Professional Dog Walking: Fame, Fortune, and Poop Bags
Recently, I’ve gotten quite a few emails asking me for advice about starting a dog walking business. I’m sure the editors of Vanity Fair will be covering this hot topic in their next issue, so let’s get to it before they steal my thunder.
Before I start, it’s fair to say that what I write here may not speak for all the dog walkers out there, especially the ones who are employees of big pet care companies – the kind of job where they can call out because they’re too hungover to walk to the bathroom, let alone walk a dog. I’ve always worked for myself, so this just reflects my personal experiences as a self employed dog hustler.
Here’s a look behind the scenes, to give you a better idea if it’s the right job for you:
Dog walkers work almost almost every day, including holidays, and in any kind of weather, including blizzards and scorching heat waves.
We get paid the same amount to walk an ancient, barely mobile teacup dust bunny, as we do a 150 pound armored tank that drinks rocket fuel right before we show up.
We work when we’re sick, when we are injured, and when we have blisters the size of pancakes.
We walk dogs for people who don’t tell us they’re home, upstairs, lurking on us and then we embarrass ourselves by singing to their dogs out loud.
We work for people who are in bed, with their dogs, and get angry when we wake them up as we try to coax their dogs out from underneath the covers.
We clean crates that have seen atomic bombs of poop go off in them, covering the dogs in turd-shrapnel.
We work with dogs that scare us sometimes, but still need us to take care of them, so we figure it out.
We hoard plastic bags (aka plastic gold) and develop a compulsive triple bagging habit at the grocery store.
We work with dogs that have no training or skills or manners and we do our best to get them and ourselves in and out of the house in one piece.
Can you dig it? Dog walkers deal with all this, because we love being with the dogs. It’s a privilege to make a living being a dog’s friend.
If you want to be a dog walker:
You better love hard work and delivering great customer service, as much as you love dogs. You may work with animals, but you are still in the service business.
You better be trustworthy. Really trustworthy. Never take it for granted how much your clients trust you to always be doing the right thing in their homes and with their pets. Most of your clients will really appreciate you and value your role in their lives. Don’t blow it.
If you can deal with all this stuff, then you’ll get one of the best jobs on the planet.
You won’t get rich and you will get weird lop-sided muscles in your “leash arm”, but you’ll get to spend every day outside with best tour guides on the planet, getting paid to make them happy.
It’s a really cool thing to be a dog’s favorite person (aside from their owners, of course).
It’s just about the best feeling in the world to walk into house after house and get greeted like you’re a rock god. Bad moods evaporate on impact.
Oh, I can hear you saying it now, “But HOW do I become a dog walker? What should I know?
Ok, ok, fine:
Take a Pet First Aid Class.
Read books, watch videos, and learn as much as you can about dog behavior.
If you’re going to hang out in dog parks, be especially sure you’re familiar with dog body language. It’s a free-for-all in those places and you’re with someone else’s dogs. You have to pay attention!
Create dog walking contracts for your clients to sign and clear rules for them to follow so that you get paid.
Be a defensive driver. It’s not your dog. Don’t take risks with their physical or emotional health. When in doubt, cross the street.
Make friends with other pet professionals. Pet store employees and vets always need to refer their clients to trustworthy pet sitters and dog walkers. Be that person they think of first.
Get off your phone. Don’t talk and walk. Be present with the dogs.
Choose and market a specialty, if you have the skillz. Cater to medical/special needs dogs, small dogs, reactive dogs, high energy dogs that need a running partner, or Mastiffs who prefer to spoon on the floor, instead of leaving the house.
Don’t be a hero. Know your limits. Most people can’t safely walk more than a couple of dogs at a time. Can you? Know this before you commit to walking a pack of dogs. It’s perfectly ok to only walk one dog at time.
Don’t forget pet sitters insurance, a simple website or blog that clearly states your services and rates, references from past clients (even if those clients are the shelter staffers who really appreciate your volunteer work), and some sort of business card.
Finally, when you become a dog walker, you become an “expert” on dogs to your clients. Whether you are one or not. They will ask you a lot of questions. Get to know basic dog training techniques and some good professional trainers, so you can refer your clients to them, if need be. Learn about high quality dog food and supplements. Learn about leashes, harnesses, halters, and other tools, so you can help your clients learn how to use them. Learn about basic, common medical issues, because you’re going to have to tell your clients that they may want to consider going to the vet, given what came out of Lulu’s back door this afternoon. You won’t have all the answers, nor should you try to, but know where to point your clients, so that they can get reliable information from other professionals.
Oh, and get over any weirdness you have about poop. There’s just so much poop involved in being a dog walker.
Know this: There will be holes in the poop bags.
There will be days when you stick your finger right in a pile of soft serve poop and then have to walk for 20 minutes to get back to the dog’s house to clean up. And along the way, you’ll run into a half dozen people that want to say “hi!”, so you wind up talking to them and trying to act causal, while you wonder if they smell poop on you.
But in the end, only you and the dog will know you’re hiding a stinky poop finger behind your back. And they will never tell.
That’s what it means to work with your best friends.
What about you guys? Are you a pro dog hustler? What do you think the newbies need to know? Sound off in the comment section.