Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Niki French

An interview with petpreneur Niki French to discuss her interesting journey, the future of dog training, and some sound advice for budding petpreneurs.

Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Niki French
Niki French: Founder of Pup Talk and the Author of Stop Walking Your Dog

Welcome to Interesting Journeys into Petpreneurship, a series of interviews with founders where we discuss the pet businesses they founded, and find out why they first decided to become a petpreneur in the first place. In this very first episode of our series we are talking to Niki French, the founder of Pup Talk.

Despite being surrounded by entrepreneurs for over a decade in Silicon Valley, nobody around me ever really talked about starting a pet business, and I had never met a petpreneur or even heard the term until I became one. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new world of startups that are very different to the startups I have worked with in the past. I slowly fell in love and became deeply interested in pet industry startups, and the people who founded them. 

Petpreneurs are a fascinating breed of entrepreneurs who share a common dream, they want to make the world a better place for their pets in some way, help people with their pets if they can, or make the world a more inclusive place for our four-legged friends. Just like regular entrepreneurs they also want to make money, but they want to do so in a way that connects them with their pets, and I think this is what makes them unique among entrepreneurs.

I wanted to find out more about this dynamic, so I persuaded Niki into a conversation with me to talk about her pet business and how it started.

Tell us about your interesting journey into petpreneurship Niki!

Niki French: I am a dog trainer but I do lots of different things in the dog training sphere, it was a completely new career for me five and a half years ago. I was animal and dog-mad as a child, probably like most children who love animals. I thought I would be a vet and then you realize what you have to do as a vet and you quickly rethink. So I parked all that, I was convinced I was Doctor Dolittle when I was a little kid, I'd sit for hours waiting for squirrels and New Forest ponies to come and approach me and I had an affinity with them. But reality caught up, I ended up getting a proper job, and went on to have a 30-year career in property sales and marketing.

I was a sales marketing director. I worked on big regeneration projects like the Athletes Village for the London 2012 Olympics, and other amazing projects. It was tough long hours, with lots of travel, and I couldn't even have a dog, but I had owned four cats over the years to try and fill that dog-shaped hole. But then I had a bicycle accident when I was cycling in London in 2014, I had a helmet on but I had a serious bain brash, and I started to muddle words and have memory problems which began to cause me problems at work. 

It wasn't the most forgiving environment to be in and over the space of about three years I started to crumble a little bit on the inside before I used to kind of thrive in that environment, and slowly I stopped thriving and it just started to become negative stress. So I was doing a bit of soul-searching about what I was going to do. I was 45 at the time. I couldn't afford to retire. What am I going to do I thought. And I had no idea. It was a complete chance conversation with a friend of mine and she said “I am getting a dog and I'm thinking of quitting my job and training to be a dog trainer.” I knew in that second it was a light switching in my head, I just knew that's what I was going to do, and two days later I resigned.

Guy: Did you feel like this was something you had always wanted to do.

Niki: Yes, as a child it was what I wanted, but as an adult, I just parked that ambition, but it had been in my brain for the past three decades or so. When it struck me I resigned immediately and started up my own business. I started training courses and began to do some dog walking for dogs that struggled with behavioural issues. These are the dogs that couldn't go into daycare and couldn't go into pack walks, working with these dogs while I was going through my training was how I got my start, and how I founded my business.

Guy: What is your business called?

Niki: My business is called Pup Talk.

Niki: I also have a local online business called Twickenham Dog Services that allows me to find work locally, but Pup Talk is my main business. I knew I always wanted to do more than just train dogs on a one-to-one basis because you're always going to be limited by how many you can help, and how many you can see.  

Guy: So you do classes with lots of doggies in them?

Niki: No, I don't do classes, that’s the one thing I don't do.  I've ended up specializing in dogs that struggle with the modern world, whether it's reactivity, anxiety, or noise issues. The kind of dog that is never going to be happy in a class environment. I do puppy workshops with my local vets and things like that, but I don't run training classes for adult dogs. Just as I tried to start my dog walking and training business the Coronavirus lockdown hit, and suddenly my business dried up completely. I was forced to try a different model.

Niki: I wanted to build a dog training business that could help many more dogs than I could help as an individual. So instead of courses, Pup Talk has members and offers memberships. Our members have access to a video library, but it's kind of like me in your back pocket. We have two monthly drop-in zooms for members to pop in and ask me questions.  They come with their issues, to discuss the things their dog is struggling with, asking what should I do? And I direct them to either my existing content that covers their issue, or talk them through their issue and answer their questions. The community aspect is a massive part of Pup Talk through the lockdown period, many people adopted dogs around that time, and if you have a dog that lunges at other dogs on walks because it's nervous, people think you've got an aggressive dog and other dog owners kind of judge them for it, and it can feel very embarrassed as an owner. It's quite isolating if you have a dog that struggles so getting all of these people together so that they can see that they're not alone. Over time I built a community of dog owners who were all struggling with their pets’ behavioural issues, and it became a huge part of what we do.

Niki: So it’s a mixture of one-to-one training through Zoom, community-based support and knowledge sharing, and a lot of remote counselling courses. I'll get them to angle their laptop or their tablet on the floor so I can see them going through their training activities in real-time and it's like I'm in the house with them without their dog having to cope with a stranger or needing to travel. So I do that with people all over the country a lot.

And those experiences and my training, slowly led to me writing my first book.

Guy: Published author, that’s fantastic, what is your book called?

Niki: It's called Stop Walking Your Dog

Guy: Stop walking your dog? We love walking our dogs though. 

Niki: Yes I know, but your dogs probably don't have any behavioural or social issues, whereas my clients do.  So some of the clients have dogs who are struggling so much in the outside world that on every walk there is some kind of negative interaction. It's stressful for the dog, it's stressful for the human as well as other dog owners you encounter.

Guy: Yeah I can see that.

Niki: It was the second or third client I first told to stop walking their dog and start to do things at home with them. You can play training games, you can give them physical exercise, you can give them mental exercise. You can give them enrichment if you cut walking for most dogs is a wonderful experience and a wonderful thing for us. But if every one of those walks is stressful for both you and your dog, it's not the right thing to do you need to do things differently. 

So I said you need to stop walking your dog, and then it struck me, that's my book. I knew I wanted to write the book and now that I had a core subject I was knowledgeable about, the book was written in about five months and it’s been really successful since it was published.

Guy: But you don’t mean stop walking dogs completely right? I mean dogs need to be walked?

Niki: So some of my clients have dogs that struggle to toilet in their garden, but who struggle on walks which is a perfect storm of issues. Some of my clients used to get up at 4 AM to take their dog out because there was nobody else around, so there was no incident.

Dogs still need to be walked and exercised, but there is a lot you can do in a small garden, and even in a flat with a small balcony to make sure they get that exercise.

Guy: So the point is to keep the dog off the streets until you have corrected its behaviour?

Niki: Yes, until they've grown the skills that they don't have. But because all dogs’ behaviour comes from an emotion. they don't do things just for the sake of it. They don't do things to annoy us or to be stubborn, everything they do is driven by how stressed, excited, or anxious they are. Whatever it is, it’s always an emotion that makes them react to other animals. All they want to do is to feel loved, be fed, procreate, it's relatively simple and if anything puts any of that at risk, or what they perceive as a risk, then they're going to react accordingly. 

Niki: The book is about permitting people not to walk their dog, which if they're struggling is huge. I think that permission is hugely important because everyone around them will be saying to them you need to walk the dog more, you need to exercise them more you need to exhaust them, when in fact that exacerbates the problem.

Niki: So that’s what I wrote my book about, I wanted to write a book but didn't know if anyone would buy it, and so far it's over 4,000 copies sold and people ring me up and email me after reading it asking if we can we work together. So it’s been a fantastic experience.

Guy: Yeah, that's fantastic.

Niki: It's incredible the emails I get from people saying oh my God, that's just changed my life just because I gave them permission not to walk their dog. Mostly their gut is telling them what they're doing is wrong, but society expects that if you have a dog you should walk it two or three times a day, which is hugely problematic for some dog owners.

Niki: I also created an awareness around that message, which is Don't Walk Your Dog Day, which is on the second of April every year. It's got national awareness day status in the last 12 months. I did one interview with a national paper in the UK and then it got picked up everywhere and the story got featured in lots of different newspapers.

Everyone wanted to know who this crazy dog woman saying no one should walk their dogs was, which of course was not what my message was about at all, but it started lots of conversations and that was amazing, and a big part of the journey I have been on.

Guy: Sounds like you have built a great business there, you are enjoying it too.

Niki: Yes, absolutely love it!

Guy: That's a fantastic story, it makes for a really interesting journey into petpreneurship, so let’s move onto that subject for a while. What does it take to be a successful petpreneur Niki? 

Because you are making a success of your business and qualified to answer.

Niki: You have to have an unwavering commitment to yourself, your product and your brand.

You have to believe in it, and you've got to do something that you love. If you don't love it, I think it's far too tough to ride it out through the hard times. You have to believe with every fibre in your being that what I'm doing is the right thing and it's helping people, without that I wouldn't have lasted the five years I have, you need that in you to keep going.

When you work for a company there is always an MD or a CEO standing over you and cracking the whip, but they are gone when it’s your own business, so you've got to have that drive, and that motivation to keep pushing when it's tough and I don't think that ever goes away.

Niki French: I think it does take time and reputation is everything, I would never do anything to compromise my values or my reputation, which means I don't make as much money as I could because every decision I have made has to come from the right place.

I think the other thing is not seeing other businesses that might do something similar to you as competition. There are lots of people becoming dog trainers and there are lots of complementary businesses, but I think collaborating and being open to connecting with people and helping people connect with the other businesses is the way forward. So rather than being sort of suspicious of my competition, I think about how we can work together.

Guy: What's it like working in the pet industry compared to the corporate world?

Niki: I was surprised just how much people in the industry love animals, and want to work with animals, but don't love people and I think many of them are in it to avoid working with people.

Guy: That's interesting.

Niki: It is, but the problem is that I don't think you can do a good job of this job unless you're great with people. If I can't connect with people and help them see how they could do things differently with their dog then I can't do my job, and I think you have to love people to be able to connect. If I'm going into somebody's home for the first time I need them to trust me, I need them to believe what I say, and I need them motivated enough to work with the training.

If I can't convince people what they need to do. In a short space of time then I'm useless at my job. So yeah, I think I've been surprised by how many people in the industry I have come across who don't like dealing with other people. And I don’t think that works with being a dog trainer.

Guy: Interesting, and that makes sense.

Niki: You need to find your positive communities in the industry, because there can be quite a lot of negativity, and the negative gossip that comes with it.

Guy: Really?

Niki: There are very different approaches to training dogs, and different trainers can have very different mentalities which can cause a lot of arguments. There are lots of people with wildly different backgrounds and different views, and it’s surprising how much conflict exists within the industry. Personally, if I don't agree with something I'll just scroll on by, I don't need to get involved. I think it's good for people to just stay in their lane positively.

Guy: Moving on to the wider industry question. where do you see the industry changing? 

Niki: AI is going to change the way the dog training industry interacts with dog owners, ChatGPT for example does a fantastic impersonation of being a dog trainer, but quite often makes things up, so lots of companies are working on AI dog training models which is going to have a huge impact on an already cluttered dog training industry.

It feels like dog owners are about to be overwhelmed with sometimes misguided advice from AI-driven sources, when the learning landscape is already confusing for new dog owners. Millions of dog owners are already being exposed to misguided or incorrect information from millions of random articles when it comes to training their dog and it makes you worry that these new AI models are being trained using those articles.

Guy: So you are saying that the foundational knowledge used to train the new AI dog training models is oftentimes flawed, wrong, or misguided and that this could have a negative effect on already confused dog owners, who might be struggling with behavioural issues?

Niki: That’s right. The dog training industry is an unregulated one, and it’s unlikely to become regulated. When I first started in the industry more than five years ago, people were talking about incoming regulation back then, but I haven’t seen any indication over that time that regulation might be coming. It’s more than a bit of a wild west out here.

There are some fantastic dog training academies, courses, certifications, and accreditations that dog training professionals can take, achieve and use to continuously learn, but many of the influencers in our industry have not passed through those professional career channels. Anyone can take their self-taught, or now discredited aversive dog training techniques, and speak about them expertly on social media, or their blog. The sheer volume of people doing this over time has created an industry full of conflicting advice, and it makes you wonder exactly how AI will make sense of all of this, especially if it’s trained on the wrong materials.

Guy: Do you not see a role for AI in dog training in the industry? For example, you provide lots of written and oral content in your community, would this not make good training material for an AI model, you could use it to create a Niki AI who sounded and spoke the way you do.

Niki: I use AI in my personal and professional life to multiply my efforts, it can be a great productivity tool, but it definitely gets things wrong sometimes and leads me astray from time to time, and I worry about the impact this will have on new dog owners learning to train their dog.

I also think that one of the most important aspects of dog training is understanding a dogs language, and I struggle to see an AI model being able to correctly read and understand a dogs language in training scenarios, enough to be able to correctly diagnose the underlying issue. You need to have a really good, experience, led, understanding of a dog’s behaviour to be able to properly read it and understand what it’s feeling. It’s a very intuitive process, and that is not something that an AI language model is very good at dealing with in any sense.

You don’t just need good intuition, you need great powers of observation to be able to spot the micro signals a dogs body language is giving off. Most other dogs pick up on these signals immediately, but humans very often do not, so you need to be great at spotting them.

It can also be easy for a human to completely misinterpret what a dog’s body language is saying, very often their body language will be counter-intuitive to human expectations, and again all of these are things that an AI language model couldn’t hope to understand, let alone give advice and training suggestions based on their understanding from bad texts.

Guy: It feels like dog training might be an AI resistant industry, because the skills required to be a good dog training, observation, intuition, experience, and being able to effectively interact and work with other people, the dog’s owners, are all things that AI will never master.

Niki: For Ai, the challenge is even harder than trying to understand humans because dogs are one of the most diverse species on the planet. Where humans all mostly look the same, there are huge differences between different breeds of dogs, and in their temperament. I cannot ever see AI managing to figure dogs out well enough to be able to properly advise dog owners on what their dog is feeling, thinking, and behaving like as a result.

Guy: Then we agree, it’s best not to ask ChatGPT for dog training advice! Let’s move onto the next question we have for you, where do you see dog ownership trends headed over the next five years, and into the foreseeable future? What predictions do you have for us? We all know millennials have more dogs for example, but how do you see dog ownership changing?

Niki: I think we are going to see a much greater awareness of canine health, in the same way, we are increasingly beginning to understand human health as it relates to everything else around us, and using that understanding to create better health outcomes. I can see the same pattern being extended over to our dogs, who we very often see as our family members.

People are beginning to pull together different strands of research covering dog food, training, socialization, and other aspects of a dogs life in order to improve ther life expectancy and support better health outcomes over the long term. Before nobody cared what was in the dog food that they were buying int he supermarket, but now we care deeply about the foods our dogs consume, expect more of the same and a continuing focus on canine health outcomes.

People are trying to help their dogs live longer, and healthier lives than they ever have before, which is a very positive thing, and we can expect this trend to continue over the coming years.

Guy: What does the market look like front that perspetive?

Niki: I think people already spend more on their dogs than they would themselves when money is tight, and I think as the economy gets better we can expect much more consumer spending on dogs, more spend on health related services, and dog related activities, as well of course canine inclusivity, which means a wider choice of dog friendly spaces we can share. People see their dogs as family members now, and with more dog owners than ever before, it is easy to se how this will drive growth across the pet industry over the next five years.

Guy: Thats good insight, thank you for that. Moving us on to our final question Niki, what advice do you have for aspiring petpreneurs who want to move into the industry?

Niki: I would advise them to get really good at whatever it is they want to do. They need to keep studying, and keep on learning constantly. Our knowledge and the rate of development and research into canine behaviour is constant, you have to always be learning to stay ahead.

I would also say that you have to love it in order to stick with it, and to make sure you choose something that you think you can learn to love. Be sure to surrounds yourself with a positive community, it can be too easy to overexpose yourself to all of the negativity in the pet industry, my advice is to turn the other way and ignore it, find your people and grow with them.

Guy: What advice do you wish someone had given you as a budding petpreneur?

Niki: Thats a funny question, because I still get given this advice by my boyfriend so I dont forget. Don’t forget to look after yourself, and don’t get so caught up in your work that you begin to neglect your own personal life, and mental or physical health. I gt so caught up in my work sometimes that I forget to do that, so its really great advice that I need from time to time.

Guy: Great answer, I agree with you that as an entrepreneur it can be easy to get so caught up in your startup that nothing else matters, taking time for yourself and making sure that your personal life doesnt suffer because of it is important, thats great advice. Do you have any founders or startups that you want to shout out?

Niki: Someone who is doing incredible things for anxious and reactive dogs in the world is Sarah Jones, founder of My Anxious Dog. What started as research for ways to help her scared and reactive Cocker Spaniel, has become a passion to reach millions of people with the high quality 'space awareness' products. Plus campaigns to spread information about what a dog wearing yellow means.

Thank you so much for your time today Niki, we really appreciate you coming on to talk to us, this will make a great write up and we will publish our conversation shortly on Roch Society magazine. For those of you reading, we have been speaking to the awesome Niki French, founder of Pup Talk, author of Stop Walking Your Dog, please give her a follow on social!

Niki: Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure to speak with you!

Editors Note: This is Part One of our Interesting Journeys Into Peptpreneurship series, click here to see the second article in this series featuring an interview with Chloe Smith the Founder of Tuft.