The pandemic prompted many homebound workers to give rescue dogs a new home. Now, more than a year later, with many of those people back in an office, pandemic puppies are giving dog training and boarding operations a rise in new business. Just ask Malaika Heinbaugh, owner and training director of Dog Gone Amazing in Reno. “Everyone has dogs, and now they’re getting trained,” Heinbaugh said. “A big training trend was, ‘Are you prepared to go back to work and leave your dog home?’ Because you’ve been home for, at minimum, six months every day with your dog, and now you’re expected to go back to work. And your dog who was rescued or bought as a puppy has never been left alone — ever — is now going to be left alone for eight hours a day.”’ Heinbaugh said she began seeing a surge in demand from new dog owners last fall, when “every lesson” at Dog Gone Amazing was centered on preparing dogs to be left at home. Some of her clients were taking a proactive approach before they returned to the office; others were seeking help as a reaction to a failed attempt at leaving their dog unattended. “Some went back to work for four hours, and they came home and their house was totally destroyed,” Heinbaugh said.
Malaika Heinbaugh, owner of Dog Gone Amazing at 700 E. 4th St. in Reno, works on training with a group of dogs. Photo: Eighty8 Studios
In those instances, she would recommend crate training, the process of teaching a dog to accept a crate as a familiar and safe location. Not all pet owners, however, initially embraced the idea of leaving their puppy in a crate for hours at a time, said Heinbaugh, noting it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to properly crate train a dog. “For people who rescued dogs, that was a whole other thing,” she said. “Because, to rescue a dog, you get it out of the kennel life. So, to then put it back into a crate was difficult for people sometimes. But I just really had to tell them the benefits of crate training and how you could do it in a positive manner.” To be sure, the pandemic puppy phenomenon has been good for business at Dog Gone Amazing. The demand is so high for all dog training and boarding services, though, that Heinbaugh is struggling to keep up. She’s booked out “three to four months” for private lessons, and her board-and-train programs are full for the rest of the year. By June, she was already fully booked for boarding during the school district’s one-week fall break in early October. “It’s great because we’re busy, but it’s hard because I’m turning away a lot of business,” she said.
Malaika Heinbaugh, owner of Dog Gone Amazing, stands in front of her dog training and boarding business. Photo: Eighty8 Studios
Like a lot of small business owners, Heinbaugh is hampered by a staffing shortage. Pre-pandemic, Dog Gone Amazing typically had about 10 employees. It currently has five. “We have 26 kennels, but I’m capping it at 15 dogs because I can only do what my staff and I can handle,” said Heinbaugh, who has also seen boarding inquiries soar during this summer’s travel boom. “I love that people are getting out and traveling, but it’s heartbreaking to tell them, ‘No, I can’t take their dog,’ especially people who have been clients for six, seven years. “I actually had a lady call who’s been a client for a long time, and she booked all of her boarding for 2022.” MORE THAN CURBING BEHAVIOR To help meet the demand for dog training in Northern Nevada, new businesses have even sprung up during the pandemic. In mid-June, Zoom Room, a nationwide in-person dog training chain, opened a new location at the Summit Reno in South Reno. Staffed by four dog trainers, the facility offers small group classes or private training sessions focused on obedience, dog agility, puppy training, and more. KC Washburn, owner of Zoom Room Reno Summit, said the pandemic not only produced more pets, but also made dog owners more sympathetic to their canine companions.
KC Washburn, owner of Zoom Room, poses with her dogs inside the in-person dog training franchise she operates in South Reno. Photo: Zoom Room
“I think having spent all that time in the home with their animals — and for some of them that was their only socialization — I think it really builds a bond,” Washburn said. “Because those people built those relationships during the pandemic, I think they are genuinely searching to help their dogs now, more so than just to curb a behavior that they don’t like. And they want a way to keep their dogs in their home as part of their family. “So I think it’s skyrocketed the dog training industry as well as other aspects of the pet industry.” Since opening on June 12, Zoom Room has seen an increase in clients every week, said Washburn, who declined to offer specific numbers. Weekends have been especially busy, Washburn noted. “Our agility classes have been the most popular,” she said. “It’s where the dogs run through an obstacle course — everybody wants to do that.” Once summer travel winds down and school starts up, Washburn expects to be consistently busy each day of the week. She noted that Zoom Room’s dog training classes use only positive training methods. “I think there’s a real strong need for positive reinforcement and socialization training here in Reno,” she said. “There’s so many people that want to have a different way to train their dogs without having the fear and discomfort involved in that training. We want to bring training to the dogs and their owners in a clean, safe and fun environment and educate them on how to communicate with their dog and get lasting results.” Washburn noted that Zoom Room uses hospital-grade germicide to sanitize all surfaces, and follows the COVID-19 preventative measures recommended by the CDC. The franchise also requires clients to maintain a physical distance of six feet — the typical length of a dog leash — a practice that was already in place pre-pandemic.