Dog walking comes in many shapes and sizes. In most areas dog walkers take one dog or a small group of compatible canines on leashed outings, either in their own neighborhoods or after driving to a trailhead or park. But there are some places where off-leash dog walks are both legal and the norm, and this trend is slowly finding its way to more dog-friendly locales.
Off-leash walking has many advantages, not the least of which is much more fun and exercise for the dogs. But, of course, these advantages come hand-in-hand with greater risk for all involved—for dogs, dog walkers, clients, and fellow trail, beach, and park users. Playing it safe—a key mantra for all dog walkers—is more challenging for the off-leash walker.
If you walk dogs off leash, or live in an area that allows you to consider it, here are some key tips for playing it safe off leash.
Choose your spots wisely
Hopefully the obvious goes without saying: Only walk dogs off leash where it is legal to do so. Beyond this, though, conduct a careful assessment of any areas you may be allowed to use for off-leash fun. What are the surrounding environmental risks? For example, how close is the trail or beach or unfenced park area to moving vehicles? Are there other animals, such as deer or bunnies, that may entice your dogs to bolt off on an unplanned adventure? Is it a multi-use area also frequented by children?
Once you’ve identified the risks of any area you’re considering for off-leash walks, identify your plan. Can you adequately manage these risks? For example, say you have access to a trail system that’s devoid of vehicles (lucky you!). In this case you might institute a safety policy dictating dogs remain on leash until you’re a certain distance from the parking lot. Or perhaps you walk in a large park system with multiple areas. You might have a rule that all dogs be leashed up as you pass the children’s playground.
A special note on dog parks: Dog parks, particularly enclosed ones, are all the rage these days. But despite the feeling of safety provided by fencing and gates, dog parks are really anything but safe. Very few dogs have appropriate temperaments to thrive in the kind of forced proximity dog parks create. It’s critical to monitor the dogs in your care for clear signs of enjoyment versus stress. If you haven’t formally studied canine body language, do not take dogs into dog parks until you have, as early warning signs of stress and conflict are too often missed, leading to unnecessary incidents and the emergence of new behavior issues.
Communicate with your clients
It’s critical to communicate the risks of off-leash walking to your clients, even though they are expressly hiring you for this service. (Never, ever take a client’s dog off leash without their permission to do so!) The risks, including those of serious injury or even death, must be expressly laid out even though they may feel obvious. Do this to protect yourself and your business, but also to make sure clients really have thought through and weighed the advantages and risks. The idea of dogs running free may capture a client’s imagination, but it’s important they weigh the positive impact of increased exercise and mental stimulation with the risks involved before signing on for your service.
Clear language in your contract or service agreement is a must, as is verbally sharing and discussing the issue during your meet and greet. Don’t ever assume clients actually read your contract!
Be picky—very, very picky
Thorough, careful, deliberate screening practices are recommended for any dog walking service, as the dogs you choose to walk determine so much—your enjoyment of your walks, the safety of the dogs in your care, the safety of people and dogs you walk among, and the level of liability risk both you and your clients assume. It stands to reason that walking dogs off leash ups the ante of the decisions you make about which dogs to walk.
If you’re like many dog walkers, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, you may be tempted to say yes to everyone. You may be driven by financial need, but often it’s by a deep and passionate love for dogs. It just doesn’t feel good to say no, and you feel sorry for dogs who may have behavioral issues. But remember: Your primary responsibility is to keep everyone safe—the dogs you care for, yourself, your clients, and those you come into contact with during your walks. Always keep this in mind when screening, and particularly when walking off leash.
Build rock solid recalls
To walk dogs safely off leash, you must be skilled in building reliable recalls. Some off-leash walkers require dogs be reliable off leash as part of their screening process, but the reality is that very few dogs meet this criteria in most communities. That means you’ll need to know how to teach the dogs in your care to come when you call, and be prepared to keep them on leash or a long line until that training is accomplished.
Build your own skills
Walking others’ dogs requires a strong professional knowledge and skill set regardless of your flavor of dog walking—whether on or off leash, singles or small groups, and where you walk. Walking off leash increases the necessity for pursuing a professional understanding of dog behavior, management, and basic training. Beyond recall training, a responsible pro dog walker (on or off leash!) must develop situational awareness, a keen eye for canine body language, an understanding of the canine mind and behavior in all its variations, and quick decision-making skills to keep everyone safe.
If you have the opportunity where you live to offer off-leash walking services, and the knowledge and skills to do so, the dogs you walk are very lucky. Few dogs living urban and suburban lives are afforded the chance to really stretch their legs and explore the world, to benefit from intensive exercise and mental stimulation. These benefits include not only greater physical health but also increased emotional well being and behavioral wellness. And it’s certainly an awfully enjoyable job to guide dogs on off-leash adventures and watch them truly thrive in all their doggy glory.
If you’re ready for a new career in dog walking, or want to take your current dog walking career to a new level, we warmly welcome you to join our Dog Walking Academy graduates from all around the world.