Description: ABTA, a dog training company; Animal Behavior College (ABC), a school for dog trainers
Start-up: ABTA in 1985, $3,000; ABC in 1999, $4,000 to $5,000
Sales: 2004 projected combined $4.9 million
Puppy perks: Whether it was providing extra private lessons for free or offering to train dogs at veterinary hospitals for free, Steve Appelbaum always sought to distinguish himself from other trainers. "I recognized the more I satisfied people, the more business I would generate," says Appelbaum.
Group therapy: Genius struck in 1986, when Appelbaum approached local pet store WellPet with an offer they couldn't resist: Encourage customers to join his ABTA group lessons, the first of which was held in the store, and Appelbaum would give WellPet a percentage of the tuition. A class observer asked him to teach group classes at a newly expanding company, Petco. By 1995, ABTA trained for Petco nationally. ABTA also has a contract with Canadian Petcetera LP, offering training in 33 stores in Canada, and continues to offer private lessons.
Command performance: Frustrated in his search for ABTA-quality trainers, Appelbaum founded ABC, using the 400 Petco locations as ABC's training ground. He has since created a mentor group of professional trainers throughout the United States, Canada and soon, England.
For the dogs: Untreated behavioral problems account for more than half of all dogs in shelters, so ABC pays trainers to help these dogs while students observe and participate. Ten hours of animal-shelter volunteer work is also a prerequisite for graduation and ABC certification. While some of these graduates go on to work at ABTA, many aspire to open their own businesses. "At the end of the day, I still get paid to play with puppies," Appelbaum says. "Not only does it satisfy my own love of dogs, [but] the fact that that love has evolved into something which has touched hundreds of thousands of people's lives is fantastic."