neighborhood; Mr. Bennet is in the dining room of his cabin in upstate New York near Franklin, where he has been living since April 2020.
They are talking on Zoom about Mousey, an 8-year-old male pit bull who, although obedient to Ms. Suriato, has started behaving aggressively with her husband, Nathan DiSanto.
“He listens to me,” Ms. Suriato said. “But when Nathan comes in the room, he jumps in his face.”
“He might see Nathan as more of a play pal,” Mr. Bennett responded. “Maybe a few minutes a day, he might need to go through some routine commands with Mousey — sit, look at me, lie down — just so he gets the muscle memory of ‘what Nathan says you need to do.'”
Before the pandemic, they would have had this discussion at Ms. Suriato’s house, or a nearby park. But now they are speaking from more than 150 miles apart while Mousey snoozes by Ms. Suriato’s feet.
“If somebody had called me two years ago and said, ‘Could I call you and talk about my dog on Zoom?’ I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous; I’ll just come over and meet the dog,'” Mr. Bennett said. “My business model has completely flipped.”
He has learned that remote training (at $65 per 45-minute session) can work, for the same reason one-one-one services such as psychotherapy can. In fact, Mr. Bennett acknowledged with a chuckle: “I’m a little like a dog owner therapist. A lot of my job involves training the owners, not the dog.”
Brad Phifer, executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, estimated that during the pandemic, the use of Zoom had more than doubled among the about 4,400 dog trainers certified by his organization.
“For the average consumer who needs help with house training and learning basic commands,” he said, “Zoom has really opened the door for trainers to change the way they work.”
Sarah Todd, on the other hand, nearly had to close the door to Dog Days Farm in Salem, N.Y., where she has been boarding pets since 2012. “I had virtually no business for almost 12 months,” said Ms. Todd, a certified dog trainer.
Before the pandemic, she said, her clients’ dogs were spending about a week at her 132-acre farm. “Your dog comes here while you’re away, there are training sessions, and we usually work on specific issues,” Ms. Todd said.
Covid-19 changed that. With many people unable or unwilling to travel, her business dwindled.
Paradoxically, the pandemic that hurt her business in 2020 has helped it this year, in part because many clients resumed travel, but also because of the surge in pet ownership. (According to a study in May by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 23 million American households acquired a pet during the pandemic.)
The influx of new dogs into households created new problems. “A lot of these puppies become conditioned to having human beings in their sight for 24 hours,” Ms. Todd said.
But once their owners started returning to offices or schools, these animals began to exhibit behavior problems. Now she is busy.
“I’m getting a lot of people calling me and saying, ‘I’m going to get kicked out of my apartment if the dog doesn’t stop barking,'” she said.
Changes in pet ownership and services are evident internationally, as well. A survey in the United Kingdom by that nation’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association found that 3.2 million households have acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that dog trainers there are also pivoting to digital: Among 10 of the highest-rated London dog training services, four offer virtual training.
Veterinary medicine — a $31 billion segment of the pet care industry, according to the Pet Products Association — is also changing.
Covid protocols led to longer wait times for appointments and the postponement of routine procedures. “We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments as professionals,” said Dr. Jose V. Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “We have new operating procedures and safety protocols we’ve had to implement.”
In Puerto Rico, where Dr. Arce practices, “we couldn’t do any elective procedures, and we also had shortages of gowns and gloves.”
There were also problems with pet owners. “The pandemic severely limited human visitation,” said Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, whose veterinary practice is in Denver. “We did a lot of talking with owners in the parking lot or taking curbside histories,” he said.
Resistance toward wearing masks was another problem.
“A guy came to me with a sick dog,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. “We told him he had to wear a mask to come in. He said, ‘Maybe I need to find a new vet.'”
Dr. Fitzgerald carried the dog into his clinic from the parking lot. Eventually, the owner relented, put on a mask and entered the clinic. But, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “It just added to the stress level.”
As with so many industries, technology helped veterinary practices.
“Telemedicine really came in handy,” Dr. Arce said. “I’ve had clients send pictures and videos of skin reactions or something with their fur.” From these images, he said, “I can tell if it’s just a routine skin infection” or something more serious.
He predicted that the use of technology in veterinary practices would continue to grow, as younger veterinarians entered the profession and the range of technologies expanded.
Yet technology has barely affected some aspects of the pet-care industry.
Eight years ago, Deanna Greenwood left a fashion industry job to spend more time at home with her ailing husband. When a favor for an Upper West Side neighbor — walking a boxer named Sugar Rae — turned into a job offer, Ms. Greenwood recalled, “I thought, ‘that’s an interesting idea.'”
After her husband, Jay Martin, died in 2015, Ms. Greenwood grew the business — mostly through word of mouth. Before the pandemic, she had about 10 regular clients, whom she typically charged from $20 to $35 per hour, for walks five days a week.
The pandemic brought that to a near stop. “Most of my clients have second homes, and they fled the city,” she said. “In an instant, about 80 percent of my business went away.”
She survived by doing other kinds of errands for her clients.
Some of those clients have returned, and new ones emerged with the increase of the puppy population. But while the dogs and their owners have changed, Ms. Greenwood, has seen little alteration in the way she does business. “Technology is almost irrelevant to what I do,” she said.
Not so for Mr. Bennett, the dog trainer.
While he hopes to return to New York City, at least periodically, he envisions the future as a combination of Zoom and in-person sessions.
For his training techniques designed to socialize puppies and adjust canine behavior, there’s still no substitute for face-to-snout. “We have to be present to implement these methods,” he said.
Which is why he cannot entirely take Brooklyn’s Finest Dog Training out of Brooklyn.