#25 – Are Your Puppy Applications Working Against You?

by | Nov 23, 2021 | People Management

I was in a Facebook group the other day and a breeder made a comment that she gave up on puppy applications, she no longer has an application form people fill out on her website, she felt that having a form on her website gave too much information on what she was looking for, and that since people would know what’s she’s looking for, it would be easy for them to just tell her what she wants to hear so they can get a puppy, instead of telling her the truth.

As a solution, she just has a contact form and that form is where they can tell her whatever they feel is important for her to know, or not. She then stated that if she doesn’t like what they write, she doesn’t get back to them.

I feel her pain. It often feels like puppy applications just don’t give us a real good feel about our potential buyers. They don’t feel thorough enough.

I didn’t have a puppy application for a long time. In fairness, my marketing was a little goofy and all over the place, so people would contact me from all sorts of places, like Facebook, instagram, email, brokerage sites, it was a bit of a mess, not to mention the people who just called me. So it wasn’t that I had a beef with puppy applications, I just hadn’t sat down and put one together.

Up until this point—which was the first few years of my breeding program—I just talked with each person and then if we felt it was a good fit we moved to a deposit.

It was about two years in when I realized I was spending a lot of time in emails and conversations asking some really basic questions, just to start to get to know the family, simple things like the ages of their kids, if they had other dogs, that basic stuff.

It was time consuming, boring, and oh man, if you were using email, it was like 3 days before you actually got to real conversation. It was at this point I realized that I could make a simple form on my website that asked ALL these basic questions, so that when I received a puppy application off my website I would have a basis for conversation when I first contacted them. Looking back at it now, like duh, why didn’t I think of this sooner!?

I think part of why I didn’t build a puppy application sooner was because I hated them when I got my two shelter dogs. I got them from different places and each place had it’s own application. When I was filing them out I always felt like I was in trouble, even the tone of the questions was written in a way that made me feel like I was an incapable dog owner. I would think about the words I was using on the application, would they think I was a better owner if I said I owned many dogs or would they think I was a dog hoarder?

One question asked if I had lost a dog in the last 6 months, and while I hadn’t at that time, would that have made me a bad owner to want another dog in my life after 6 months of an empty home?

It reminded me of the bubble tests in high school, the multiple choice ones requiring you to fill everything in with a number 2 pencil…remember getting the lead just right so it was soft enough to quickly fill in the bubbles? Anyways, I know I’m a weirdo.

I felt like they were going to take this application and stamp it as approved or not. I was scared to mess up, I was inclined to lie, because deep down I knew I wanted a dog and I wasn’t worried about taking care of a dog, I’m more than capable of that.

I knew I was a good home and yet I never felt like I was a good person after filling out those applications. I always felt a little icky.

I think many buyers feel like they’re getting interrogated on the puppy applications.

If you ask most breeders what the purpose of a puppy application is, they’ll probably say to see if the buyer is a good fit for the dog. This is sort of implied with the term “application” which generally pairs with the idea of asking for something and waiting to see if you’ll be accepted. Much like a college application, you apply and hope you’ll be selected.

Just in the terminology it has a pass or fail connotation, which is why people feel put on the spot, when instead the purpose is to see if you’re a good match.

Because buyers feel put on the spot, they are on the defensive and two things come from that…they feel inclined to tell you, the breeder, what you want to hear, or at least what they think you want to hear, which might not be the truth. The second thing is that it creates tension in the relationship between you and the buyer before your relationship even starts.

As breeders, sometimes we are sort of like the Wizard of Oz, we are this very scary person who will decide their fate with their puppy. While this sounds cool, it’s really not so great, this dynamic, with the power distance it creates, doesn’t allow for trust and open communication, two things which are paramount in putting dogs in the right homes: ensuring their success and quality of life.

I believe the best approach is to shift from the concept of the all-mighty Wizard-of-Oz Breeder to two people working together as a team to find the right dog for that family.

Instead of our buyers being like Dorthy and the Tin Man hoping that the Wizard of Oz, us breeders, will approve them, what if we chose to think of it like a dating site like Match, what if our websites are like our blurb about ourselves that attracts and repels people, helping them decide if one of our dogs would be right for them. Then they take the next step, ask for a date through the puppy application, telling us a little about themselves. We then message back and forth or talk on the phone to see if we have what each other is looking for.

When you think about dating, you don’t want to win everyone’s heart. There are a lot of crazy people out there and a lot of people who are interested in things that I don’t like or care to do. Don’t hate me, but I’m not a big football fan, I get more excited about the food on Superbowl Sunday, than I do the commercials, and I care about the commercials more than I do the game…I think that’s why they call it the super bowl, it’s like a giant spread of food, usually dips, in bowls.

I wouldn’t want to date someone who was all about football, season tickets, getting matching jerseys, etc. It’s just not my thing. It doesn’t make football bad. It’s the same with a dog, a dog’s drives and temperament will work well for certain lifestyles, so we breeders just need to work to find that match in an owner who will have a successful relationship with our dogs, but we need to talk to them to figure that out.

Just like no blurb on a dating site will ever completely tell us what it is like to be in a relationship with someone, no puppy interest form or application will ever completely sort out the good from the bad, a match or not. A form is not dynamic enough, there needs to be conversation.

In the military we had this term, SME, it stands for Subject Matter Expert. There would be times when the Captain would want to see if our aircraft system could do something and so he would request the SME for that particular task. If that was maintenance on an aircraft, it would be the lead technician; if it was a flying thing, it would be the lead pilot or operator, as they were the SMEs for those particular tasks.

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In this more team-focused approach with your buyers, you, the breeder, are the SME of the dogs. You know your breed and particularly your dogs, their quirks, what they need and the pressure points that buyers have, what they struggle with, and hopefully how to mitigate those struggles—which sometimes means showing the buyers that the dog isn’t the best fit for them.

However, the buyer is the SME of their life and their expectations for a dog. It would be arrogant of me to tell my buyers that they can’t have a GSP in an apartment. The truth is, I’m not a good owner for a dog in an apartment, I don’t like to walk dogs on leashes, I don’t find time for those things, my dogs get their exercise from running around in my yard, because that’s what works for me. My dogs do love to run, but while I can’t make them work in an apartment, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it does bring challenges for the owner.

My job isn’t to tell the buyer, they can’t handle it. My job is to tell the buyer that this will be something that they will need to consciously have a plan for, that it’s a major challenge and is something to sort out logistically BEFORE they give me a deposit, but I’m here to help, because I’m the SME of the dogs.

In an apartment situation like this with my GSPs we would need to discuss work schedules, enrichment, lifestyle that engages the dog, what options there are for being able to free run. This may include the dog park, which is ideal if there’s one at the apartment complex, or maybe they’ll do the doggie daycare or a combination of the two.

It’s not me asking them questions like an interrogation either, it’s a conversation. We are working together to brainstorm. They tell me what they think would work with their life and schedule, I present problems and possible solutions that have worked for other buyers in the past.

You’ll find that many people envision a life with a puppy or dog, but it’s shortsighted, meaning they sort of get puppy fever and want a puppy really bad. Because they are so focused on a puppy, they start compromising their requirements to make it happen. Sometimes our jobs as breeders is to help them take off the rose-colored glasses and see how much of a pain our dogs can be. The best approach will to use humor with this, so that the buyer is comfortable and doesn’t feel on the defensive.

It’s not really an exaggeration to say that my dogs would be window-lickers if they were humans, they can be pretty special if you know what I mean. When you share these….shall we call them quirks?…you can kill some of their infatuation with a puppy and get them to tap back into their more logical brain.

Think of it sort of like finding the most beautiful girl to date, but then seeing that she takes 2 hours to get ready EVERY SINGLE DAY and 4 hours for date night, completely incapable of being ready to go in 30 minutes, not to mention her beauty products run up a tally of $1500 per month. It sort of takes a little of the infatuation out when you think you like to grab a greasy cheeseburger from time to time and she’ll never be able to spontaneously do that.

Most of the people who come to me living in an apartment choose to wait to get one until after they move to a place with a yard, but I do have some people who live in apartments successfully with their GSP. The success apartment GSP owners usually work at home, don’t have kids, and their attention is very much focused on their dog.

A puppy application just isn’t enough information to determine if this buyer will succeed with your dogs. I mean, sure, there will be times when people will tell you they are looking for something your dogs simply can’t provide, but that’s fairly rare.

You will need to communicate with them to some extent regardless of the puppy application and what’s on it. You can’t help them figure this puppy thing out without having that conversation and building a relationship together.

So what are some techniques for making your puppy application less like an interrogation and more like a conversation?

Here are three of my favorite techniques: how you write your intro to the application, the “I’m not sure option,” and the situation and lifestyle description box.

When you write your introduction to your form, write something that expresses you are most concerned with finding the best puppy for them. Most application forms are written in a way that suggests you, the breeder, are looking for the best home for your puppies, forcing the buyers to feel like they have to prove themselves.

So if you have something that says, “our puppy application lets us know if you are a good fit for one of our dogs” that’s dog focused, and makes you the Wizard of Oz.

Instead try something like, “Our puppy application helps us better understand you and your needs for a dog, this allows us to help you select the best puppy for your family.” See how that changes to people-centered? You won’t be like the Wizard of Oz with this sentence, rather you’re the matchmaker and you want to help them find the best match. People will want to tell the truth with this introduction because they want the dog that’s right for them.

A silly other thing I realized in breeding that isn’t common knowledge among puppy buyers…many think that any puppy in the breed will be the same, they don’t understand that dogs are different not just within the breed, but within different breeding programs, and also within the litter. They are all individuals. This misunderstanding is why some buyers are so concerned with color, they don’t understand that there are any other differences.

So when we say we are concerned to find them the right puppy, it starts to build a subconscious awareness for our buyers that there are differences. These differences will be what helps you get them on board with the right puppy, not their favorite color puppy.

Next, offer an “I’m not sure option.” Sometimes we forget that people may not care about an option or they may not understand enough to select an option. For example, I always figured people would come looking for a puppy knowing if they wanted a boy or girl, well turns out a lot of people either don’t care or are undecided. So…I added those two options in my puppy application. For sex, I put, “male, female, doesn’t matter, or Not sure/undecided” I also add in parenthesis that if they select not sure/undecided that it’s okay, we will help you figure it out. This again, allows them to be honest and implies there are differences between the two. It’s also another way to start a conversation with your buyers when you contact them.

This “I’m not sure option” can apply to lots of things, like the color or pattern preference, size preference, coat preference, and also timing preference, as in when do they want to get a dog.

It’s also helpful for us breeders because we can see where they need help with things, and also doesn’t give us the impression they were locked in on a selection that they aren’t exactly locked into. Like what if we only had male or female, it was required, and they selected male, but really didn’t care, well we may be worried because we have only 1 male left and may forget to discuss the option of a female.

Lastly, the long-form situation and lifestyle box. This is the last box on my application and asks people to tell me about their lifestyle and expectations for a dog. You can get a good read on what they want when you let people tell you what they think you should know. Again, I always preface this with “there are no right or wrong answers, but there are dogs that will be right or wrong for you based on what you’re looking for.”

This box is helpful because it allows them to freely tell you whatever they want. Often they will use this box to tell you about the dog they just lost, that they had one of these dogs growing up as a kid, or what they are looking to get the dog for, as in a family companion or maybe they need a service dog.

People like to be unique and special, if your puppy form doesn’t give them an opportunity to show they are unique and special, they will feel like you don’t care to understand them and that’s not a good way to start your relationship together.

So what do you think? Have you accidentally been acting like the Wizard of Oz, putting your buyers on eggshells? Or are you the savvy matchmaker that’s on their team, helping them find the perfect puppy?

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Hey! I’m Julie Swan! I’m here to help you build a breeding business that you love, one that produces amazing dogs, places them in wonderful homes, gives you the life you want, also pays the bills!