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Greenville Business Magazine

Every Dog Has Its Day

Sep 08, 2017 05:31PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Emily Stevenson

Photos By Dog Trainers Workshop

Those who say a hobby can never become a career have obviously never met Connie Cleveland. Her part-time side gig is now a company, Dog Trainers Workshop, that boasts four full-time and six part-time employees. She partners with organizations such as The Service Dog Institute and Service Dogs for Veterans. Still, the transition from dog trainer to business owner was a something of a shock.

“It took me a long time to realize I was a small business owner,” says Cleveland. “It took a while before I could step back and say, ‘Whoa, I’m not just a dog trainer.’”

She says she doesn’t “remember life before training dogs.” As a child, she attended obedience classes with her mother, who also loves dogs. As a teenager, training dogs became her hobby. Cleveland wanted it to become her vocation, but, like many people, couldn’t figure out a way to make it happen.

She majored in engineering in college, but worked for a nonprofit after graduation training service dogs. Because nonprofit jobs are typically low-paid, Cleveland taught obedience classes on the side to supplement her income, to some success. For several years, family and friends encouraged her to make the obedience classes her full-time job. She finally decided to take the leap and open her own business after a banker, who brought his dog to her class, praised her talent and offered to help her get a loan.

“I tell people that story, and they say, ‘Bankers don’t approach business people. That’s not how it works, not anymore,’” Cleveland laughs.

That was in 1991. In 1995, Cleveland opened her first facility, teaching classes to the public full-time. When she added boarding to her list of services, she realized there was a need to train dogs that boarded with them, giving her another business opportunity. Within the last five years, Cleveland and her team have begun training service dogs, and contracts rolled in from the nonprofits.

Dealing with four-legged friends can sometimes be a challenge, but Cleveland says she and her team are more than equipped to handle any situation.

“I feel like a kindergarten teacher that’s been teaching for 30 years,” she says. “People bring us these dogs that they say are horrible, and we just smile and say it’s okay. There’s nothing much we’re presented with anymore that we haven’t seen before.”

From a basic standpoint, the Dog Trainers Workshop teaches dogs to be obedient, learning common commands such as sit, down, stay, and come. Cleveland says her team also deals with a lot of dogs with aggression issues. Some clients have discovered the sport called dog obedience, in which Cleveland and many of her staff and students participate.

Beyond that, her company teaches service dogs to turn on lights, push elevator buttons, carry things, pull wheelchairs, and more. No accomplishment is too small for Cleveland or her furry – and human – clients.

“I may have a veteran call me and say, ‘Because of this dog, I get up every day and go out and exercise. This dog has gotten me up and out and part of the world again,’” says Cleveland. “And that is no less significant than the person who says, ‘I just took this dog to a national competition and won.’”

Cleveland says she is continually astounded that humans have the ability to communicate with and share our homes with another species, and she will never lose her fascination with our ability to do that. That fascination is what drives her success.

“For so long, I was just doing what I loved, which was training dogs,” she says. “I’m passionate about training dogs. I never wavered about wanting to do what I set out to do.”

And while the dog-eat-dog world of business ownership has sometimes been a challenge, Cleveland advises any budding business owner to surround themselves with people who know things he or she doesn’t. She says she’s never been afraid to ask for help on things such as financial advice, HR advice, and advice on which areas to grow her business, and encourages other small business owners to do the same.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, you have about 50 ideas a day, and if you’re smart you surround yourself with people who tell you which 49 are bad,” she laughs. “There is so much good information available about how to be a good leader and a good entrepreneur and a good business owner. You just have to go look for it.”