Pet trainers finding innovative ways during pandemic to teach new pet owners old tricks

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Denise Mazzola of Everything Dog conducts an online class for pet owners. Courtesy Photo

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Denise Mazzola of Everything Dog in Keene has been training dogs and their owners for more than two decades. When the coronavirus pandemic infiltrated the U.S., she figured her business would be another lockdown casualty.

But instead, a surge occurred. 

As people sheltered in their homes, they sought comfort in four-legged companions. Between the weeks of March 15 and April 15, the number of adoption inquiries on petfinder.com, an online, searchable database of animals who need homes, jumped 122 percent, according to a spokesperson from Purina, which owns the site.

But the puppy honeymoon can be short-lived once the chewing, biting and barking begins. This is typically when canine owner newbies cry out for behavior modification.

To serve this population in the time of coronavirus, Mazzola pivoted to Zoom where she can accommodate more clients at once. Barred from renting space because of stay-at-home orders, she set up a tripod and camera in her home’s spare bedroom.

Every Saturday morning at 9 a.m., Mazzola logs into her laptop. She greets her clients who are at different stages of life: some are home with kids while others are retired. Yet they’re all hoping to create the well-mannered pet. Rather than replicating an in-person class where dog owners mimic her demonstrations, Mazzola sends out video tutorials with try-at-home drills and exercises, reserving the Zoom class for in-depth discussions of what works and what doesn’t. If dog owners miss a class, they can view the recorded session. They also have a private Facebook page where they can post videos and ask questions.

She launches the online morning conversations by asking them how they’re feeling about their homework assignments and progress.

Zoom class for pet owners.

Unlike a live session, the unschooled pooches in attendance aren’t distracted by the cacophony of wagging tails. In contrast, the end result is more interactive and customized, says Mazzola: “If you’re doing an in-person class, you meet Saturday morning for an hour and then you go on your way.”

Shelter-in-place orders are creating long-term changes in the pet service industry, says Veronica Boutelle of Dogbiz, a national business consultancy for dog trainers.

In April, Boutelle launched a free six-week coaching class to help instructors move their businesses online since not many had experience. More than 2000 people signed on.

“A lot of trainers are finding themselves pleasantly surprised by the advantages of working online,” says Boutelle. They like the convenience of tasking remotely and not commuting from one appointment to the other. The flexibility allows them to manage clients without geographic limits.

“The clients are really loving it because they still get to do the work in the comfort of their homes, as opposed to going to a facility.”

Laura Gendron of Miss Behavior Training in Northwood was at a clicker conference in March when the Kentucky expo shut down because of the pandemic. 

“It was a bit of a panic for me,” she says. “But I had been planning on getting into virtual training anyway. So this was a nice push for me.”

Because she works with many young families like her own, she schedules mostly one-on-one with clients.

“I heard from a lot of parents who were so overwhelmed with trying to deal with the homeschool stuff, they couldn’t think about committing to a weekly [online class].”

Demonstrations are more challenging through video conferencing, she acknowledges. To describe visual techniques, “There’s a lot of, ‘okay, take two steps to the left. And now try this.’”

On the plus side, trainers on screens are less threatening to fearful dogs than strangers invading their space. Gendron says another added benefit is witnessing what’s happening in the household. She can’t do that in a studio.

Both Gendron and Mazzola say they’ll continue with virtual training after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

But not all dog trainers are on board. Megan Arey of Inspire K9s in Barnstead tried connecting with her clients on Zoom.

 “I couldn’t be hands-on with the dog so it was really hard for the students to understand what I was trying to communicate.”

Arey is switching back to in-person classes in mid-June. But since she can’t use her indoor facility, she’s hosting socially distant classes outdoors. The only downside, she says, is that if it rains, she’ll have to cancel.


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