Ryan Troester and April Walker spent over a decade in the United States Air Force as military dog handlers and trainers (of the dogs and the handlers). Now they’re training civilian dogs and their owners, as the co-founders and owners of Total Dog 850.
The two met when Ryan was stationed at Hurlburt Field, and April PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station) into Hurlburt as a handler in the same kennel. On starting a business together, Ryan explains, “We worked together in the military for three or four years and then transitioned into this while we were on active duty, so it was pretty seamless.” April adds, “We started this business on our off duty time.”
On duty, their military experience included support of several different agencies, including Special Operations and even Secret Service for the President, so they worked with dogs that play a variety of roles. April says, “It’s actually not as glamorous as it sounds. It’s security, so a lot of standing around, but obviously you have the dogs. It’s cool to go to a lot of the locations, and see all of the different people, but other than that it’s not as glamorous as everybody thinks it is.” Ryan laughs and says she speaks for herself, because he thought it was pretty showy.
The business started as Total Dog Destin, but they soon found out that pet owners all along the panhandle were hungry for the services they provide, so it was easy to make the jump to Total Dog 850, covering much of the 850 area code in Northwest Florida. It also brought about the need and opportunity to bring in more employees. “Yeah, it actually jumpstarted pretty quick,” April explains. “Probably even more so than we initially expected because we did start in our off-duty time, and it was something we were just getting to. We weren’t sure how far it would go, and once it started picking up, it definitely took off way further than we expected.” Ryan says their commitment to customer experience probably has something to do with that. “We offer training, but then we have some folks that work with us that offer boarding at their home, so it’s an elevated experience. Generally when a dog boards, they’re in a kennel for long periods of time, but with us, the dog is allowed to get out there and be a dog and go to some places and do some things. In anything we offer, we try to elevate the experience.”
April and Ryan started working with Florida SBDC at UWF consultant Bree McCastle in January of 2018, and they both feel she’s played a role in their growth. “Being able to bounce ideas off her, and really get a good third perspective for things has helped us a lot, and kept things moving in a positive direction,” says April. Ryan adds, “It’s been almost like she’s another member of the team. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve met with her, that we’ve come out of there without pages of notes, learning something new and adjusting. She’s been very helpful! Every day we get to learn and to adjust, and that’s something the military did teach us was to adjust and keep evolving. So whether something good or something bad comes our way, we make the best of it, and learn and move forward and do better.”
Even though Total Dog 850 doesn’t have a big marketing budget, they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down, always looking for new opportunities. “Any person that owns a dog, we work with them,” say April. “We work with shelters, and go around to dog parks, boarding and grooming facilities to market too.” Ryan concludes, “There are really no limits on this, as opposed to being in the military, where you know what your duties are day to day. With this, every day brings opportunity, and there’s really nothing stopping us, but how far we feel we can go!”