Pet Age spoke with Merritt Milam, founder and head trainer at Wags ‘N Whiskers, a comprehensive pet care facility offering training, daycare, boarding, grooming and more to pets in the Birmingham, Alabama, area. Milam talks about her coincidental start in training, her experience running a brick and mortar business and why she loves working with animals.
Q How did you first enter the dog training field? What is your educational background?
A I started training dogs when I was 17 years old. My mom and I were in PetSmart with our family dog, Bo, to whom I had taught some basic behaviors and over 30 tricks—including math! The trainer at the store was trying to sell training classes to my mom and me, but when she saw how well Bo did, they offered me a training job on the spot! I later attended Birmingham Southern College and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in studio arts, but I knew my passion was with animals, so I continued pursuing that field of work after graduation.
Q Why did you decide to open a brick and mortar business and offer services in addition to training?
A I felt the Birmingham area was lacking in positive reinforcement training options, as I learned there are not many trainers in this area who are fully dedicated to the positive reinforcement training methods. When choosing which services to offer, we included boarding and daycare because we wanted to create an environment centered on compassion for the dogs and cats that would come to us. We utilize a 5:1 ratio of pet campers to camp counselors in daycare to offer a more personalized experience for each dog.
Q What is your most popular service other than training? Why do you think it’s been so successful?
A Daycare is definitely our most popular service. Our pet parents really enjoy the 5:1 daycare ratio, and their dogs always come home tired after having a blast at “Camp Wags”!
Q What products are used in your grooming and bathing services?
A We use Davis Manufacturing products primarily. Their shampoos and conditioners are great and come concentrated, so they last a while for a business! We also use SynergyLabs Oatmeal and Tea Tree Oil Infuser shampoo. A lot of our clients request that for their dogs’ baths because it smells so great. It’s also good for sensitive skin.
Q Can you tell us more about your positive reinforcement approach to training? Why have you chosen this method over others?
A Positive reinforcement training actually makes learning more fun for dogs! Many training methods use force or intimidation tactics that scare a dog into performing a behavior, which does not strengthen the parent-dog bond. Positive reinforcement is reward-based training, so we teach our dogs in a fun way that they love.
Q What marketing strategies do you employ to inform and attract potential new customers?
A Most of our marketing utilizes social media since we have always gotten great responses through those platforms. However, our most successful marketing strategy has been to provide great service that leads to word-of-mouth endorsements from our awesome pet parents!
Q What products (treats, toys or otherwise) do you use while training? Any that you would
A There are so many options! My favorite clicker is the iClick from Karen Pryor’s clicker training online store. But that’s really just a personal preference. I change treats based on which dog I am working with and what each prefers.
Q What brands of treats have you used in the past? How do you decide which types of treats would
work best with each individual?
A My regular go-to is Carnibar by Tucker’s Raw. I like it because it’s pretty smelly and that’s necessary to keep dogs’ attention. They also have a variety of flavors, so it’s easy to find which one the dog prefers.
Q How have you successfully handled some of your most challenging clients?
A Of course, owning a business always comes with its ups and downs. Our clients put their trust in us to care for their pets, so there is always the pressure to make sure everything is safe and running smoothly. Any of our more difficult interactions come from pet parents who only want the best for their pets and want to make sure they are in good hands. We always work to reassure clients that pet safety is our top priority and our great track record shows that we take it very seriously.
Q What is your favorite part about working with animals this way?
A My favorite part of training is the moment you see the “switch flip” for a dog. Suddenly, he fully understands what you’re asking him to do. It’s that lightbulb moment when you can see the sense of accomplishment in their eyes, and they get so excited to be offering the correct behavior!