From corporate life to dog training academy with Zoe Willingham


Spread the love:

Zoe Willingham is the founder of Best Behaviour Dog Training in Suffolk and started her business after leaving behind a corporate career.

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to grow a large dog training academy, build a team to support you and live with nearly 100 animals, this podcast is for you.

Zoe decided to learn more about dog training after getting her first dog Millie, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. 

She studied to become a dog trainer alongside her corporate job, then qualified as a behaviourist, and in time she was ready to leave her old work behind.

Starting out as a one woman band, her business grew as did her doggy family. 

Zoe now has 23 rescue dogs (at the time of writing) and a selection of cats, small furries and even a one-eyed tortoise. 

She shares how she grew her business and the lessons she learned along the way. Listen in on the player link or read the key points as a blog post.  

Hi, Zoe! Tell us a bit about your background.

My very first job was in the animal sector. At 13, I got a job at our school farm which piqued my interest in agriculture. 

After getting my degree in animal science, I kind of accidentally ended up in sales and marketing for pet-related businesses. 

I had various experiences and worked my way up the corporate ladder, wearing the title of director for multiple companies. But my heart was always with animals.

When my job no longer required me to travel across the world, I was able to get a dog. 

I noticed a huge gap in the marketing for dog training through positive reinforcement and decided to jump in head first and become a trainer.

I simultaneously worked both jobs for several years and I’ve been running my dog training and behaviourist businesses for eight years full time.

How did you transfer your experiences from corporate life to your business?

I felt the dog training industry lacked a bit of professionalism and I was excited to apply this skill to my business.

I had experience working on multi million-pound business transactions, particularly in marketing and sales. 

A large part of being a successful dog trainer is sales and marketing, so I was able to take that skill and use it to advance my business.

While there are many skills I was able to transfer, there were just as many I was not quite suited for, such as accounting. 

It is equally as important to surround yourself with people who know more about things than you do to run a successful and well-rounded business.

How did you find your ideal market when establishing your business?

I looked at my geographical area and ran a SWOT analysis, an analytical tool used to determine Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

As a new business, it would be absolute madness to go into a town where there are already three established dog trainers when there may be a town down the road with zero. 

Go down the path of least resistance! It costs less, you can grow more quickly, and you’ll spend less money competing.

There are loads of opportunities and gaps everywhere for people, products, and services. Find that gap, fill it, then worry about refining it later!

Why did you decide not to niche down?

I decided not to, because I didn’t want to. In my commercial background, we had to be experts in multiple areas so I knew it was possible. 

I wanted to grow to the point I could bring skilled and experienced individuals on my team and not everything would land on me. 

That breadth has allowed me the opportunity to try new things along the way; things I wouldn’t be able to do if I pigeon-holed myself into a single niche.

How did you grow your team?

My business is now at nine locations and growing. As I began to grow, I knew I needed more dog trainers so I started recruiting. 

I found a fantastic head trainer, which was a pivotal point in my business for bringing on other qualified trainers.

We currently have a team of five trainers and behaviourists. 

I understand the importance of succession planning, so we constantly have new apprentices coming through.

Over time, I’m giving them more responsibilities and I think it’s worked so well because it’s been managed slowly and intentionally.

How do you keep up your momentum?

It’s not just my mouth and my animals’ mouths I have to worry about feeding. I’ve got a team and their families to worry about as well.

I almost feel back to my corporate days with the sales forecasts, revenue forecasts, cash flow, and expenditure reports.

We’re planning 18 months in advance and, like in any corporate sales role, we have to set a target to ensure we are moving in the right direction.

As we’ve grown, I’ve also had to factor in overheads for website development, marketing, Facebook, external consultants.

My goals are to have enough money to pay my bills for the month, and have enough to grow in the following month.

To ensure that growth, we have to show our value to the clients we have. 

Things happen in the environment and economy that we can’t control, so we must be reactive at times and adapt to changing circumstances to ensure our success.

Why is community so important?

During the lockdown, our community was incredible. 

We’d built this system of trainers and owners that truly cared about each other and when the world started to shut down, communication was key to holding our community together.

We had to switch gears a bit, but we were able to do live sessions and continue to support each other even through the lockdown.

To build and retain your community, you of course have to be professional and deliver a good job, but also show up for your people. 

If you can do those things, you will end up with a community that’s loyal back to you.

How do you get the word out about your business?

My biggest marketing tool is word of mouth and 30-40% of my business is returning clients.

There’s not one single thing that’s guaranteed to work all the time, you need to be multi-channeled.

I also network with local businesses, get visibility media outlets, have properly managed social media platforms, stay present on Google, and have a spectacular website.

It’s important to make it easy for customers to contact us and place orders. We have dozens of inquiries a day, so we have systems set up so we don’t get overwhelmed.

Build your reputation and market in every way you possibly can!

Why is a contingency plan important?

If there’s one thing I learned during the pandemic, it is the importance of contingency planning. 

As a small business owner, it can be easy to push things off and wait to worry until it’s actually happening and you can run into trouble.

I like to make sure all my bases are covered and having multiple contingencies in place for various situations is a good discipline for every business to have.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Well, my days are quite sporadic. I have 23 dogs, 51 cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, hamsters, and a tortoise. 

Most of my days I bounce between client meetings, team meetings, and caring for my animals. 

Often I don’t eat my first meal until after midnight! If I have to choose between eating and taking the dogs for a walk or stroking a cat, I choose the animal first every time.

And unfortunately for me, I’m quite the clean freak and love to keep a meticulous house. 

My husband Carl works full-time and typically comes home to take on another full-time job of helping me care for our animals. It gets quite busy!

What’s next for you, Zoe?

I’m busy developing another business, which is centered around training a specific type of dog. It will be quite fun for me!

I’m also continuing to grow because I’m a firm believer that if you stand still you die. So I will keep pushing forward.

The forefront of my mind is always the same – I came into this business because I wanted to make a positive impact on dogs and their owners and every single decision I make is with that in mind.

Get in touch with Zoe!

Best Behaviour Dog Training





Zoe Willingham Dog Behaviourist



If you enjoyed learning about how dog trainers grow their businesses, you might like to read Using the power of community to grow your business with Sandra Emmons from HappipupIn the spotlight with Niki French from PupTalk or Creating meaningful social media with Aileen Stevenson


This week the Pet Industry Federation ran its second Business of Pets event, a two-day conference bringing together brands and experts. It was a mix of expert talks, panel discussions, workshops, and pitches from nine pet brands for the Innovation Prize. As CEO of PIF, Nigel Baker said in h...
Would you like support in growing your pet business and to feel part of a community by joining a membership? It can be lonely and overwhelming as a solo business owner, and there are always new skills and challenges to figure out. Being part of a community of other people who are in your in...
Can playing to your strengths rather than focusing on your challenges help you feel more comfortable with self-promotion? Sasha Louise Smith, a life coach supporting dog professionals, says embracing what makes you unique can help your business thrive, on your own terms. Sasha has worked in...
Zoe Willingham is the founder of Best Behaviour Dog Training in Suffolk and started her business ...

Work with me

Get Your Pet Business in the Press



Follow Me on Instagram

Follow Me on Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.