Dog walkers do not show up on my radar very often, living as I do on a farm in the country. Jim and I are the dog walkers, and we like it that way. However, I am also aware how very lucky we are to have the time and the logistics to be able to take our dogs on long walks. Certainly I’ve worked long hours–I’ve seen many a twelve-hour day in my time–but I always had the luxury of working close enough to run home to let out dogs or to bring them to my office. There have been some days, especially when I taught at UW-Madison, that I had to ask a friend to take my dogs out (thank you Harriet!), but those days were relatively rare.
Nor have I seen a lot of clients as an animal behaviorist who came to me because they wanted to be a dog walker and wanted to know how to get started. But when a friend mentioned the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, I started wondering: What does a dog walker need to know? And what would I need to know if I had to hire one?
Before answering those questions, it is worth thinking about whether hiring a dog walker is a good idea. I talked to Aimee Moore at Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, WI, whose business now includes a dog walking service. (Full disclosure: This is the training and consulting business I began in 1988, and sold 7 years ago to Aimee, then the Training Director.). She told me that many of their dog walking clients began with their pups in puppy class, and then realized that their work schedules didn’t allow them to give their young dogs enough exercise and stimulation to keep them healthy and happy. Other clients have dogs who aren’t suited to day care, and do much better with individual attention. Day care can be a great solution for some dogs and their owners, but they are not for every dog (or every pocketbook) by any means. (Here’s an article I wrote about whether Doggy Day Care is right for your dog.)
There is no question that dog walkers give people who are gone much of the day the ability to own dogs, and can provide dogs with the exercise stimulation they need before their owners get home from work. But who are these dog walkers, anyway? What are their qualifications?
Before I did some interviews, I spent some time looking at websites for dog walking businesses around the country, checking out the qualifications of their walkers. So far, the qualifications I’ve found in the “About Us” sections have been limited to some version of “Our dog walkers love dogs! They really, really do!” Well, that’s a great start. However, I love medicine and am fascinated by surgery, but I would advise you not to hand me your dog and ask me to spay her. The experience listed often seems to be circular: “All of our dog walkers have experience walking dogs!” Some don’t even say that. One site stated that all dog walkers had prior experience around dogs, sometimes limited to having owned one. Apologies to the general world of dog owners, but I would no more hand my dogs to someone just because they owned a dog once in their life than I would let them do a spay surgery because they’d seen one done once.
What then, do dog walkers need to know, and what do you need to know about a dog walking business before hiring them? First and foremost, said Aimee Moore reasonably enough, they need to be reliable and trustworthy. A hundred percent reliable. Dog walkers work independently–who is to know if they don’t “come to work” one day? Who is to know if they rummage around in your private papers while you are busy at work? Argh, what a thought. So yes, reliable and trustworthy surely is criteria number one.
Aimee next mentioned that the people she hires must be able to make good decisions. Quickly. No question about that. What if three loose dogs come sprinting out of a yard toward the dog you are walking? There’s not a lot of time to make a decision about what to do, right? Matt and Kelly Elvin, good friends and owners of TipTopTails Dog Training in Grand Junction, MI, agreed. But they pointed out that making good decisions is based on knowledge, the knowledge of how best to handle the multitude of potential crisis that can come up when out in public with a dog. You can’t make good, quick decisions if you don’t already have a plan in mind. For example, if three loose dogs come running at yours, would you 1) Drop the leashes and run like a frightened bunny? 2) Throw a handful of treats hard and fast at the dog’s faces and carefully walk away while the dogs are busy snarfing up the treats? or 3) Yell as loudly as you can at the owner, demanding that they stop their dogs? Obviously option 2) is the best one, (click here for a video illustrating this method) but how many “dog lovers” have trained themselves to do that when they don’t have a second to think about it?
Everyone I talked to also agreed that yes, of course the dog walkers need to love dogs, but far less obvious is the importance of dogs loving them. We are talking about people who will walk into a dog’s home, owner absent, snap a leash on a dog they may have met only once, and expect the dog to follow into the great outdoors. This means that the walker simply has to have the kind of personality that attracts dogs like bears to honey. What could be more important than having a dog walker who makes dogs all gooey and melty? We all know people like that; they may or may not be the best trainers, but dogs go out of their way to stand beside them. You can’t test for this on an exam on the internet, but I’d never release my dog to someone unless I knew there was a blatant love affair going on.
However, you can’t ignore the importance of training. Surely dog walkers have to be able to read dogs. How else would they know that their charge isn’t comfortable when a young child asks to pet the dog? (Which a dog walker should never allow in the first place, right?) How else would they know that Chester’s tongue flicks are telling the walker to wait a few minutes before attaching the leash?
What about the walker’s knowledge of dog behavior and how dogs learn? Is your dog walker going to jerk the leash when your pup barks excitedly at another dog? If so, your pup just might be learning that the sight of other dogs leads to pain, and the barks may turn to aggressive ones rather than ones born of excitement. As Matt Elvin mentioned, in some cases dog walkers have as much or even more influence on a young dog than the owners. Do you want your dog to be trained by someone who believe that dogs need to be dominated to be polite?
What about the business itself? What are their policies? Do they required a minimum number of walks per week? Are they going to walk your dog by herself, or in a group? What kind of first aid training have they had? If they have to transport your dog, how do they do that? Will the dog be loose in the car? (I am told quite a few are… ). Are they insured? (Who gets sued if your dog bites someone when she’s being walked by someone else?)
This brings up another interesting issue related to dog walkers: the business itself as an expanding field. On the one hand, it’s a great field for people to get into: it requires little capital to get started and can be a perfect job for dog lovers who want to work part or full time. On the other hand, it appears that the internet is full of Uber-like businesses, in which you can hire a dog walker off of a website, sight unseen. With no knowledge of their experience, whether they are insured or bonded, etc. Did you get unexpectedly busy at work? No problem! Hop on line and find someone close to your home who could pop over and let out your dog. Eeeps. Don’t do it.
The business of Dog Walking obviously fills a growing market, just like Dog Training has in the last few decades. This is all well and good, but I would argue that it needs to be seen as a profession–with trained, knowledgeable people who know as much about your dog and her behavior as a plumber knows about your pipes.
What about you? Have you ever been a dog walker? Hired one for your dogs? I’d love to hear your experiences. I also would like to thank Aimee Moore, and Kelly Elvin & Matt Elvin for taking the time to talk. Their thoughts and suggestions were invaluable. Thanks too to dog@tec for letting me borrow the black and white photo taken by Rikke Jorgensen. It takes a pack.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Busy busy, but in wonderful ways. Jim is working for hours every day on the platform for the tent camp we are creating in the Upper Orchard Pasture. The tent we’ve ordered (from Colorado Yurt Company) is expected in early August. I’m working the sheepdogs, moving the flocks (“lamb flock” versus “no lamb flock”) to best utilize the pastures, and working on my perennial gardens. Meanwhile, the cats watch us go about our business with apparent amusement. Here’s Nellie, captured on the wall by friend and kick butt photographer, Rob Streiffer.
Below is the small perennial garden by the side of the house. Later in the year it will contain blooming New England Aster, Bee Balm and Joe Pye Weed, a native prairie plant that butterflies adore. It’ll be nice then too, but I think it’s prettiest when the peonies are blooming. (Of course, I never show you the messy, dirty places with sloppy piles of pulled weeds, dirty shoes and overflowing bags of compost. Suffice it to say that I would like to live in a place like Buchart Gardens, where all the guts of the operation are hidden. But I don’t. Maybe on one blog I’ll show photos of the messy garage and the disorganized “gardening center” (also known as a carport). Think of it as my version of a reality show. But until then, here are some pretty flowers.