Your Piano Won’t Kill Or Maim Someone Unless You Drop It on Their Head

Damn.  Cuba and Mokie both made me so proud in their training today I had planned this ridiculously proud, semi-gushing, OHMYGODI’MSOPROUDOFMYDOGSTODAY post.  Complete with pictures, and yes, a video of the first time I met Cuba’s litter.  Sad for you all, now you’re going to have to wait.  I had the blog editor opened, titled, and ready to go, until I got distracted by Facebook (SQUIRREL!  Bright and shiny!  Dead things and kitty poop!) and read a post I just had to respond to.

Before you continue reading this blog post (as in, the one I’m writing right now), you must read Dear Labby: Dog Trainer Costs More Than Piano Lessons. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Rolph, like Mokie, loves piano

While Labby’s response is a good one, I think it needs to be expanded.  I’ve also heard clients say, “If I charged this much money, I’d be rich!”  Before going further, let me assure you, I am not rich.  References to the “Lomonaco mansion” are the very definition of hyperbole.  Why on Earth then, would dog training lessons cost more than piano lessons?  (NOTE – I am not trying to discredit piano teachers, I am only explaining why private dog training lessons don’t run for $10 a pop.)

Contrary to popular belief, most dog trainers are not rich or celebrities. Most of them would actually fall into the category of:


Essentially, you’re not just paying for a trainer’s time, if the trainer is worth their salt.  Here’s what you’re actually paying for:

  • A janitor – I have never, not once, had a client’s dog become sick with a contagious illness (including parvo) while in my care or at my facility.  I follow the same sanitization protocols used at most veterinary offices.  It takes a long time to vacuum and appropriately mop 6,000 square feet of facility.
  • A car service – I may drive twenty to thirty minutes each way to meet with a client.  Gas isn’t free!
  • Liability insurance – one of the marks of a responsible behavior professional is that they carry a hefty insurance policy.  Luckily, I’ve never needed to cash in a claim, but it is my job to make sure my customers are protected.
  • A secretary and book-keeper – I probably spend at least 1/2 of my workday each day on tasks I don’t get paid for to support my business; scheduling, blogging, invoicing, entering receipts and mileage, answering emails and phone calls, etc.
  • Prep time – while you may pay for an hour, it’s likely that your trainer spends at least 2 or 3x that 60 minutes prepping for the lesson – creating a customized training plan, preparing handouts, readying the training facility as needed, finding volunteers for exposures, writing reports for your veterinarian, creating supportive training videos, etc.
  • Education and continuing education – I’ve invested as much in my education as a dog trainer as I invested in my first two years of college.  Between achieving my Karen Pryor Academy certification, purchasing each new book, training video, or magazine subscription offering the latest and best dog training information, and attending various conferences and seminars throughout the country each year since, it costs money to bring clients the very best, most effective, and modern training services.
  • Rent – having my own facility, I essentially pay two mortgages.  It sure is nice to offer a 6,000 square foot air conditioned facility to my clients, but the flooring alone (purchased to protect your dog’s joints) cost more than my car.  I want you to have a nice place to train and learn in, but that isn’t free or cheap.
  • Equipment – a-frames, tunnels, jumps, visual barriers, flirt poles and tug toys, food dispensing toys, x-pens, tethers, long lines, clickers, treat bags, target sticks, handouts, prepped stuffed Kongs, already-prepped treats, crates for each station, poop bags for when my clients forget, Nature’s Miracle (and enough paper towels to warrant purchasing stock in Bounty) to clean up accidents, etc., all add up.  Your piano teacher probably doesn’t provide the piano, right?  I bet she doesn’t provide diapers for potty training your kid either.
  • Piece of mind.  Let’s face it, if your kid doesn’t like the piano and determines he loves soccer instead, it’s really not the end of the world.  We’re talking the difference between a hobby and keeping a family member (albeit one with fur and four legs) in your home.  We’re talking the difference between a missed concert and you potentially losing your house or child’s college tuition in a lawsuit if your dog bites someone.  In many cases, we’re talking life and death, literally, when it comes to behavior problems.  Your child’s life will likely not end, nor will you put him up for adoption, if he never learns to play Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G Minor.  When you have a dog with behavior problems and invest in a qualified behavior consultant, you are investing in the safety of your dog, the human and animal members of your family, and the safety of your fellow community members.  It’s kind of a big deal. It's a big deal, ok?
  • Customized training plans – Your piano teacher isn’t a composer.  Likely, she shows up with sheet music which was written by someone dead for centuries.  Your dog trainer, on the other hand, should be able to customize a training plan based on your family’s lifestyle, your dog’s breed and learning history, your training goals and abilities, etc.  There are no “recipes” or “scores” that work for every dog, and no good trainer, “positive” or otherwise, is a one trick pony.
  • I can train your dog to play the piano.  Seriously.  Mokie loves her Fisher Price piano.
  • Your piano teacher is teaching one skill.  I virtually never “just” have to teach a dog to sit.  Usually, the dogs I see have a combination of behavior problems – they pull on leash, bark for attention, tear up the owner’s belongings and home, chase the resident cat, bite the resident kids, run away when the leash is removed, eat from the kitty litter box, steal dinner from the table and counter, and may bark for hours in the yard.  (These are just a few of the problems we see!)  I bet your piano teacher would charge a lot more if she also had to teach your child Spanish, math, synchronized swimming, potty training, appropriate social skills, ballet, and martial arts.
  • Your piano teacher is just teaching your child.  I have to train every human family member of your household plus throw in some dog training.  I bet your piano teacher would charge more if she had to train everyone living in the home how to play a concerto.
  • Referrals – sometimes, for whatever reason, I can’t help a dog.  Perhaps his owners want to participate in competition sports (which I don’t do), or maybe they need a veterinary behaviorist.  Maybe they’re outside of my service area and need someone closer to home.  I would never dream of referring a client to a trainer I wouldn’t take my own dog to, and frequently spend a significant amount of time researching so that I can send well-intentioned dog owners not to the easiest or cheapest trainer in their area, but to the best, most appropriate, and most qualified behavior consultant or trainer that will meet all of their needs and goals.


Bargain shopping

You can find a dog trainer who is cheap, if you’d like.  One without insurance, any education, a facility, no supportive educational materials like handouts or videos, one that does not screen dogs who will be attending class with you and your dog for human or dog-aggression, no equipment for your dog to learn on, or from, no volunteers for exposure exercises, maybe one who has a facility but doesn’t sanitize it so that your dog is exposed to parvovirus or other canine maladies.  You can find a trainer who has no professional memberships, will not spend additional, unpaid hours writing reports for and collaborating with your veterinarian to make sure your dog has the best care possible, who will conveniently neglect to inform you that if your dog bites a stranger, you are risking your kid’s college tuition.  Trust me, there are plenty of trainers out there like this, many of whom charge about what I charge for significantly less service.  There are trainers who expect their clients to host 5+ untrained dogs in their home for group classes because they don’t have a facility – naturally, their classes may be cheaper.

Maybe (OK, definitely), this post is a little tongue-in-cheek.  While I would never recommend a dog owner open the phone book and simply hire the most expensive dog trainer available, I would also caution dog owners – when you hire a training professional, you are hiring someone to do a job for you.  Be choosy, and don’t take the first/cheapest available trainer.  Remember that you are entrusting the well-being of a family member (and your own sanity!) in this person, and act appropriately.  This is an investment in your dog’s future!

If you are concerned or wondering about the price of sessions, ASK.  “What am I paying for?”  For each hour I spend with a student, earning revenue, I probably spend at least four hours prepping and making sure they have the best learning experience possible.


5 comments on “Your Piano Won’t Kill Or Maim Someone Unless You Drop It on Their Head
  1. Emily says:

    Thank you for the timely post!! I was just having this (ranty) discussion the other day after running into one of those ‘discount trainers’ in the area. This post puts it perfectly.

  2. Sara Hoffee says:

    Casey, I always love your posts and appreciate all the things I learn from you about training my dogs and regularly read what you write, although I don’t respond to things on the internet often.

    I am a piano teacher, though, and feel like I need to speak up today. It’s actually a big thing in our field right now about how many piano teachers undervalue their services, and honestly I think THAT is why people pay more to their trainer than to their piano teacher.

    Your list of extras you have to do are all things I also have do do as a piano teacher. I also have to clean things, not such a huge space, but I do spend a good chunk of my time scrubbing things down between each and every student. Sanitizing all 88 of those piano keys multiple times every day does add up, as does scrubbing down the computer between each student. I also have to do my own bookkeeping, scheduling (juggling 40 piano students and 10 voice students with ever-changing schedules is NOT easy), believe it or not I do a TON of prep for each individual piano lesson (especially with the special-needs kids I see, it takes a lot of forethought and organization to teach kids with severe Asperger’s or autism, and it’s no picnic working with ADHD for that matter!), continuing education (I have a master’s degree and its looking more likely I’ll need a doctorate in the near future), certifications on top of that, paying for my workspace, paying for the upkeep of my instruments (getting a piano tuned and serviced as frequently as I have to is NOT cheap in the least!).

    Also, I do customize training plans for EACH AND EVERY piano student. Yes, I write my own music and arrangements to hold a child’s interest. I can’t even tell you how much time I’ve spent arranging “Themes from Mario Bros.” or “Theme from whatever video game/movie/TV show is currently hot” for students who can’t handle the difficulty level of the already published things, for things that aren’t published yet, or for students whose hands are too small to handle the large chords. I also write some of my own original stuff to reinforce the technical skills we work on at each level and to appeal to kids who prefer fast, showy pieces or those who prefer dreamy, slow stuff.

    I also am in charge of training parents to help their kids get everything they can out of piano, and many times these parents have no musical training themselves. It’s not easy and often ends up with me having to schedule extra time to work with the parents. Also, my job isn’t just to teach a kid to play a piece, it’s to train the child to critically think, problem-solve, set short-term and long-term goals, develop the discipline to master very difficult physical and mental challenges, keep the parents involved and helping them at home, and…believe it or not…math is a huge component of music. I’m teaching 4 and 5 year-olds fractions, division, addition, multiplication before they learn it in school. I have to teach them to recognize foreign words that are crucial to musical interpretation. Yes, science even comes up–a basic understanding of acoustics is critically important to understanding how a piano works and how to physically approach the instrument to achieve the best results, especially as you get more advanced. Piano isn’t about just learning to push the buttons and you can play a song, though there are teachers out there who train for just this. And finally, I am a mentor to all of these children. There are so many extras I have to do, like going to school musicals when they have roles, attending recitals and volunteering at numerous contests and festivals so that my students have the best opportunities available to them.

    Every day of my life I have to fight the “why is this so expensive” rhetoric. True, piano isn’t life or death. But a teacher who doesn’t understand how the body works CAN lead a kid to develop tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or another chronic, expensive-to-fix, sometimes career-ending (and not just music careers in our computer-dependent age) repetitive use injury. And while I see what you were getting at with your post, I would never throw another profession under the bus to defend why I deserve to charge what I do for my skills and expertise. I know you said you’re not trying to discredit piano teachers, but what you wrote assumes that we do a LOT less work behind (and in front of) the scenes than we do. Like dog trainers, I’m sure not every piano teacher puts in all the work that he or she should, or even has all the training that the better ones do. But for those of us that do, the amount of work we put in is something we’re CONSTANTLY having to defend when people don’t want to pay. Posts like this one, while they may make things clearer to your clients, don’t help us at all when your clients are also our clients.

  3. Sara, I don’t think Casey meant to disparage piano teachers as being insignificant in comparison to dog trainers. I think what is meant by this is a reflection of how hard it is to get pet owners to pay what we’re worth. Yet, for example, they will shell out these sums of money, sometimes more, sometimes less for luxuries like weekly manicures, pedicures, hair appointments, cosmetics, ipads, iphones that often includes the children as well. But often is the case with dogs, people seem reluctant to spend money on training. They often think they will get all the dog training and behavior knowledge they need to prevent problems during a six-week class for $99.00!

    It can sometimes feel like their pulling at your emotional strings, in hopes you will feel sorry for the victim dog and now the savior human and this should all be done at no expense or very little! And often it works, because none of us want to see dogs end up in shelters because owners will just give up and get rid of the dog.

    This doesn’t happen in most families with children, parents often are wiling to invest in their children, they often forget they also need to invest in the family dog if they want the dog to be successful too!


  4. Hi Sara,

    I’m glad you stopped by. After I read your post I re-read mine and thought, “Whoa, maybe don’t write a blog when you are so grumpy/exhausted, and re-read in the morning with a fresh brain and coffee!”

    In any case, I definitely did not intend to throw another profession under the bus, and would not have singled out piano teachers if it weren’t in the source article. Nonetheless, I wonder if you are an exception in your profession (as I feel I am in mine), rather than the rule. The piano teachers around here are not composing music. They’re not getting master’s and PhD’s.

    I guess the rant is a product of a mentality I think we both face – people don’t value our work as professionals. They don’t understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, nor do they understand that the hour they spend with us the product of hundreds and thousands of cumulative hours of preparation and refining of our skills as practitioners of an art (and science – yes, music and sound are science as well!). In fact, dog trainers are often thought of as hacks, an unfortunate fact supported by the fact that way, way too many are and that seriously devalues the work of those of us who are not. Frequently, dog trainers are lumped into the same category as baby-sitters – joke jobs that anyone with half a brain can do.

    Even though I love my job, it’s hard to work seven days a week, from the time I get up to the time I go to bed, every day – I miss my dogs and my family, my friends. I sacrifice that because I think the work I do is important, and it’s hard to realize that the people that need the help the most think it’s not worthy anything.

    Sorry if any of this was taken personally – it certainly was not intended to be.

  5. Gordon Ryan says:

    As a piano teacher, I value Sara’s post. And as a dog owner, I value Casey’s post too.
    It is indeed true that people do not seem to value or appreciate our work as professionals, and I believe educating people through blogs (and responses) like this one are important.
    Thank you both for sharing your comments!

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