Let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning. All those jokes about Graham Smith’s business going to the dogs or the one about him being barking mad? He’s heard them all and will probably laugh all the way to the bank, anyway.

Smith is a former advertising executive who has quite literally gone to the dogs, having launched a Montreal-based franchise of Bark Busters, a dog-training business that is capitalizing on people’s love of their pets. And he’s applying all the principles that made him a success in the advertising industry to helping dog owners gain control of their misbehaving pooches.

The joke one evening last week was about Kayla, a 4-year-old, 80-pound shepherd-collie mix who has been driving her owner nuts because she jumps on visitors, pulls on her leash, bullies smaller dogs and has destroyed furniture and plants.

As Smith walked with a subdued and obedient Kayla at his side after a training session, he turned to owner Linda Bowes and quipped: “I can’t believe how you lied to me about this dog. You told me she pulled you off your feet.”

That’s the joke. Kayla really was badly behaved until Smith taught Bowes how to talk “dog” and play the part of a good pack leader.

“We teach owners how to communicate with their dogs in a manner that the dogs understand, and we instill in them a sense of leadership so the dog cares about what they’re being asked to do,” Smith said.

“Dogs are pack animals and in each pack there is a leader. The owner of the dog has to behave like a pack leader through body language, voice tone and snapping when the dog needs to be corrected.”

The problem, Smith said, is that most dog owners don’t speak “dog” and so they fail to communicate with their pets and do not establish themselves in the dominant role of pack leader. The result, he adds, is that the dog feels insecure and must then assume the role of pack leader itself.

“Kayla, for instance, believes that she has to be in charge of security in the dog den (actually her owner’s apartment). When the doorbell rings, she has to do a risk assessment of whether there’s an axe murderer at the door because she doesn’t believe Linda is doing it,” Smith said.

That, in a nutshell, is how dogs think, and Smith’s role is to teach dog owners about the psychological makeup of their pets so that they can behave in ways that show the dogs the humans are in charge.

Smith has always loved dogs, but never thought he’d become a dog whisperer. In 1982, he founded his own advertising firm at the age of 20 and spent two decades building it into a $10 million-a-year company with such illustrious accounts as Tommy Hilfiger, Budget Rent-a-Car and Monsieur Felix and Mister Norton Cookies, among others.

He sold the company to an Ontario advertising firm in 2002, stayed on as an employee for two years and then worked for a couple of other companies in the years that followed.

But by 2006, he was ready for a change and hired career coach Paul Reisman to help him figure out “what I wanted to be if and when I grew up.”

“Paul asked me if I was motivated by money or passion,” Smith said. “I had been looking for a VP of marketing job that would pay me $150,000 a year, but I didn’t get one and I was getting discouraged. One day, I said to Paul: ‘I’d be happy to train dogs for $60,000 a year.’ I wanted to do something I loved.”

Coincidentally, Smith had seen a news feature on breakfast television a few years before about Bark Busters and recalls saying to himself: “That is the most ridiculous business idea I’ve ever heard of. It’ll never last. Who’d pay $450 to have his dog trained?”

About 350,000 dog owners, as it happens.

Bark Busters was started in 1989 in Australia by Sylvia Wilson, an animal shelter director who was responsible for determining which dogs should be euthanized. She began to ask owners if they’d keep their pets if she would train them. It spawned a dog-training business that has expanded into 400 franchises globally, 25 of them in Canada. They’ve trained 350,000 dogs and their owners globally, about 5,000 in Canada.

Smith’s epiphany in 2006 that he really wanted to be a dog trainer even took him by surprise.

“I went online to research the possibilities and read the customer comments on Bark Busters. I could not find a single disparaging comment,” he said.

The franchise, which guarantees buyers a geographic territory, cost $31,000 with an additional $13,000 tuition fee.

“I spent 23 days in the training program. They were 14-hour days with no time off. I like to joke that I got the same sentence as Paris Hilton,” he said.

He has applied his advertising and marketing know-how to the gig.

“The first thing I did was I designed an icon and painted it on my $60,000 Acura RDX. My wife freaked out when she saw it, but I figured I drive 1,000 kilometres a week to jobs and 100 eyes per kilometre see the car. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year. And, in fact, I get stopped all the time. I parked my car near the dog run in Westmount and I knew I’d hit a home run when an elderly lady came up to me and asked for my business card.”

He also creates a certificate of accomplishment for his clients and sends them a thank-you card with a photograph of the owner and dog together. And if they refer other clients to him, Smith makes a donation in their name to Golden Retriever Rescue Quebec.

The day after he has done corrective training with the dog and owner, which can take between three and six hours, Smith phones the client to track the progress, then visits to watch what has been learned.

“We do more training exercises if the client wants it, and then I visit again two days later,” he said. “I go back to visit my clients as many times as they want to resolve any existing or new behavioural problems they encounter.”

The training is often quick. While he was teaching Bowes to work with Kayla, Smith demonstrated a growling sound that approximates the sound of a mother dog correcting the behaviour of her puppies. Bark Busters also gives its clients a collection of so-called “training pillows,” little nylon sachets that contain metal. When tossed on the floor, they mimic the sound of snapping or teeth-gnashing, another behaviour mother dogs employ to train their young.

Smith, a dog owner himself, is not surprised at the fact that people pay him $450 to correct their dogs’ behaviour.

“Dogs are important members of the family,” he said. “Many owners may have been embarrassed by their dogs’ behaviour, and it makes them unhappy.”

There are no “untrainable” dogs, Smith said.

“You can train any dog at any age.”

He says he’s trying to build the most successful Bark Busters franchise.

“Bark Busters franchises in Canada averaged training for 4.9 dogs per week in 2006,” he said. “I trained nine dogs in my third week of operation.”

Is it time to make a joke about barking up the right tree?