It made me realize that shit was getting real when we ventured into an empty downtown pub. This was the same night they had cancelled the Calgary Roughnecks game. We had friends in town who were going to go with us, and another friend was supposed to be performing with his band for St. Patrick’s Day, so we decided to go there instead. There was only a handful of people in what would have normally been a jam-packed party. This trend continued through the evening as we ventured through the city – arriving at places that were not open and there only being small groups out.
Saturday morning, I began to fully comprehend the impact of what was happening and what it would mean for my business and team. I looked at the shutdowns happening around the globe and began to prepare for it happening here. Grocery stores were being cleaned out of essential cleaning supplies and more. By Monday morning, we laid off 75% of our team and I kicked into an emergency mode that lasted well into the Summer. At the time, we still did not know how it spread. Could you catch it through a dog? Were we putting our remaining team at risk? Would we make it? Would this business I had put blood, sweat and tears into for almost 15 years be yanked out from beneath me? Would people I know die?
We finished that week with only six team between two locations and revenues of a whopping $120/day. I did not need an alarm clock anymore as my eyes would fly open each morning with a deep, impending fear inside. I would rise and head straight out to my computer. That year, and for the first time in Dogma’s lifetime, I had taken a large loan to finance a full rebrand and had been well into a large reno project at our Chinook location. I am still involved in a legal case from a 6-figure project where we had paid the contractor and they didn’t finish the project. We were still recovering from that, plus this new loan, so any safety net I had was gone. Kris had gone through some really challenging years with his health and had moved full-time into Dogma in January. I felt like I had failed everyone and put it all at risk.
Thankfully, I am fueled by adversity. I don’t quit. I had a group of incredible team who were there to do what was needed. Like so many others business owners, I had no choice but to get to work. I would start my day around 6 a.m. and go well into the evening. I laid out our contingency plan first so I knew each step we would take based on what we could guess may happen. I knew this would help me with direction when my emotions were high, I was drained but still had some decisions to make and had to keep focused on work. I cried when Justin Trudeau announced CERB. I knew team would be taken care of and it took tremendous pressure off my shoulders. If Dogma did not make it, they would be ok. Thankfully, we never did have to cut pay or much else for team, as it had been our priority. We kept our benefits going and ensured team knew they had access to their Employee Assistance program and whatever else they needed. Next, it was time to take care of the clients.
Suddenly, everyone was working at home with their dogs. Many had young dogs, and everyone was feeling stress. Kris and I converted our living room into a studio, and we taught virtual training classes at no cost 4 nights/week. We were exhausted but it was wonderful. People wanted to connect. The dogs keep us distracted, smiling and it was so much fun. It was the start of this magical movement of people supporting each other online and building this incredible community as we all struggled to navigate the changing world. We put together the Dogma Cares series of six free webinars to help dog owners navigate Covid. We ran a Kids & Dogs Facebook Live twice a week. We transitioned to live-streaming puppy classes. Our goal was doing what we could to support dogs and the people who love them. We felt so lucky to have puppy therapy at our fingertips and did what we could to spread that joy. Kris took over the day-to-day and I set to work on restructuring our entire business. We had already laid out the plans to move our training programs online that had started with our dog training apprenticeship programs. This was put on pause, and the focus was on how to support dog owners virtually.
After investing in our rebrand and new site, I made the gut-wrenching decision to invest in a full website rework to move it onto a learning platform. I have run my business with relative ease at making decisions. I trust my intuition, I’m gutsy and I generally have a clear vision of the path ahead. Not this time. My brain was cloudy, it was scary and I agonized over each decision. But I put my head down and worked. It provided me a focus. A purpose. And kept me elevated. I used this work to get through things. I can remember those early days as we anxiously awaited any new announcements. Every time I took those few minutes to stop and listen, to sit away from my computer, to breath and let things settle, I cried. I can remember the immense gratitude I felt to be Canadian and the surge of relief as assistance programs were announced. It was reassuring and terrifying that so many were going through the same thing.
As a business, we took on almost $200,000 of debt. And fast. We laid off Kris and I didn’t pay myself to help lessen the impact on Dogma. I had two options. Throw in the towel or figure out how to survive (I can’t tell you how many times I wanted them to just say that we were shut down). Thankfully, we weren’t nearly as impacted as so many other industries, but we were not essential either. It caused this ever-changing game of guessing what we could or could not do. We still were not 100% sure if dogs could spread the virus and wanted to do our part to keep everyone safe. We set the standards in our industry for the care and training of dogs and we decided to do the same with Covid. Our doors are still locked. We laid out strict protocols in classes immediately. We are still not running in-home training. The whole time we made sure our team knew they did not have to be at work. Many had spouses working from home. It was chaos, but at the same time, it leveled us up and created a drive and commitment we had not seen.
The whole team went into solutions mode. What can we do better? Where are the gaps? Where are we losing and what is unnecessary? What do we want to do? How do we do it in the best possible way? We flipped it all upside down. Navigating a business through a pandemic is one thing, but restructuring your whole business and focusing on change management is another. It’s hard to drive change, have high expectations for work and balance the task of caring for team and ensuring everyone was coping. I had to keep a brave face on and ensure the team felt inpsired and positive, despite what I was feeling inside. You cannot do this without the right team or the right clients. And looking back on it, we could not have accomplished what we have while we were fully operational – one of those strange silver-linings of the pandemic.
In January, after shutting down for the holidays and giving everyone a paid break so we could all rest, I felt like I could breath again. It felt like my head finally came above the surface. We had brought team back and we hired new team. It was tough, but how lucky I felt that we made it. It made us feel stronger. We still have a hole to climb out of, but at least we are climbing now. Many businesses are still struggling so please support them. And go even further than that. Look at how you can serve them better. Don’t be an asshole. Many are just trying to survive. Many are exhausted. Be patient and understanding. Yes, you may be suffering, but don’t take it out on the workers and the businesses who are doing their absolute best while being exhausted. Get out and help the businesses that support your community. Short on cash? Give them a positive review. Promote them. Do whatever you can. I promise you, doing good will help you as well.
Even with being separated from others, it’s the people that helped us get through this. I know first-hand the influence your inner circle has on all areas of your life. I feel incredibly lucky for the people in my circle. For my dear friends who regularly called and text to see how things were. To the ones who forwarded any information and help they could provide. To the ones who were also fighting to get their business through. To the ones who shared their anxieties and fears. To the ones who we met online and shared laughs, played games and connected with. To my remarkable team who stepped up to a level I did not feel I deserved. Who were honest, who let me know they would do what it took and demonstrated incredible creativity, resiliency and compassion. I am not sure what I would have done without this.
As I look back on this year, I feel grateful and I feel hopeful. I do have rose-coloured glasses and I am proud of that. Yes, we can criticize decisions that have been made. Yes, there were far more deaths than necessary. The world felt like it was on fire at times and I felt such despair at witnessing the vitriol and selfishness of so many. But, at the heart of it, when I reflect on the good, I see a new form of gratitude. An appreciation for the simple things. A better idea of where I want to spend my time and my energy, a clear idea on who I want to be around, and an immense appreciation for Canada. I feel a renewed passion for my business and a desire for the simpler things. My greatest lesson from all of this is that the world is always changing. The only certainty in this life is that things are uncertain. You can fight change, you can be stagnant, or you can evolve. It’s not easy to adapt, but it’s necessary,
We were lucky to not have been directly impacted by Covid. My heart breaks for the lives that were lost. I hope the world can heal from the hurt and the anger we’ve witnessed. In dog training, we often refer to a behavioural term, extinction burst. It is the phenomenon of a previously reinforced behaviour temporarily increasing when the reinforcement for the behaviour is removed. Essentially, it’s going to get worse, before it gets better. Perhaps we are experiencing this on a large scale? Whatever the ultimate outcome may be, I sit here one year later and have a song playing that perfectly sums up how I’m feeling in this moment.
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
I hope the smile is returning for you all. However this year has impacted you, be proud that you have made it this far. Let’s not forget this time and these lessons – our need for connection, to be kind (to ourselves and others), to take care of each other and that time is precious. People are getting vaccinated and the light at the end of hte tunnel is getting brighter. What a tremendous accomplishment this is. Let’s get out and enjoy that sun.