This Educator Turned Founder Is Disrupting the $140B Pet Industry With an Innovative Dog Training Method

The founder of Zoom Room believes in a dog training approach different from many competitors. "We don’t refer to them as fur babies," he said.

Mark Van Wye
Mark Van Wye, founder and CEO of Zoom Room. Zoom Room

Mark Van Wye, the founder and CEO of Zoom Room, a dog training service provider with 60 locations across the U.S., didn’t grow up hoping he’d get a job training dogs and the people who own them. Although he had dogs all his life, his focus was on teaching humans how to teach other humans. Van Wye had worked as a teacher, writer and curriculum creator for major companies including The Walt Disney Company, Microsoft and Nintendo, as well as a variety of children’s television programs. At the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, he developed an award-winning after-school program. 

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But one day he had an epiphany. “The pivotal moment came from observing that children with family dogs often excelled in our programs at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,” he told Observer in February. “This observation led me to ponder the potential of dogs as agents of emotional and social growth. It bridged my transition from child education to envisioning a dog training business centered on strengthening the dog-owner bond through education and play. This was an important part of the genesis of Zoom Room.”

Another factor that appealed to Van Wye was the lack of regulatory red tape when it comes to dog training. “Working with children is highly regulated and with dogs it is not,” he said. 

Van Wye started Zoom Room in 2008, and in 2009 the company’s first franchise opened. He’s still not training dogs himself, but he’s set up a curriculum to teach each franchise’s trainers a system to educate both humans and canines. 

“We put our trainers through something like a graduate school level program of dog training,” Van Wye said. “Trainers learn important principles, like dogs won’t connect your positive reinforcement to the behavior you’re trying to encourage if more than 1.7 seconds go by before they get their treat.”

A unique approach in a lucrative market 

Businesswise, Van Wye’s decision made a lot of sense. Dogs are the most popular pet in the U.S. More than 65 million U.S. households own at least one dog, according to the latest survey by the American Pet Products Association (AAPA). Dogs are followed by cats at 46.5 million, with both far ahead of the next most common pet, freshwater fish at 11.1 million. 

With Americans spending a bundle on their furry friends, this was an opportunity waiting to be exploited. The AAPA estimates that in 2023 U.S. pet owners spent $143.6 billion on their furry companions, including $62.7 billion for food and treats and $37 billion for veterinary care. For the 2023 estimate, training was folded into a broad category that also included grooming, boarding, insurance, pet sitting and pet walking, at $11.8 billion. 

Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows they don’t come with a manual. While some owners seem to somehow figure things out on their own, many don’t know the first thing about getting their dogs socialized and listening to commands.  

The first principle at Zoom Room is that the best way to train dogs is through positive reinforcement, a widely accepted approach in dog training. The second principle is where Zoom Room starts to differ from many competitors. “We don’t refer to them as fur babies,” Van Wye said. “They are not four legged human babies and we are not their parents. They are a different species.”

Zoom Room prides itself in its focus on the human part of dog training. Owners need to recognize that there’s a language divide between them and their pups and that they need to study their dogs’ body language and the ways they can try to communicate, Van Wye said. “They don’t speak our language but they have co-evolved with us. We are teaching the people to understand how to communicate with their dogs and find common ground. Language is the starting place and without that you have nothing.”

The third ingredient is for owners to understand that dogs need to be getting a consistent message from everyone, Van Wye said. Put all those pieces together and you’ll get a dog that is “super socialized,” one that is a pleasure for people and other dogs to be around, he added.

Zoom Room dogs
Owners are required to attend Zoom Room’s training sessions with their dogs. Zoom Room

The principles set out by Van Wye are similar to those espoused by Dr. Carlo Siracusa, an associate professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. 

“One thing I particularly like is the emphasis on needing to come with your dog,” Siracusa told Observer. “That’s fundamental. If you don’t come with your dog there is no way it will work. It’s not about teaching the dog tricks. It’s about working as a team.”

Another important aspect of dog training is trying to understand your dog, Siracusa said. Some of the media push ideas like, you need to be the alpha leader, he added. “But to improve communication with your animal you need to find common ground.”

A growing franchise 

The Zoom Room approach to training is what appealed to Emily and Brad Weaner when they were looking into buying a new business back in 2021 to replace the investment in Emily’s childcare company.  “I was instantly hooked,” said Emily, 41. “It was different from any other dog training I had seen.” 

The Weaners at the time owned two German Pinschers that were very reactive, and neither the Weaners themselves nor any of the dog trainers they had worked with could make any improvements with their pups’ behaviors. “A reactive dog is very tough to take out and about,” Emily told Observer. “If they see another dog while on the leash or behind a fence they bark excessively.”

Zoom Room Torrance
The interior of a Zoom Room training facility. Zoom Room

The Weaners visited a Zoom Room location to see how it worked. They were so impressed they immediately started looking into getting a franchise to set up in Centerville, Ohio, where they lived. “We started our Zoom Room mainly because of our dogs’ issues,” Emily said. “We wanted to have a place for dog owners to bring their dogs on a regular basis to keep up with their socialization.”

It wasn’t just the training aspect that appealed to the Weaners. “Zoom Rooms are a lifestyle,” Emily said. “There are holiday events where there are treats for the people and the dogs. It’s a social thing. It’s neat to see clients forming bonds with one another through their dogs.”

The Weaners are so happy with the franchise they opened in January of 2023 that they are contemplating purchasing another. That’s a hopeful sign that Van Wye’s plans for expansion may work. 

Zoom Room has been remarkably successful. From 2020 to 2023, the company’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) was 24 percent, more than double the pet industry’s 11 percent over the same time period. The company has grown from nine locations in four states at the beginning of 2020 to 60 locations in 31 states, with an impressive customer retention rate of 87 percent, according to Van Wye. 

And one day there may be Zoom Rooms in other countries. “Currently our focus remains engaging multi-unit franchisees and national expansion across the U.S. to make Zoom Room synonymous with dog training,” Van Wye said. “There is a long-term vision to expand internationally as we continue our rapid growth.”

This Educator Turned Founder Is Disrupting the $140B Pet Industry With an Innovative Dog Training Method