We become professional dog walkers because we love dogs so much we want to spend not just our personal lives, but also our working lives in their company. So it can be hard to know when to call it quits with a dog, to make the painful decision to fire a four-legged client.
More often than not dog walkers wait too long to make these calls, sometimes putting themselves, their businesses, other dogs, and the public at risk in an attempt to “make it work,” or to avoid upsetting a human client, or out of a sense of duty to the dog.
Guilt, love, and conflict avoidance can be a powerful trio against taking action. A clear framework for making difficult decisions can help you make the best ones for you, your business, and the dogs you serve.
Here are some questions to ask when considering whether to let a challenging dog go:
Is his behavior a risk to others?
Do you have reason to believe that the dog may harm other dogs, either those in your care or others sharing the spaces you walk in? Does he have a tendency to escalate situations into fights? Does he have a history of biting?
And what about humans? Do you have cause to worry that the dog may harm you, any staff, or others you may encounter on the trail or sidewalk or at the beach or park?
If the dog poses potential harm, can that potential be mitigated safely with a solid management plan to avoid incident? And if that management plan should fail (and you should always assume it will), how serious are the potential consequences? Could you live with them? Is it responsible to risk them?
These are difficult questions, but their aim is to guide us past our concern for the individual dog to consider our wider responsibilities as professional dog walkers.
Is his behavior having a negative impact on other dogs in my care?
Dogs with behavior issues like resource guarding, proximity sensitivity, inappropriate play issues, policing tendencies, etc. can create stress for other dogs, even if they never escalate to physical harm.
If you walk dogs in small groups or work with dogs in a daycare setting, watch the other dogs in your care—they can often tell you if things have reached the breaking point. Pay attention to the stress signals thrown toward the dog in question. Watch for changes in behavior, like a growing reticence to get in your vehicle when that dog is present, or a reduction in play behaviors.
Notice also if the other dogs behave differently when your project dog is not present. In fact, leaving this dog at home for a day can be a great way to assess this question of impact. When he’s not there, are the other dogs more relaxed, and/or more playful? If so, it may well be time to put the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual dog.
Another thing to note here: Project dogs take more of your time, energy, and focus. By their very nature, having one in your group means other dogs receive less of the same. This does not always present an issue, but managing a particularly challenging project dog can certainly diminish other dogs’ experiences with you.
Is his behavior having a negative impact on me or my staff?
Do you find days you don’t have this dog in your care are more enjoyable? Do you finish these days with more energy in reserve? Feeling better overall about your work?
If you find yourself feeling relieved on days you don’t have a particular dog on your route or in your playgroup, I urge you to take serious note of that. Balance your desire to do right by a challenging dog with your overall mission of making dogs’ lives better. If you burn out early, you’ll help fewer dogs over the course of your career.
Be even more mindful of this issue when you have staff. Good employees are invaluable, and turnover is costly and stressful. Don’t risk losing great people by asking them to put up with undue stress.
Could his behavior have a negative impact on my business?
In addition to contributing to burnout and staff turnover, particularly difficult project dogs can create legal or liability risk or damage to your reputation due to incidents, negative reviews, or complaints lodged with your city or park district. Again, come back to the question of what could happen when management fails—what kind of incident are you risking?
Remember also that every negative encounter with a dog walker and/or her charges—whether an actual incident or merely witnessing poor dog behavior or a lack of control by the dog walker—risks contributing to negative public opinion about our industry and the service we provide dogs and their people. In an unregulated industry, that can spell disaster for your livelihood, and that of all walkers in your area.
Making a hard choice
No doubt you love all the dogs in your care, even the most challenging ones. (Sometimes I think we even love those ones best—dog pros tend to root for the underdog.) Thinking about letting a dog go can be very hard. We’ll miss them, we feel bad leaving the client in the lurch, we worry about who will get the dog the exercise he needs.
It can help to remember the bigger picture. We have a responsibility not just to one particular dog and client, but to all those we care for and who rely on us, as well as to the other dogs and people who share the public spaces we use. Remember also your responsibility for self-care. While letting a difficult dog go feels awful in the short run, that sadness and guilt is usually followed by relief and renewed energy. And that means a long, happy, healthy career spent with dogs.
Have you decided it’s time to let a dog go, but are wondering how best to do it? Read our article How Fire a Dog Walking Client.