Are you a canine instructor who works for other training companies? Do you think about working with dogs in a facility that you own and operate? When four professional dog trainers imagined running a top-notch canine center, they made a big move.
The result? Two successful, state-of-the-art centers devoted to enriching dogs’ relationships with their owners. Here’s how the doggy dreamers made it happen.
Two Couples, Two Centers
In 2018, Bugaboo Old English Sheepdog breeder-owners and professional handlers Colton and Heather Johnson drew up plans for a new building. Their 21,000-square-foot Under the Sun Dog Training & Daycare overlooks Pike’s Peak and sits squarely in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“In 2011, we owned two small 1,500 and 1,700-square foot spaces,” remembers Colton.
The couple used one for doggy daycare and the other for private and group lessons.
“When we outgrew these areas, we decided to add more room,” Colton says. We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to host events like agility or conformation specialties?’. It mushroomed to, ‘Go big or go home.’”
In 2005, Laurie Williams, CPDT-KA, and her husband, Mike, leased an 11,000-square-foot warehouse space in Fredricksburg, Virginia. Their Pup’ N Iron Canine Enrichment Center rose organically from Laurie’s private training business.
“One of my clients knew I wanted a place I could call my own and that I was looking for the right facility,” Laurie remembers. “At the same time, my client’s son was building a few warehouses and offered to work within my budget and rent one to me.”
The Pup’ N Iron Canine Enrichment Center opened its doors with top-of-the-line amenities: heating and air conditioning, instruction equipment, a warm water therapy pool, and recycled rubber flooring.
Under the Sun Dog Training and Daycare debuted with 28 employees and houses six areas: a 12,000-square-foot indoor turf arena for agility, a 2,200 square-foot mezzanine overlooking the arena, and four indoor/outdoor rooms.
The space includes a wellness care room with a visiting veterinarian, massage therapist, chiropractor, and physical therapy rehabilitation with laser, acupuncture, and a therapy pool.
With a 200-dog-a-day capacity, under the Sun can host national and regional conformation specialties. The Belgian Sheepdog, Bull Mastiff, and the Alaskan Malamute Nationals will hold their events here. Recently, Under the Sunn had its first AKC-sanctioned agility trial with the Pike’s Peak Agility Club.
“Entries filled up for 300 runs a day,” Colton says.
Upcoming events include a national cat show and Under the Sun’s conformation fun matches.
“It’s cool that we can provide something for the community,” he says.
Making the Transition
How did the Johnsons and Williams transform their visions into busy brick-and-kibble, tail-wagging realities?
Hard work and patience paid off, but a passion for dogs and their owners proved the magic bullet.
“I know how it feels to want the best for my dogs, so I understand how clients work hard to connect with theirs,” says Laurie. “It’s heart-wrenching to see owners struggle with their dogs, not just training dogs, but counseling people, too.”
Laurie and Mike, a former law enforcement officer, live with three Dalmatians, a Chihuahua, and a Yorkshire Terrier. She’s earned titles in Obedience, Rally, Barn Hunt, and Fast CAT. Laurie also judges Trick Dog and is a Canine Good Citizen evaluator.
The four trainers also relied on some business smarts and their years of canine know-how to get their mammoth projects off the ground.
As highly sought-after professional dog show handlers, Colton and Heather grew up in dog show families. Colton’s parents, Douglas and Michelanne Johnson, who were the 2006 and 2016 AKC Breeders of the Year, owning a boarding and grooming business and bred Old English Sheepdogs and Bouvier des Flandres. Their five children shared responsibilities.
“Our parents established our roots and helped us a lot,” Colton says. “Working with dogs is the only job I’ve ever had or wanted to do.”
According to Colton, dealing with pets and their people can be challenging. “Our job is to understand what owners are going through and to let them know that we’re dog people, too,” he says.
Laurie’s Pup’ N Iron Canine Enrichment Center is built on her 35-year reputation as a top trainer in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“To build my clientele, I kept training equipment in the trunk of my car and drove around town leading classes in big box stores, kennel rooms, and fire departments,” she says.
A former fitness instructor, Laurie began teaching basic manners and obedience classes. When Agility became more popular, she added the performance sport to her repertoire.
“When I observed that people wanted to train their dogs and were breaking their necks to get into my classes, I took a leap of faith and made the decision to open Pup’ N Iron,” she says.
Show Me the Money
“I don’t have a business degree, but I felt savvy about the training market,” Laurie says. “I watched other businesses come and go and I learned what worked and what didn’t.”
To help get her new business off the ground, Laurie let people know that she was moving into her own location. Rather than take out a business loan, she was able to get help from family and friends—and credit cards. But offering daycare five days a week offsets operating expenses.
When Pup’ N Iron first opened in 2005, 200 people attended the open house. To encourage people to sign up for classes, they offered memberships for a year’s worth of training, which helped get 50 registered owners.
Another client boost came from a source Laurie never expected.
“This was the same year that a new dog training series aired on television and many people watched that show,” she says. “Although my training methods were radically different, my phone rang off the hook with owners wanting to train their dogs.”
Like any new business owner, the Johnsons and Williams’s journey to establish training sites suffered ups and downs. Three years after Laurie opened Pup’ N Iron, a television scout recruited her as a contestant on a new CBS canine reality series—the Greatest American Dog. She and Andrew, her Maltese, placed in the final three.
“I did a lot of media interviews for the show,” she remembers. “The publicity helped bring in clients and even three years later people remembered our appearances.”
Colton’s advice for operating a successful dog training facility? Work for it.
“Be ready to work 12 to 14-hour days,” he says. “Feel passionate and care about the dogs and people. Listen, go out of your way to help, return calls, and remember that it’s really all about the dogs.”