Pandemic pups increase demand for professional dog trainers
Steve Sprague and Ida Ann Wright love dogs.
Sprague’s favorite is a German shorthair, but the truth is, he loves every dog.
“I think we’d be pretty miserable without dogs,” he said. “They give you that unconditional love. I think the potential with them is incredible. They enrich your lives in so many ways.”
The couple bought three dogs in recent years, but the majority of their dogs are rescues.
They also own a dog-training franchise, Sit Means Sit Tri-Cities, at 23 W. First Ave., Suite B, in downtown Kennewick.
A few months ago, they more than doubled their training space by leasing the 5,200-square-foot Sunburst Video building across the alley from the site he had been using for the past 4.5 years.
After Sunburst closed, the building was used as storage.
As soon as it became available, Sprague was able to lease it.
The landlord took a few months to do repairs and upgrades to the building, getting it ready for the dogs: fixing the roof, the floors and electrical work.
“It means more space, allowing our team to do more things at the same time,” he said. “We can do a group class and a private class at the same time. With the expansion we haven’t increased the number of dogs, but we are training just the services we are able to offer. The size of our staff dictates how many dogs we can train, not the size of the space. But we are hiring.”
Sprague says the new building size and better rubber flooring allows him to offer more other indoor dog sports like rally, disc, play times and more.
Sprague himself said his first “professional” dog training gig came at the age of 12, when his neighbor offered him $10 per command taught to his dog.
But what he really got out of the deal was the joy of working with dogs.
Still, “I never thought that dog training was financially viable career,” he said.
Sprague held a few different careers over the years: He worked as a firefighter, paramedic and military depot medic and owned a fishing lodge in Alaska.
His aha! moment came while at the fishing lodge.
Sprague was working at a booth at an outdoors convention in Boise. Next to his booth was a Sit Means Sit trainer.
He was so impressed with what that trainer did he decided to become an apprentice. That was 10 years ago.
And eventually, Sprague became a certified Sit Means Sit trainer, and he opened his own facility in the Tri-Cities in 2015.
Joining the franchise
The company was founded in 1998 by Fred Hassen in Paradise, Nevada, with the mission to “revolutionize the quality of life with happy, obedient and confident dogs.”
It uses various methods of training, which includes a collar using low-level electronic stimulation.
The Sit Means Sit in Kennewick is one of 157 franchise locations across the United States and Canada.
Sprague’s franchise offers puppy, private and immersion programs and a day training program – in which trainers work with a dog one day a week for six to eight hours. The dog’s owner then comes in at the end of the day to learn what the dog has learned.
By Sprague’s estimate, there are about six full-time dog training businesses in the Tri-Cities area.
Sprague started about seven years ago, working out of his home and also using a small conference room for group classes at the Kennewick Ranch and Home.
Eventually, he moved to a building on Vista Way before moving to the current location.
Sprague doesn’t plan any more expansions anytime soon. But he does have one employee who lives in College Place who holds a couple of training classes a week in Walla Walla.
Sprague said that he could easily use one or two, possibly three, new employees.
Along the way, Wright has been with him. They met when Sprague was cold-calling veterinarian offices in the area, and she was working at one.
She joined his team in 2017 and has been vital in every aspect of the operation, he said. She steps in wherever needed, as a trainer or manager.
“We have eight employees, plus Steve,” Wright said. “Pre-Covid, we had five.”
“I couldn’t do what I do without this staff,” Sprague said.
Pandemic increases demand
While Covid negatively affected many businesses, it had the opposite effect on dog training.
“Covid has been a tragic historical event, but it actually increased the need for good dog trainers,” Sprague said. “A lot of people were working from home, and so were able to adopt dogs or had more time to spend with their dogs and found they could use some help.”
That’s where Sprague and his staff come in.
“I love changing lives. I feel that’s what we’re doing. Dogs are family,” he said. “People come to us at their wit’s end. They’re struggling, stressed, frustrated, some even thinking about possibly rehoming their dogs. When we see them, we can help change things. That’s really the biggest thing.
“The dog is happier. The family is happier.”
So is Sprague, with his lifelong love of canines.
“The longer I train them, the more I learn how amazing dogs are and how much more they have to teach. It’s a never-ending process,” he said.