Professional dog walking has grown rapidly over the last ten years, and the collapse of the economy has sent a new flood of dog lovers into the field. Because walking is a young business, there is currently no regulating body to dictate the standards of care or qualifications for the work.
But walking dogs, particularly in groups, takes more than the passion we all share for them. There are specialized knowledge and skill sets, as well as ethical business practices, necessary to ensure the safety of the dogs in your charge, as well as yourself and the other dogs and humans who share the beaches, trails, parks, and sidewalks.
Here are ten questions to ask of yourself, whether new to walking or already enjoying your career with the dogs.
1. Are you trained in canine learning theory, body language, and pack management?
You want to know how to: a) use scientifically sound, humane training methods; b) read body language and take appropriate steps to prevent fights (and properly break them upwhen need be); c) judge which dogs to place together for maximum compatibility; and 4) handle issues like quarrels over toys, space, or play styles. In short, you want a professional knowledge and the skill set to keep the group together and under control while everyone has a great time. Of course, a love of dogs is imperative — but not enough on its own.
2. How many dogs do you walk at once?
Some cities, counties, and park districts now regulate the number of dogs a walker can take out together. But most do not. This means that some walkers are escorting six or eight dogs, while others are walking as many as 15 and even 20 together in public spaces. Whether on or off leash, each dog added to a group increases the potential for conflict, injury, lost dogs, and distraction – not to mention making individual attention neigh impossible.
3. Do you walk alone?
A walker’s job is to keep the dogs in your care safe and show them a good time. This means keeping vigilant focus. Teaming up with a friend can be fun, but it inevitably reduces attention. If that friend is also a dog walker, going out together combines two sets of dogs, making the pack too large for maximum safety. For best results, hit the trail with dogs, not other people. For similar reasons, cell phones and other potentially distracting devices should be turned off during dog walks.
4. Do you do the walking?
Most dog walking companies are very small — the sole proprietor is the sole walker. Some have multiple employees, however. If that’s you, insist your walkers follow the same ethical practices you do, and either hire well-trained walkers, or provide thorough training before sending employees out on their own.
5. What size dogs do you walk together?
Walk small dogs with other smalls, and the same for big ones. It’s too easy for small dogs to be injured during the course of play with and among their larger peers. And the risk of predatory drift, in which one dog attacks and even kills another, is much higher than is generally realized. This tragedy can — and most commonly does — happen between dogs who know each other and generally get along well, even for years. It’s safest to stick to the 50% rule. For example, if you walk a dog who weighs 30 pounds, his playmates should weigh no more than 60 pounds.
6. How much time do you guarantee on the walk?
If your service includes transporting dogs, make sure that the time you quote is time out of the vehicle, roaming and having fun. The car ride shouldn’t be included. And always give Fido her full due unless weather makes renders conditions unsafe.
7. What kind of training methods and equipment do you use?
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommend only positive-reinforcement based training. Learn how to keep a group of dogs under control and safe without the use of choke, prong, and shock collars; citronella or water spray; hitting, shoving, or yelling. The dogs in your care are supposed to have a good time out there. We don’t allow teachers or camp counselors to spank children. A professional walker shouldn’t need to resort to such measures, either.
8. Are you licensed, insured, and bonded?
Any walker using the word “professional” should carry dog-walking insurance and have a business license. And if you have employees bond them as added protection for you and your company.
9. Do you have a professional service contract and references?
Ask all clients to sign a contract to help avoid later conflicts and to protect your liability should something happen to the dogs in your care, or should they inflict damage on a third party while in your care.
10. Are you certified to provide canine first aid, and what are your emergency protocols?
What will you do if a dog is injured in your care? If you walk groups, what will you do with the rest of the dogs if one member of the group is hurt and requires your full attention? What about if your vehicle breaks down, if a dog is lost, or if a natural disaster occurs? Always carry emergency information and know the fastest route to the emergency veterinary clinic. In short, be prepared.
We are currently seeing an explosion of dog walkers and dog-walking companies. It is, after all, a wonderful way to make a living. If it’s the path you choose, set yourself up to enjoy the most worry-free experience, knowing that you are taking the best care possible of the four-leggeds in your care.
Become a dog walker or advance your existing experience and business at the dogbiz Dog Walking Academy.