A Dream Job: Brynn’s Critters

When one grows up with pets–ranging from rats to horses–one’s entire life, chances are one will  remain an animal lover. Moreover, you’ll probably seek out a career working with animals. For Kim Kempkes, both are absolutely true. She currently has eight cats and three dogs of her own, as well as two foster dogs. A few years ago, with the goal of running an animal rescue, Kim graduated from Southeast Community College with an Associate’s Degree in business administration and from Animal Behavior College with a certificate in dog training.

On the way to starting a rescue, to raise funds, Kim decided to operate a business which focuses on animal care. She and Sarah Thompson founded Brynn’s Critters in October 2013 “as a pet-centered pet services company that offers pet walking, pet sitting, and basic obedience training”. Thank to Kim, who took time to answer questions through email and to meet with me in-person.

ALLISON: How did you feel when you started your business?

KIM: There were so many emotions! I was both excited and petrified. On some level, I knew that I could do it, but starting a business means that you’re the person doing everything for every department, and that means constantly being outside your comfort zone. But I’ve always wanted to work with animals as a profession and so this is my dream job!

I was also confused about what to do first. From my schooling, I knew the steps it would take to start a business. But all of the instructors said one of two things when I asked for a concrete list: 1) You do them all at the same time or 2) It depends on the business. Not helpful!

ALLISON: What lessons have you learned?

KIM: Starting a business can be hard! I don’t want to quit, but when I get completely overwhelmed, I sometimes run away. I’m now anchored. I tend to feel that I should do everything myself. I have phenomenal resources around me at Southeast Community College’s Focus Suites, but that only matters if I actually use them. I have gotten better over the last year at utilizing those resources.

ALLISON: What are some mistakes you’ve made?

KIM: Initially with training, I tried to have people pay as you go with training. I would say that I think this will take 4 lessons, but you can pay for each lesson at the time of the lesson. People would take one or two and then quit. Now, payment for all lessons is due at the time of the first lesson. The problem was that the dog can’t get what he/she needs from 1 or 2 lessons. People think they can do it themselves after that. I worry about whether the dog could get what it needs out of that.

ALLISON: What is a memorable moment?

KIM: I was hired to help a woman with Alzheimer’s care for her cat. The family had recently adopted the cat from the Capital Humane Society. The cat was having some health issues and so I helped with that. In spite of my best efforts, the cat and the woman became more and more miserable. The cat was yowling at night and started having accidents out of the litter box. The woman didn’t think the cat liked her. The woman asked me to take the cat back to the Capital Humane Society. Because of the cat’s health issues and litter box issues, I worried that the Capital Humane Society would decide this cat was not adoptable, so I got permission from the owner to take the cat home instead.

After bringing her home, I realized that she never came to me when I went downstairs and that she’d meow loudly as if startled when I touched her. One day I noticed that she didn’t even twitch when we popped some large air-filled packaging tubes. We had to be within five feet of her when we popped them or she didn’t respond. I realized that she was hard of hearing! Every time someone approached her from behind and touched her, they were scaring her! I now flicker lights or go around so that she can see me before I touch her. She’s become very affectionate.

ALLISON: What is a funny memory?

KIM: There are so many, especially when animals are involved. Oh, I have one! I foster for Heartland German Shepherd Rescue (HUGS) of Omaha. One of the first fosters that I cared for was a male Shepherd who was about five years old. His owner left him in the back yard alone all the time. The dog started jumping the fence to go explore which was upsetting neighbors. The owners were afraid that the dog would get hurt, so they surrendered him to HUGS. I became the foster because I was the only volunteer with a six-foot fence around my entire yard.

When I took him for walks, he’d try to walk me. My shoulder started getting super sore and I finally had had enough. I was using a martingale collar on him. I moved it up behind his ears and shortened the leash to give me more leverage. About a block later, I felt warmth on my left ankle. The dog had peed on me! He then settled in next to me and was a perfect gentleman for the remainder of the walk. This happened THREE times before he stopped!

ALLISON: What is an embarrassing moment?

KIM: I love to work with high energy, independent dogs that are just difficult to train. They have minds of their own. I absolutely love them, but am also often embarrassed by their rowdy behavior. My almost two-year-old mixed-breed loves to jump! He jumps as high as he can to try to lick your face. He did that to the instructor in a class one day. I felt mortified! I know that many people think that trainers should have perfectly trained dogs, but you really can’t rush the dog. You have to train them at the behavior they’re at and sometimes that has little to do with the trainer’s skill and more to do with the maturity and/or the excitability of the dog.

ALLISON: What have you learned about animals by running a pet business?

KIM: Animals are so very in the moment. They’re open to doing things differently and just moving on.

Most so-called “bad” behaviors that we don’t like such as jumping, mouthing, clawing, climbing, and  counter-surfing are natural and fun behaviors for the animals. They aren’t doing it to make anyone angry.

* Corollary: What have I learned about people since I started this pet business?

A lot of pet training is really people training. My job is to explain to people how to communicate with their pets. Pets don’t know English. They also don’t frequently use verbalization to communicate with other animals; they use body language. Once you understand how that particular pet communicates, you can emulate it. When pet and person understand each other, magic happens.

Also, many people don’t follow through on training. I know they’re busy but, if they don’t follow through, nothing will change. To that end, I try to make it simple. I suggest train during commercials about two to five minutes at a time, multiple times a day. I also give homework sheets and written explanations of everything that I teach.

ALLISON: Sell my readers on why they should use your business.

KIM: Training!

There are so many philosophies out there. Mine consists of rewarding good behavior and ignoring undesirable behavior. I’m greatly saddened when I hear trainers wanting to use choker, prong, or electronic collars as a first choice. If you train with positive methods, your dog will want to work with you. They will enthusiastically offer behaviors (sometimes hilarious ones) that have gotten them rewards in the past. When correction-only techniques are used, dogs tend to shut down. They don’t offer any behaviors, because they focus on avoiding the correction.

The other issue with using mostly corrections is aggression. I have two dogs who tend to fight back if they’re hurt or scared. Constant corrections or over-use of corrections on these types of dogs can result in aggressive behavior toward the owner or trainer. With positive methods, I get a happy dog that loves to work with me and loves to interact with dogs and other people. I get their trust so that, instead of being reactive and fighting back, they look to me when they don’t know what to do .


I love animals and will only hire people who love pets. When I extra time to spend with pets in my care, I often do, and they’ ll get as much attention as they want for the time that I’m there.

ALLISON: Where do you hope to see your business in five years?

KIM: I have immediate goals and long-term goals right now. I’m hoping to get a facility to work from next year and to add grooming and boarding to the services that I already offer. I also want to grow the facility to have a pool and add agility training.

My even longer-term goal is to have 25 to 50 acres with a training facility, veterinarian, and rescue operation. The rescue would take in any domestic animals that I can legally hold there. Starting this fall, a percent of all of our sales will go toward starting that rescue!

Cat Agility?!

Cat agility got its start in 2001 because of a dinner conversation about cat tricks. Two couples on the cat show circuit decided to modify some dog agility obstacles and show them to their cats. From there, a group called International Cat Agility Tournaments (ICAT) was born.

Three years later, the Cat Fanciers Association took an interest in the new sport for cats. One year after that, the organization’s first agility competition was held in Oregon as part a cat show, and boasted forty-five contestants. Since then, scores have been kept sporadically, with prizes consisting infrequently of money and more often a ribbon or small trophy.

Feline agility competitions, in which cats run through a miniature obstacle course full of hurdles and tunnels, have become fixtures on the cat show scene.

–Jennifer Kingston of New York Times, Next Best Thing to Herding Cats

Agility is a sport that people and pets can do together. Your pet will race through tunnels, leap over jumps, climb A-frames and pet walks, balance on teeter totters, and weave between poles. Although agility can involve large pieces of equipment, you can also create your own course at home.

For any pet owner, there are three reasons to take up agility. First, it’s fun. Second, all this activity will be good for the health of both you and your pet. Third, because agility is a team sport, the two of you will develop a unique bond.

I think we let cats’ brains rot, and I think it’s sad.

–Cynthia Otto of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Next Best Thing to Herding Cats


Agility benefits cats in that it makes use of their senses and skills. Foremost, agility provides them with the opportunity to make use of and hone their unique abilities to sprint and jump. Second, cats have excellent visual focus and accuracy, which agility will exercise to the fullest as cats race through a complicated obstacle course. International Cat Agility also points out that cats excel in learning a skill, remembering it, and adapting it to new situations. This knack to problem-solve enables them to quickly learn an entire agility course. Finally, although their independent nature can work against cats, it can also work for them. Our goal as trainers is to tap into that independence by giving our cats a reason to do agility. As with dogs, we can use treats, toys, and the obstacles themselves as motivation.

Not only is putting your cat through hoops fun, it’s also great for your cat. That’s because agility training fights obesity and boredom, two very common cat problems.

–Animal American Hospital Assocation, Get Your Cat Off the Couch

Lucy_TrainMy interest in cat agility developed in a roundabout way. Even as a puppy, our family’s toy poodle could climb like a goat. This interest prompted my husband to make obstacles courses for him at home, and later enroll him in agility classes at the local Greater Lincoln Obedience Club. The two have gone on to compete in local and even national agility trials. Inspired by them, I started teaching our first cat to do tricks. With our three current cats, I’m even more serious about training, which has expanded to include agility skills.

Training for agility can be done inside the house, takes little space, and is inexpensive.

–International Cat Agility Tournaments, Benefits of Cat Agility

Over the past three years, I’ve tried to replicate each agility obstacle at home. A jumping obstacle was the easiest and most economical to create. Because cats like to be up high, I have mine jump from chair to chair. Cost: free!” For a few dollars, I also added a child’s hula hoop into the mix.

rainy_tunnelAfter my cats mastered jumps, I added a tunnel to their repertoire. The tunnel is one of the most popular obstacles in dog agility and, like jumps, one of the simplest to teach. With a small tunnel, I simply throw a treat into it to get my cats running in the right direction. They then take turns diving into the tunnel’s mouth and bounding out the other end. You can find a small affordable one at the Baby, Toddler & Preschool Learning Toys | Playroom Furniture | Play Tents & Tunnels section at Toys R Us. Larger tunnels are more expensive and more difficult to store. In addition, to train our cats to go through a larger tunnel, I initially had to crawl through the it with them. Only over time could I lead them through the tunnel with a trail of treats.

catweavesThe remaining obstacles are more difficult to replicate and to teach—but not impossible! For weaves, I’ve turned to pop bottles or other tall, thin objects. I then lure my cat through with treats or wand toys. Another relatively low-cost option is small traffic cones. I recently found a set of weave poles for cats at – of all places – Bed, Bath, & Beyond’s website. (The set also includes a hoop. But notice that it only comes with three weave poles. That wasn’t enough for me, so I bought two sets.) I have yet to create an A-frame, but Cat Fanciers Association recommends pushing together two Alpine scratchers (with the corrugated cardboard scratching material) that tilt up at an angle. Another idea I gleaned from the CFA agility site is laying a plank across two sets of pet stairs to create a pet walk. This leaves the teeter, for which I’ve yet to find an economical solution.

Everybody wanted to try running their cats through a course.

–Diane McCartney of The Wichita Eagle Cats in Motion

Recently, I’ve been checking into cat agility classes. A few years ago, The Nebraska Humane Society invited national agility exhibitor Jill Archibald to demonstrate for them. Beyond that, I haven’t been able to find any options in the state or even in the Midwest. Instead cat agility sadly seems to be confined to the coasts. I’d like to end with a plea to dog sports clubs: please open your doors to cats!

Agility builds awareness among the public of how intelligent, beautiful, trainable and companionable cats are, which will benefit all cats everywhere.

–International Cat Agility Tournaments, Benefits of Cat Agility

Even if pet clubs keep their doors closed to cat agility, that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue it. As I said above, to date, I’ve replicated most standard obstacles in my home at minimal cost. Now most every day I spend a few minutes playing with my cats, training my cats in obedience, and/or doing agility. You can too.

Interested in doing cat agility? Starting with the Spring Issue, please follow my articles on pet training at Lincoln Kids., which will cover all kinds of training for cats. Also, feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Cat Obedience?!

Two years ago, I wrote my first article sharing the benefits of cat training…. Just for fun, here’s that article!

“Training time!” That’s the call I make every day to Cinder. Except she’s not my dog like you might suppose. She’s my cat.

Like most adult cats, Cinder knows how to use the litter box and a scratching post. In other words, she doesn’t need training in the basics of pet protocol.

So I could just let her play with her numerous toys and take those long naps for which cats are famous. Instead I add training to her day.

Reasons to Train

  • Builds a strong bond between you and your cat.
  • Exercises your cat’s mind and keeps it stimulated.
  • Teaches your cat good social behavior skills.
  • Calms anxious and nervous cats. The repetition and routine of training will reassure them.
  • Keeps your cat out of danger. If your indoor cat escapes outside, having a recall command will bring her back.
  • Brings joy to you. Imagine hiding food under plastic cups and your cat finding the treats.

How To Train

Don’t think training will work for your cat? Despite the limited number of articles on cat training in contrast to those on dogs, many cats CAN be trained. The first step is to accept that cats aren’t as social as dogs. Having a more independent personality, cats aren’t as inclined to work for praise and attention as dogs are. They’re also not as easy to motivate. For that reason, the real trick is getting your cat to do what you want.

  • For some cats, reinforcing a specific behavior with food might work while for others toys work best. No matter what type of motivator you use, there are some tips to train smart with your cat:
  • If you’re using food treats, conduct training sessions just before mealtimes. Your cat’s natural desire for food at his regular mealtime will sharpen his focus and increase his desire to obey you.
  • Use the same command words each time. It will only confuse your cat if you say “come” on some occasions and “here” on others.
  • Use your cat’s name along with the command you’re trying to teach.
  • Take baby steps. Work with behaviors that come naturally to make it easy for your cat to obey. Then progress to more difficult commands.
  • Teach only one command at a time and repeat the lesson daily until she responds reliably. Praise your cat when she performs the behavior for which you have called.
  • Keep the training sessions short. Cats can get easily bored.
  • Train your cat as regularly as possible. Training your cat once a month won’t get results.
  • Be patient. Your cat is unique. While he may learn some commands quickly, others may cause him to struggle. Design your training to fit his personality.
  • Cats don’t always see objects  well that are close-up and stationery. If taking a treat from your fingers proves a challenge to your cat, try offering it to him in your flat palm or tossing it on the floor. He’ll see the movement when you toss it and know where the treat is.
  • Try to end on a positive note. If your cat appears frustrated or impatient, quit and conduct the lesson at another time.

Another important concept is to reward instead of punish. The latter creates stress, one of the most common causes for problem behaviors in cats. Stress also compromises the immune system, making your cat more vulnerable to disease. Depending on your cat’s temperament, punishment could frighten your cat to the point where he hides from you. It’s much easier to train your cat when you reward behaviors you want and offer him more attractive alternatives for behaviors you don’t want. And really, why would your cat want any part of your training sessions if it has learned that they can lead to punishment?


Besides teaching your cat a range of useful commands such as sit, stay, and come, you can also teach fun stuff like wave, twirl, and fetch. How exactly to teach these commands, and my cat Cinder’s response to them, will be a topic for another post.

Reprinted from Fall 2015.