2. Designing and implementing a ‘puppy and adolescent dog programme’
Unless the practice has been involved with the dam’s pregnancy, the first point of contact is usually when the owner telephones or visits the practice to seek advice. Often this is in relation to routine matters such as vaccinations, worming or flea control. It may be routine to the practice, but remember it may be the first puppy the potential client has ever owned; indeed it may be the first time the owner has ever contacted your practice.
It could be that the new owner is phoning around to obtain prices before deciding which practice to register with and we need to provide that potential client with more than just price upon which to base that decision. What can we do? We can demonstrate genuine interest in the puppy by using its name and by asking open questions about its time with the family to date. We need to address any current concerns the client may have and at the same time provide what we regard as important additional information. However, we mustn’t overburden the client with too much information; instead, having captured the client’s and puppy’s details, we can contact them by post or e-mail with a personalised message and further information. If we have a Website with specific information on puppy care we can point them in that direction.
The first appointment
The most important action we can take at the initial contact is to make an appointment to see the puppy, irrespective of its age. A significant failing of too many practices is in not making that appointment.
We all know just how important first impressions are, and hopefully whoever greets the client with the new puppy will anticipate their arrival and greet both, using their names.
There is a great deal of information we will want to impart during a client’s first visit, but a limit to how much anybody can take on board and retain to share with the rest of the family later. Fortunately most puppies will be seen on more than one occasion over a relatively short time scale and this provides us with an opportunity to structure each visit, deciding what information is provided during each one. Below are just some of the topics we may want to discuss:
• Neutering or breeding
• Flea control
The challenge is that there is often not enough time to do justice to each topic. This is where structure is so important. We need to divide the list into those that need to be addressed at some depth during the first visit and others that can be referred to and dealt with at subsequent visits. Having a structure that everybody in the practice agrees with and adheres to ensures every visit is used in the most effective and efficient manner. Topics that we know have been detailed at a previous visit, irrespective of who saw the client, can be picked up on and discussed at some length, and new subjects can be introduced that were omitted last time.
We have already referred to the amount of information we need to impart and the time constraints. And there are other challenges to take into account. We need to ascertain the client’s starting point. This may be their first ever pet, or they may be experienced breeders. We need to appreciate this is an exciting time for the owner and indeed the puppy, which may be a distraction during the consultation and partly to blame why the client doesn’t retain much of what we tell them.
With that in mind it is very important to provide the client with written information to take away. This can take the form of commercially or in-house produced literature. Having a professional looking folder, a Puppy Pack, in which to house the literature is important and allows us to personalise each owner’s pack. We can also guide the client to our Website if it has relevant information to impart.
Providing the new owner with a great deal of information may well give rise to queries that arise after they have left the practice. We need to provide the client with a safety net, a reassurance that the practice team is there to answer all their questions relating to the puppy’s care and development. The message we need to get across is that “There is no need to go anywhere else when it comes to looking after your puppy. We are here to help and are delighted to do so.”
A practice will need to decide on how often it recommends subsequent checks. The benefits of these regular checks must be conveyed to both the practice team and individual owners to optimise buy-in.
Depending on breed, puppies will reach puberty as young as 6 months of age and will stop growing at between 12 and 15 months old. Compare this with humans where it will take up to 18 years or more to reach maturity and you realise you don’t have much time to get things right! With this in mind monthly checks are appropriate, to monitor such things as, weight and body condition, feeding regime, dentition, parasite control and behaviour, etc. Remember, not every monthly check requires direct veterinarian input.
6-month-old health check
Irrespective of whether a practice opts for regular monthly checks or not, the 6 month-old health check is an important milestone in a puppy’s development.
It provides an excellent opportunity to discuss whether the client plans to have the puppy neutered or, in the case of a bitch, whether they would like her to have a litter of puppies. As responsible veterinarians we need to ensure we provide the owner with sufficient information to enable them to make an informed decision and at the same time convey the message that whatever choice they do make, we are the best source of advice and help.
Role of the team
As said elsewhere, the one thing all team members have in common is the number of hours in the day. Team members are drawn to work in veterinary practice for different reasons. Often, the compelling factor for veterinarians is the opportunity to solve problems as evidenced by the move towards specialisation in many marketplaces. Support staff are usually driven by a desire to work with animals and these different drivers can often be evidenced in their differing approaches to a client with a new puppy; the receptionist or the nurse is usually eager to take the puppy from the owner to give it a cuddle whilst the veterinarian is often keen to get on with the clinical side of things and move on to the next, more challenging case.
There is no reason why support staff shouldn’t take a significant role in the ‘Puppy and Adolescent Dog Programme’. What non-veterinarians will be permitted to do will vary from region to region, but if the programme is broken down into its component parts there will be many areas where support staff can play a significant and rewarding role.
For example, when we look at the list of topics we want to cover during the initial visits, some clearly come under the remit of the veterinarian, e.g. vaccinations, neutering and breeding. But what about microchipping, behaviour and feeding? Are these topics that could be delegated to an enthusiastic and well trained member of support staff? The initial puppy consultations can be split between a veterinarian and a nurse, adding value for the client, enhancing job satisfaction for the nurse and freeing up the veterinarian to see other cases.
Some subsequent routine adolescent checks, depending on content, could be carried out solely by a nurse. This is perfectly acceptable to clients as long as they are made aware of the role of the nurse and have confidence in their knowledge. But it does not suggest nurse consultations should be free of charge.
If the practice is large enough such that you see a sufficient number of puppies, then holding weekly puppy parties is popular with clients, support staff, not to mention the puppies! The primary purpose of these parties, often held in the practice after normal hours, is to allow healthy puppies the opportunity to mix, before they are allowed out into public areas. Dogs are pack animals and allowing them to mix with other puppies, as young as possible helps with their socialisation and behaviour training. It also provides the practice with a golden opportunity to show clients around the practice and talk to them in more detail about subjects like nutrition, parasite control and behaviour etc.
Building the relationship
Building a successful practice is all about turning prospective clients (those individuals who may do business with you) into advocates (those who actively promote your practice to others). It is all about using every interaction between the client and the practice to develop and enhance the relationship and giving the client no reason for going elsewhere when it comes to caring for their pet.
When asked what’s important to clients, they often speak about how their puppy will get on with the veterinarian. “Will he or she like my puppy?” One way of demonstrating you like their pet is to take a photograph of the latest addition to their family and display it on a notice board in the reception area, along with photos of all the other puppies the practice has seen over a given period.
As veterinarians our primary responsibility is to our patients and there is no doubt that a comprehensive “Puppy and Adolescent Dog Programme” brings benefits to those pets.
Seeing a puppy on a regular basis during its adolescent period and providing expert advice and top quality products gives it the best chance of developing into a healthy, well adapted adult. And because a great deal of the interaction with both the team and the premises is not associated with unpleasant or painful experiences, puppies that attend on a regular basis, enjoy coming to the practice and make more amenable patients as adults.
Clients benefit from knowing they are receiving the best advice from people who care about their family member.
If nurses are given area of responsibility within the Programme it fulfils two of their main motivational factors, working with animals and doing an interesting job.
Apart from providing veterinarians with an interesting role, by involving nurses in the Programme it can free them up to deal with what they may regard as more challenging clinical cases.
The practice owner benefits from all that is associated with clients who are practice advocates. Word of mouth is still a very powerful and cost effective marketing tool when it comes to building a client base. The caring owner is going to spend a significant amount on their pet during its puppy and adolescent phases. Much better for that owner and the practice finances to have them spend it with you where they know they are receiving value for money along with the best advice and quality products that are approved by the practice team.
When it comes to the financial rewards associated with running a ‘Puppy and Adolescent Programme’ the profit margin will very much depend on the pricing structure. How much do you charge for the monthly checks with the nurse or attendance at the Puppy Parties? Do you charge an overall fee for the Programme, including vaccinations? If so, do clients pay up-front, or on a monthly basis? Do you give clients discount on products, e.g. pet food, and parasiticides, whilst they are on the Programme?
There are many ways you can structure the financial aspects of a scheme. And it is easy to appreciate that if you take the period between a puppy’s primary vaccinations and its first booster vaccination at 16 months of age, and simply provide those vaccinations, the income and profit will be insignificant compared with what could be produced by a greater involvement with that growing puppy. The chart below providing the vaccinations versus a comprehensive Programme.
Introducing and running a ‘Puppy and Adolescent Dog Programme’ will mean Healthier patients, Happier clients and Higher profits.
This article was kindly provided by Royal Canin. If you would like printed copies of this material or other Focus publications please contact your Veterinary Business Manager:
1. American Pet Products Association (http://www.americanpetproducts.org/).
2. Chambre syndicale des fabricants d’aliments préparés pour chiens, chats, oiseaux et autres animaux familiers (FACCO) (http://www.facco.fr/article67,67).