By Veronica Boutelle, dogbiz Dog Walking Academy co-founder and Oakland Dog Walking Academy instructor
Gazing outside from behind the dreary landscape of our desks, few are the people who can say they’ve never given a thought to a career change that involved working outside–river guide, perhaps, or a rancher or deckhand on a luxury liner. For many dog lovers, those rosy-tinged, outdoorsy dreams concern dog walking. A life of easy days, surrounded by nature and happy pooches—but in reality, there’s much more to the job.
dogbiz runs a certification program for dog walkers, called the Dog Walking Academy, and over the years we have seen people from every thinkable vocation—lawyers and computer programmers, sales reps and accountants, nurses and writers, ex-military personnel and classical musicians—give up their previous, often very successful, careers to walk other people’s dogs. And yes, if you love dogs and worship the outdoors, if you yearn to be your own boss and don’t mind being your own office manager, marketing exec, and customer service representative to boot, dog walking just might be for you. That said, if it seems as easy as slapping a leash on a few dogs and going for a stroll you’ll likely be surprised.
In today’s densely populated, greatly regulated, and litigious world, in which people’s pets are integral to the family like never before, good, safe dog walking demands technical skill, physical stamina, and in-depth knowledge of everything from dog behavior and pack management to canine first aid and trail etiquette.
There are advantages, of course. The freedom, for one thing—a dog walker starts her day at whatever time suits her and doesn’t have to dress up for work. For another, there’s the daily shower of love. In each house on his route, a dog walker is greeted by his charges with an enthusiasm quite unequaled by anything known in the corporate world. And for the type of person best suited for dog walking, the time on the sidewalk or trail—or at the beach or dog park—is what makes it all worthwhile. Aside from the obvious physical and mental health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and being in a tranquil natural setting for hours every day, some walkers talk of the sheer pleasure of watching dogs sniff and romp. For anyone with an interest in dog behavior, dog walking is fertile study ground, whether it’s a single leashed dog navigating a busy street or unconstrained play and group interaction on a trail far from the city center.
That, however, bring us to what dog walkers often rank as the worst part of the job: the driving. The grind of going from house to house to collect dogs is fine at the outset, but it wears you down over time—how many happy taxi drivers have you met in your life? Most dog walkers keep the driving to a minimum by choosing clients within a limited geographical area and timing their driving cycles to avoid heavy traffic. Still, if you’re considering dog walking as a career, expect to spend at least as much time in the car as on the sidewalk or trail.
If traffic is impossible to control, so is the weather, and as with any outdoor work, bad weather brings its own set of trials for dog walkers. Soaked, muddy dogs have to be cleaned up before they can be let back into their homes, so count toweling off and possibly hosing down each dog plus washing loads of dirty towels as part of the job, too. And finally there’s the loneliness inherent in a job that comprises minimal human contact.
These are the pros and cons most people juggle when they consider dog walking. Freedom, exercise, and doggie love are the major pluses, and too much driving, occasional bad weather, and scant human contact are the minuses. That, however, is not all there is to dog walking. First of all, it is a business like any other and as such it involves paperwork, customer service, marketing, accounting, and so on, all of which the walker has to find time for outside of the hours he or she spends walking and driving. Secondly, it is a common misconception that dog walking is easy. It might be, if you are walking two arthritic dachshunds that you know well, but that won’t pay the rent. Or even buy the movie tickets.
No doubt this fallacy stems from the humble beginnings of dog walking. Once upon the 1950s and 60s we simply paid the kid down the street a dollar to get Fido out for us. As we have packed into tighter urban spaces, the risks involved in little Jimmy walking Fido no longer allow for that solution, but pet owners have even less time to walk Fido, who needs regular, vigorous exercise over and above what he can get in our smaller and smaller backyards. Hence the birth of professional dog walking. And a professional is what it takes to safely navigate dogs through densely populated areas and heavily used natural spaces.
As Mik Moeller, a Dog Walking Academy founder and instructor, puts it, “To manage and train a group of dogs–or even a single one– is much more difficult than people realize. Nobody is surprised that training a sled dog pack requires expert knowledge and skill. I don’t know why anyone thinks dog walking is different.”
Many walkers start out with just their outdoor dreams, a love of dogs, and the experience of walking their own pets, and soon realize the job is also about dog training and being responsible for the safety of someone else’s beloved companion. It’s about interacting with other sidewalk and trail users (some of whom are not dog lovers) in a responsible fashion and having the appropriate licenses and insurance, knowing when and how to say no to a client whose dog would fit badly into your particular group or service, knowing what to do if a fight breaks out on the trail or an unleashed dog rushes you on the street, structuring your route to cut down on driving time and gasoline consumption, and so on.
Despite the challenges, most dog walkers think they have the best job in the world. As one Dog Walking Academy graduate said, “My worst day on the trail is better than the best day in my old job.”
It is pointed out too rarely what a great contribution dog walkers make to the quality of life of the dogs they serve. Instead of being home alone all day, these dogs are given crucial exercise and social interactions, which isn’t just healthy, it keeps dogs safe and in permanent homes, too. Studies show that many dogs given up or returned to shelters are there because of normal expressions of boredom or lack of exercise: barking, chewing, excess energy, and so on. Dogs are doing their level best to fit into our twenty-first century lifestyles, the least we can do in return is to take their physical and mental health seriously. That means entrusting your pet to a professional.
If You Want to Walk Dogs
• Get educated and certified. Learn dog body language, walk management techniques, building a strong recall, fight prevention and protocols, canine first aid, group composition, business practices, etc.
• Start a legitimate business—get your business license and other necessary paperwork, obtain professional insurance, and research the rules for walking in your area.
• Talk to other certified professional walkers to learn of their experiences and ask to join them for some hands-on experience.