Above: photo of an irresponsible dog walker with an overcrowded vehicle!
Right: When dogs have fun on walks it often involves mud and a lot of it!!!
This is a long blog post but it hopefully covers everything you need to know about hiring a professional dog walker compared to a commercial one. I have also located and attached a very useful pdf on dog walking at the very end of this blog that you may wish to download to assist you finding a trustworthy, reliable and caring professional dog walker.
When out walking my dogs I witness quite a few commercial dog walkers and their behaviour with thier clients dogs. I have even ended up on occasion with their dogs who have become seperated from their "pack"; in some cases they haven't even noticed they have one missing! But not all dog walkers are this disresepctful of their clients furry family but how do you sort the "commercial" dog walker from the "professional" one. I make a distinction here; to me a commercial dog walker is one that does it solely for the money; they have little to no experience with dogs; carry no insurance; travel your dog in an inappropriate manner and willingly walk as many dogs as they can stuff into their vehicles at any one time. Unfair?? Possibly, but with many people sadly losing their jobs some are turning to dog walking as a source of income, thinking it an "easy" profession and this is dangerous; not only to members of the public who may be walking their dogs in their path, but to the mental and physical welfare of your dog. So here are my tips on the questions everyone should ask their potential dog walker before handing them the keys to your home and possessions and above all access to your dog.
How do I find a Professional Dog Walker?
Ask friends who use a Dog Walker or ask on Face Book in your local area. You could also Google Dog Walkers in my area and there are some directories but by far a recommendation from friends and family is the best option.
Arrange a meet and greet.
Never, hire a dog walker over the phone, you need to meet them personally and they need to meet your dog/s. Believe it or not a dog is an excellent judge of character and it is interesting to watch how the potential dog walker interacts with your dog. A "professional" dog walker will want to meet you too to discuss your expectations of them and them of you.
What documentation should I expect to see?
A "professional" dog walker will be able to produce for you a copy of their business insurance policy, DBS check, contract (terms and conditions) and copies of relevant qualifications. Lets go through each document:
Insurance: Never employ a child under the age of 16 to walk your dog, not even if they are doing it for just some extra pocket money. A child under the age of 16 can not obtain insurance to be a Dog Walker. This means should your dog become involved in an accident whilst in the care of the child YOU may be held responsible and are liable as the dogs’ legal owner. So please take time to read through the policy; don’t be rushed. You need to check the date is valid, how many dogs the person is insured to walk at any one time and if there are any restrictions such as does the dogs owner need to give written permission for the Dog Walker to exercise your dog off leash etc.
DBS certificate: This is extremely important; again please take time to read through carefully. Note on whom and when the check took place, there should be no criminal convictions such as theft or worse, animal abuse.
First aid certificate: This is necessary. You don’t expect your Dog Walker to be a fully qualified Veterinary Surgeon or Animal Nurse but some basic knowledge is a must until full Veterinary care can be sort. A small first aid kit should be carried by the dog walker as well; ideally a small, basic one on their walks and a large one in their vehicle.
Contract/terms and conditions: Most dog parents seeking a dog walker just want to know how much will it cost them and if the dog walker can take their dog? Ofcourse, these are important questions but a professional dog walker will take their time on a meet and greet to go through their contract with you. Read this carefully; some expect payment if you have to cancel them, apply late payment fees and other stipulations, so make sure you are 100% happy before signing. Also keep a copy to refer to if necessary.
Ask about their dog handling experience.
Legally anyone can set themselves up as a dog walker in the same manner they can set themselves up as a dog trainer. But in my opinion every dog walker MUST have a good knowledge of dogs and not be looking to walk your dog because “they have always loved dogs" or see your pet as a quick way of earning some extra cash. Every person you leave your beloved pets in charge with must have a sound knowledge of dogs and be able to provide the highest level of care in your absence. Unfortunately, we have taken on dogs from other Dog Walkers who have created behavioural problems for their clients dogs. An experienced Dog Walker can identify any behavioural issues in your dog and address them before they become an issue. You need to ask to see dog training certificates which might also have a code of conduct attached. For instance I am a Kennel Club Accredited Instructor so I have had to prove my level of knowledge in the subjects I am qualified in which is dog dancing (HTM), companion dog and competition obedience through the Kennel Club; I was also a Dog Warden for quite a few years and assisted in the writing of the National Occupational Standards on providing dog-walking services. I have the correct certificates and can prove my knowledge in a heart beat. Unfortunately, there are many courses anyone can complete online for a few quid and although these many be useful in adding to the knowledge of the Dog Walker look for those that include handling skills during assessments. I stress this because it is a way your potential Dog Walker can prove they are expereinced in handling different breeds of dogs in various situations.
References from current or past clients.
I am fully aware that these can be forged, but if in any doubt ask if you can talk to any current dog parents the dog walker is working for. Now I am also fully aware that they will only present references from those who are most likely to give them an excellent reference but you can only do what you can do and if in any doubt seek out an alternative dog walker for your pet.
Ask who will be walking your dog/s.
Crazy as this sounds the person in front of you may not be the person that will be in charge and caring for your dog on a daily basis. You have to know who will be walking your dog and given the chance to meet them and check out their qualifications and references too.
How will your dog travel from home to its walking location?
Most Dog Walkers do transit the dogs to and from the walk location in their vehicle. This is not unusual but I have seen a Dog Walker cram 9 dogs (one of which was an Afgan puppy) into a Vauxhall Corsa car. It pretty much looked like the photograph attached to this post. This is not safe on so many levels; it is dangerous for the driver, other road users and your dog! Dogs crammed into vehicles in this manner can become distressed and fight, even if they know the other dogs. The highway code requires dogs not to distract the driver at any time and loose dogs can do this. The Dog Walker may use a car or a van but, unless the Dog walker only walks one dog at a time, it must be equipped correctly to safely. Most use crates and this is the safest way to travel any dog, even your own in the back of your own vehicle. The reason why I hold this belief is because as a Dog Warden I was sometimes called to assist the Police at road traffic accidents where animals were involved. Animals travelled in wire/metal crates have a greater chance of surviving a car accident than those left loose or tethered within the vehicle. So in short, you want to see how your dog/s will be travelled. At this time you can also check the cleanliness and condition of the vehicle; and establish if your dog will be given access to clean, water after their walk.
How many dogs do you travel together at any one time?
No more than 6 dogs can be walked at any one time, according to most dog walker insurance policies, therefore no more than 6 dogs should be travelled at any one time. But ask the question any way because sometimes, they take their own dogs on walks with them and you need to make sure your dog will not be placed in a crate with a dog it does not know or that does not like your dog!
How do you decide which dogs to group together?
Finding the right dynamics of a pack of dogs exercised together is so important. It only takes one dog to be mismatched within a group and there can be fights or dogs so badly frightened or bullied that they run off. Your Dog Walker should be experienced enough to be able to match dogs together accurately in accordance with their size, level of health/fitness, age and temperament. The 50:50 rule should be applied which was established and is used by American Dog Walkers. This applies to a dog’s weight. A dog weighing 10 kilos can generally be walked safely with dogs weighing up to 20 kilos or under 10 kilos but never with a dog over 20 kilos. This is because when dogs are playing and having fun they could run into each other. If a dog weighs too much and hits another dog at speed more than half of its body weight it can kill or seriously injure your pet. As most Dog Walkers are usually exercising your pet in the middle of woods, fields or a forest, in other words miles from immediate veterinary help, it is important all safety measures are instigated.
What is your policy on training/reinforcing behaviour on the walk?
This is very important. No dog is an angel all of the time and sometimes need its behaviour addressing. Any issues must be reported to you immediately. I was involved in one case where a dog parent received a telephone call completely unexpectedly from their Dog Walker to say she could no longer walk his dog due to the aggressive, behavioural issues his dog had developed over the past three months! But when he had sorted them out she would gladly walk the dog again for them. I have to say my immediate thought here was "thats good of her!" NOT! when it could have been her who had allowed the behaviour to progress in the first place. I was called in to address these issues. The dog was not aggressive but she did need to be taught some very basic instructions and once those were in place, which only took a few weeks, she was back to being exercised off lead with other dogs happily bouncing around the woodland again. Your Dog Walker can have a BIG influence on your dog and its’ behaviour. When I was a professional dog walker, all of my clients commented on how better behaved their dogs had become after being walked by me. There must be an understanding that all and any issues concerning your dog/s must be reported to you immediately and if necessary a training schedule implemented between you and your Dog Walker to address this. That way the dog will be receiving the same consistent information from everyone in its life and will be less confused. If your Dog Walker does not consider they are experienced enough or has an attitude of “I am only paid to walk your dog not train it!” then I really would suggest you find another Dog Walker.
Will it be walked off lead?
Under some Dog Walking insurance policies the owner of the dog must provide in writing their permission for the Dog Walker to exercise their dog/s off lead. A professional Dog Walker will never do this until the dog has earnt the privilege to be exercised off lead; maybe by improving their recall and obedience skills, or has developed a good friendship with your dog. Try to see this situation from your dogs' point of view; he/shehas never met this person before and yet they have entered your home, when you are not there, and taken them away. Some dogs may consider it a smart idea to do a runner from the Dog Walker at the first opportunity. Trust your Dog Walker and see the consent form to exercise your dog/s off lead as a big promotion for your dog. However, some breeds of dogs should and can never be allowed to be exercised off lead unless in an area that is fully fenced and gated. Quite simply, if you do not wish for your Dog Walker to exercise your dog/s off lead then do not give him/her permission to do so.
How long will my dog be walked for and does this include/exclude journey time?
If you pay for an hour then your dog should be exercised for an hour. The clock should not start from the time your dog/s are collected from your home. The reason for this is because your Dog Walker may need to collect other dogs on the way to the walk location and you do not want to be paying for this out of your dog’s time.
What is your procedure for encountering any problems e.g. a dog fight or my dog is injured?
Every dog Walker must have an emergency procedure. If the dynamics of the pack your dog is walking with is correct then dog fights are extremely rare but no matter how hard you try Dog Walkers will encounter other people walking their dogs and some of them are not very friendly at all and usually not under control. Your Dog Walker needs to have an emergency procedure in place so that a sick or injured dog can be moved to safety and veterinary attention sought as quickly as possible whilst also handling the rest of the dogs with them.
Your Dog Walker should have details of your Vet with them and, where possible, your dog taken to your Vet as soon as possible whilst consulting with you too.
Do you have a backup plan in case of emergency if you are unable to exercise my dog?
Most Dog Walkers are one-man-band businesses and therefore have no one else to assist them, however if they are taken sick or their vehicle breaks down they must have a procedure that you all understand will be implemented immediately. The welfare of your dog must always come first and a dog sitting at home with its’ legs crossed, waiting for your Dog Walker who does not arrive is not a pleasant thought.
What happens if my bitch comes into season/gets kennel cough?
A bitch in season must not be exercised with male dogs even if those male dogs have been neutered, nor should she be travelled in a vehicle where male dogs will be travelled. This is because whether neutered or not a male dog can become very excited and dog fights can break out. It is best that over this time your bitch is given bathroom breaks in your garden.
Kennel cough is contagious amongst other dogs and should your dog contract this respiratory disease they should not be exercised as it may quickly turn into bronchitis and you could have a very sick dog indeed. During this time, ask your Dog Walker to just let your dog out into the garden and have a game with it until it has been given a clean bill of health.
Do you dry/clean off my dog after each walk?
Surprisingly alot of Dog Walkers do not dry or clean off their clients dogs after their walks. This is because some want to walk as many dogs as they can in a day and stopping to clean off your dog will take time away from that goal. The dogs therefore are left caked in mud or very wet until you come home. Part of the service should always be that your dog/s will be dried and cleaned off as much as possible. Alot of professional dog walkers now invest in mobile pressure washers to clean off their clients dogs after walks. It also gives the Dog Walker a chance to check your dog for any cuts or grazes that may have occurred on the walk or any ticks that should be removed at once. You may be asked to leave a large, clean bath towel out for your dog walker to dry and clean your dog/s off with each day and in the cold weather to provide your dog with a dog coat.
What is your cancellation procedure?
It is always best to be sure of the Dog Walkers cancellation procedure. If you suddenly decide to take an unscheduled day off from work and not require the Dog Walker that day will he/she still expect to be paid? Or the other way round, what procedure will be followed if they decide to have a holiday or day off, or are taken sick. How much notice will they give you in advance? If they expect you to sign a contract, read it carefully before signing.
Where will my keys be held when not in use? Will my house identity be shown on the keys? Do you take copies of my house keys?
The security of your home is paramount. You do not want your house keys falling into the wrong hands. Therefore you need to know where your keys will be kept when not in use; preferably in a safe. You also need to know if your address will be displayed on your keys fob. Most Dog Walkers will have a number of clients and will therefore need to differentiate between them. You do not want your house address to be attached to your house key in case the Dog Walker loses it and you are then burgled. You wouldn’t put your house address on your key fob and neither should your Dog Walker. This might also affect your house insurance so check with them and your policy before handing over any keys to your Dog Walker. There is no reason for the Dog Walker to take any copies of your keys. If they take care of your key/s properly a replacement is not necessary.
How do you communicate with your clients/customers?
It is amazing how few Dog Walkers have any communication with their clients (you) on a daily basis. The only time you hear from them is when they deliver to you your invoice for their services! If this works for you then good but in this day and age of technology a method must be established on how your Dog Walker will communicate with you. I used to leave my customers a note book for us to use for this purpose. Some liked the idea and used it and some preferred not to but I gave them a choice. It gives you a chance to tell the Dog Walker if your dog has had an upset tummy over night, or is due in season, or was frightened by fireworks/thunder storm the night before and so is a bit skittish today. It also gives the Dog Walker a chance to bring you into your dogs’ life, reporting on how better behaved he/she is or had fun swimming that day; or a funny moment when your dog tried to climb a tree to see where the squirrel went to!
By this I mean if you have a puppy will your dog walker give him/her their lunch or if your dog needs medication during the day can your dog walker administer this? When I was a dog walker often I was the only person my clients dogs would let administer their ear or eye drops. I also became the only person who could trim the nails of an elderly terrier which the owners, vets and dog grromer could not. I never charged for these extra services and always carried them out with the owners permission, as I saw it as part of the job but some will so never assume, always check first. Other things I and many other professional dog walkers do are take in parcels, leave a house light on during the winter and so on.
How much do you charge per hour?
This does vary from Dog Walker to Dog Walker but please remember the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best!
You need to establish what will happen if your Dog Walker takes a holiday. Will they be able to find a replacement during their absence or will you need to sort something out? How much notice will they give you? If you take a holiday are you expected to still pay them to secure your dogs place with them?
What is expected of me?
And lastly, your dog walker will want to know as much as they can about your dog, BE HONEST!! You might be very eager to hire the Dog Walker but the more information you can give on your dog/s the better they can matched with the right group of dogs on their walks. You will always be asked about the reliablility of your dogs recall. Most owners usually say "really good until they see another dog or squirrell or deer.........." To me that means your dog doesn't have a recall. I always taught my clients dogs the one-call recall, which meant I called their name once and they returned to me immediately no matter what they are doing or wanting to do. It took some work from me but never allowed a dog off its lead until it had earnt the privilege to do so. And the same as your dogs temperament, if your dog doesn't get on with other dogs or likes to chase the little ones then you MUST tell the Dog Walker. This information will allow the Dog Walker to decide if they have the expereince to walk your dog safely or if they can recommend another Dog Walker that would be able to help.
Don't forget to divulge if your dog has any food allergies or guards food as most Dog Walkers use treats on their walks.
Work with your Dog Walker; if they ask you to leave out a clean towel for your dogs use in the winter then leave out a clean towel, but above all please pay your Dog Walker on time. I never had this problem and most dog parents realise the value of their Dog Walker and ensures their invoice is paid immediately, but some Dog Walkers have reported having to chase for their money. Your Dog Walker works hard for their income. They work in all weathers and often go above and beyond for the benefit of you and your dog/s, so please do not disrespect them by not paying on time. They have bills to pay too and if you are expereincing an unexpected financial challenge then be honest with them, don't leave them wondering when they will be paid, that is simply not fair.
When you find the right Professional Dog Walker they almost become part of the family. They share the highs and lows of your dog parenting journey and are there to support and guide you every step of the way. Some of my clients referred to me as their dogs second mommy, they would send to me photos of their sleeping dogs after their walks with me, I watched puppies grow into fabulous adults and into their golden years, and I wept with families at the end of their precious dogs lives. It was a rewarding job but hard work that, at times, used every aspect of my dog training knowledge, but it was worth it and I felt honoured to be a part of their precious dogs lives.