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dogbiz Dog Walking Academy

Ditch the Desk, Grab the Leash

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.

The Dog Walking Academy, a certification program for professional dog walkers, has seen students 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 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, highly 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 group 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 not found in the corporate world.

And 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 daily fresh air and exercise, there’s 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.

These are the pros and cons to juggle as you consider dog walking for a living. Freedom, exercise, and dog love are the major pluses, and too much driving and working in bad weather are the primary minuses. That, however, is not all there is to dog walking. First of all, it is a business like any other and as such 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 with dogs.

Secondly, it is a common misconception that dog walking is easy. It might be, if you’re walking two arthritic dachshunds that you know well, but the dogs you walk will come in all shapes, sizes, energy levels, and personalities.

No doubt the dog-walking-is-easy fallacy stems from its humble beginnings. Once upon the 1950s and 60s we simply paid the neighborhood kid candy money 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 one 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 believe 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 spending their days alone, dogs are given crucial exercise and social interactions, which isn’t just healthy, it keeps them  safe and in permanent homes, too. Studies show that many dogs given up or returned to shelters lose their homes due to normal expressions of boredom or lack of exercise: barking, chewing, excess energy, and so on.

Dogs do 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 requires an army of professionally-trained dog walkers—are you ready to join them?

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