You get what you pay for, but are you paying for what you get?
Money can be a difficult subject. I’m going to be totally open and honest here and discuss where I am at with this.
I think first and foremost, most people are in this industry because they want to help dogs and their people. It may be their dream job, perhaps they have left another (probably better paid) job in order to pursue it. I don’t know whether that makes it easier for them to put a monetary value on their services. Perhaps, I don’t know. It would be interesting to ask them. For some, it will be their sole source of income, others may do it alongside another job or even jobs.
To be a good trainer or behaviourist takes study, commitment and experience. This involves an investment of both time and money; both initial and ongoing. Continuing our learning and our professional development is vital. So, when we charge, this needs to be taken into account. It’s part of our value.
Of course, we also have overheads, these may vary, but should include suitable insurance and may include memberships of appropriate professional bodies. This on top normal ‘running costs’ like internet, dog treats, equipment such as a stuffed stooge dog or whatever. If we run classes, we probably have the cost of venue hire too.
Then of course there’s our time and our professional expertise or knowledge. How do we put a value on that?
Currently, I am working solely on Zoom but in more ‘normal’ times I offer one to one consultations in people’s homes. In reality, I have found that whether Zoom or in person, the amount of ‘time’ given to each client is roughly the same (even when you remove any travel time/costs from the equation).
From the moment someone gets in touch with me I am thinking about them and their dog(s) – even before they’ve filled out my pre-assessment form! I think it’s human nature that someone who cares about people and animals begins to care about their problems once they begin to hear about them.
Once I have the pre assessment form, and also ideally videos of the dog and their humans, I am already working on the case, mulling over ideas, researching and making notes on how I may be able to help.
My initial Zoom consultation is around an hour or so of my time ‘face to face’. This will be a mixture of fact finding along with some initial advice. I follow this up within a day or so will a full written advice report providing not only my advice but also the reasons for it, background, some science and usually several links to further resources such as videos, websites and books. Each report is tailored to the individual dog and their family (although I may also send with it one of my more generic guides on a specific subject such as muzzle training, car training, separation anxiety or the like).
I then offer up to six weeks of remote support via email, messenger, WhatsApp (or whatever works best) for any queries, questions or adjustments/tweaks to the advice whilst the client is absorbing it and putting it into action. Believe me, I wait and wonder and worry about each client and their dog with fingers crossed that it all goes well.
Now, I have been self-employed before, but that was a long time ago when I worked in financial services. What I did was far more easily measured and costed. I clocked on and I clocked off, both physically and emotionally. This is very different.
I came to dog behaviour work through a volunteer role in a dog rescue. What started as adopting a dog became fostering dogs, then home checking and some day-to-day administration, then a Trustee role and alongside that studying dog behaviour in order to help the dogs in our care, their foster carers, their adopters and also the general public who occasionally contact the rescue for advice. None of this was, or is, paid work. One of the cornerstones of the charity is that we are run solely by volunteers. However, I do sometimes feel that foster carers and adopters take more notice of the advice when a paid external behaviourist is sent in to help them - even when their advice is exactly the same as I have already given!
A wise behaviourist once told me that if we under charge people they will not value our advice. So why do I find charging awkward? It’s not like I don’t need the money!
I also once saw someone in a facebook group complain about how much most behaviourists charge. ‘Don’t they want to help these people and their dogs?’ he asked. Of course they do! But for all the reasons I have just discussed, what we do comes at a cost (and more often than not there’s a huge emotional cost to us too).
From the start, I know I have charged less than many behaviourists. After years of giving out free advice through the rescue, charging felt weird. I chose a fee that I hoped people could afford and that was enough for people to value my advice, but knew I was ‘cheap’ compared to others. Then shortly after starting private client work, Covid-19 came along! When even garden consultations went out the window I moved to Zoom and for some reason felt that meant I should reduce my charges.
I don’t know how others feel about this but actually, Zoom is a much more intense process. It’s my full attention - no distractions; no offering me a coffee; no stopping while I say hello to a dog….. Yes, it does mean I can’t observe your dog ‘in person’ but actually videos and Zoom consultations are recorded and allow me to spend time watching and re-watching to be sure I don’t miss any whisper of communication or clue from either you or your dog and really hear what both you and your dog are telling me without scribbling down notes. There’s value in that.
So that’s where I’m at. Having spent the last day or so carefully crafting an advice report for a lovely dog and her family, sending it off by email like my new born baby, wondering what reception it will get, whether they will like it, whether they will follow what I have suggested and how it will go. With it was my invoice for a modest amount. I hope they’ll pay that. I wonder if they feel it’s good value.
I hope you’re not waiting for a punch line; for me to say, ‘hey, I’m putting my charges up to X amount’ because actually, I’m not sure what the outcome of all this is. What do you think is a reasonable fee I wonder?