Which dogs you walk can be the difference between a lovely, relaxing evening reflecting on your good fortune to have the best job in the world, or a jittery one contemplating a prescription for Xanax.
The more carefully you choose the dogs you walk, the easier and more enjoyable your job as a dog walker. Your life is made easier by dogs who are compatible with the terrain you walk and the kinds of animals, people, and experiences you’re likely to encounter there. You and the dogs are made safer when walking those whose behaviors are compatible with your skill and knowledge level. And walks are more fun with dogs who are a good match for your personality. Just because we’re dog lovers doesn’t mean we enjoy the company of all dogs we meet equally, and each of us has certain dog behaviors that are low on our charm list.
And when walking dogs in groups, it’s paramount that they be compatible with each other, too—for their enjoyment and safety and yours.
Here are some tips for building safe, fun, easy walking groups…
Best group walk candidates
Screen first for dogs who are generally social with other dogs and people. They don’t have love playing with every dog they meet. They don’t even have to love playing at all. But they should be comfortable around other dogs and when encountering new dogs and people.
If you have the luxury of walking dogs off leash, highly food motivated dogs are best, and toy motivated is a bonus, as it’s great to have multiple ways to get a dog’s attention, keep it, and reward it. Of course, a strong recall and basic manners training helps, too, unless you have the skills and knowledge to do this work yourself.
Worst group candidates
Unless you have specialized skills, avoid walking dogs with dog-dog and dog-people reactivity or aggression issues. Take on long-term backyard dogs with caution, as they’ve likely been under-socialized and so are more likely to have such issues. Screen thoroughly and watch their behavior around dogs and people carefully.
Dogs with poor play styles will be poor candidates for group walks, particularly those who tend to ignore or not be able to read other dogs’ body language. Also avoid taking resource guarders in groups unless they only guard resources you can control. For example, a ball guarder should be fine in a group leash walk, as you’ll not likely be throwing tennis balls. And you could take a ball guarder in an off-leash group so long as you aren’t somewhere you’re likely to encounter other dogs playing fetch.
Walking unaltered dogs adds additional management and risk by potentially drawing unwanted attention from other dogs and, when walking off leash, risking wandering.
Best group compositions
Though each walker will have his or her own preferences, groups comprised of varied ages and a mix of genders, with the majority being older, will be the easiest to manage. Take one or two project dogs at most (dogs whose behavior or special needs require extra attention or management), so that your focus is not split among too many concerns.
Keep dogs as close to the same size as possible for their safety. And of course, the smaller the group, the safer and easier the group.
Worst group compositions
Multiple project dogs will always make a group more difficult to manage. Dogs with play deficits, guarding behavior, reactivity or proximity issues, and the like all require special handling. You should consider any intact dog a project dog, for the reasons touched on earlier. A high percentage of adolescents (approximately 6 months to 1-2 years, though that will vary by breed and individual) will also keep you working harder. And mixing those teenagers with seniors will likely mean lots of effort spent keeping the “kids” out of the seniors’ hair.
For safety, once again, a high size differential between dogs in your group should be avoided.
What’s the right mix for you?
With these safety guidelines and general suggestions in mind, give some thought to your own situation. Successful screening and group composition require thinking about personal preferences, the challenges of your walking environment, and your professional skill set.
When thinking about your walk preferences, imagine your perfect day on the job. Do you like an ambling stroll with a group of seniors, or do you find that dull? Perhaps you’re the type to enjoy the challenge of a group of adolescents, or maybe that thought sends you running for a simple desk job.
Consider the challenges of your walking environment. Your screening and group composition choices will likely be different if you’re walking three dogs on leash in a suburban neighborhood than if you’re walking 6 dogs off leash at a busy beach. And they might be different still if you’re walking the same 6 dogs off leash on a quiet trail. What do you encounter where you walk? How often do you have to pass strangers? Will there be other off leash dogs present? Prey animals to contend with?
Finally, assess your skill sets in relation to dogs and your environment. Do you have the experience and knowledge to handle a dog with dog-people fear issues, for example? Do you have the skill set required to train a rock solid recall to take untrained dogs off leash? How many dogs can you safely control on leash in a busy urban environment?
You get to decide which dogs you’ll walk and, if you’re walking groups, which you’ll walk together. Selecting dogs for group compatibility, your environment, your skill set, and the kind of walks you want to take mean that both you and the dogs will have more fun. Plus, no Xanax needed.
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