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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.

found animal foundation image

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.

my gal pal Truffle

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.

my gal pal Roxy

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.

This will NEVER be me. I don't roll with this many dogs on leash at once.

This will NEVER be me. I don’t roll with this many dogs on leash at once.

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.

  1. Liz #

    Absolutely loved this article – so true !!!

    February 23, 2013
  2. Awesome:) I wish you lived in Vermont!

    February 23, 2013
    • I wish I could be Murphy’s day time date!

      February 25, 2013
    • Megyn #

      Kristel – I do! I walk dogs in the greater Burlington area, and work with a lot of DINOS 🙂

      February 25, 2013
  3. I have to say, you are funny as hell and a brilliant writer. Everything you say is so true and that’s why I chose to be an animal massage therapist! Thanks for doing all you do for dogs, their owners and all of us out here whom you inspire 🙂 You have an incredible work ethic and raise awareness all for the love of dogs, I admire that!

    February 23, 2013
    • Thank you Julie – that’s so very nice of you to write!

      February 25, 2013
  4. All, so true. I’ll never get rich doing this, but I love it!

    February 23, 2013
  5. NancyB #

    Thanks for another interesting and funny column!
    Would love to see your thoughts on how to keep dogs safe while riding in the car. We had used a harness attached to a seatbelt but our dog is able to get out of it. Our car is too small for him to be crated. Any thoughts and suggestions would be appreciated! The vet said she doesn’t restrain her dogs and let’s them lie on the seats but I am not comfortable with that.

    February 23, 2013
  6. Very well written – all true! Having people skills and organizational skills is essential. There is a lot of time spent scheduling, sending e-mails, doing invoices and talking with clients. It won’t matter how good you are with the dog if you can’t talk to the owner. Networking with trainers, vets, pet store workers, and other walkers is also very important; you have to know where to refer people for things outside your expertise. Your clients will respect you for being honest about your limitations.

    February 23, 2013
  7. B #

    Somedays I come home only to find that what I truly believed to be admiring glances being shot my way were, in fact, folks staring at the poop on the back of my pants, shirt, and once, my hair (don’t ask). It’s not a new trend, just part of the job. Haha!
    I’ve also had dogs die while in my care (naturally, whew!) and one must be prepared for that. Freak outs don’t work when an unexpected situation has to be managed AND you’re trying to comfort an ailing animal. Somedays aren’t wine and roses but as you said, it is an honor to serve and I love everyday of it!

    February 24, 2013
  8. Sam Tatters #

    Just a note about dog training/behaviour books – not all were created equal, though anyone involved with dogs in any way would do well to read some of the *good* books

    February 24, 2013
  9. Carolyn #

    My tip: Plan to be late to every job and leaving late from every job if it’s raining. Wet dogs and clean houses do not mix. Towel drying a squirmy happy wet dog takes approximately 58 minutes if done to the dog’s standards of perfection, and this drastically exceeds most 30 minute visit lengths.
    Thanks for this post, it was funny, accurate, smart, inclusive, very funny and also, hilarious!

    February 25, 2013
    • So true! I have to admit that drying off dogs and wrapping them up in towels is the silver lining to rainy days, I love it. But you’re so right – time management is a huge part of being a dog walker. It can be really tricky on busy days.

      one more tip: Plan to lose part of your front tooth when an enthusiastic drying session with a 120 pound dog, who has a towel over his face, ends with a head butt.

      February 25, 2013
      • Can attest to cracked tooth due to excessive exuberance! LOL!

        February 25, 2013
      • Aims #

        LOL My version of that is a bloody nose.

        March 15, 2013
        • Black eye!

          May 24, 2013
  10. I love this, because it is so very true! Some of my best moments throughout the day come when I am with a client’s dog!
    I definitely think of the walk as the dog’s time and make it as enjoyable as possible for the dog. I love watching them sniff, explore, check things out and stop for kisses or snuggles every once in a while. In addition to all of the hazards you have listed above, I have experienced some amazing things: nature at her finest in every season, whether it be a clear blue sky, a wildly running river or new growth popping up through leaves on the ground.
    Another thing I would add is that I have heard of dog walkers (probably ones who want to get 10 dogs out at a time) who use equipment other than what the owner uses, like choke, prong or shock collars. I don’t believe in that type of equipment, so that is upsetting to me. Find out what the owner uses and why, and if you have a suggestion, make it, but don’t take liberties like that with other people’s dogs.It’s not up to you. I have never had one client turn me down when I offered an alternative like an easy walk or freedom harness and they are appreciative, because they do look to us as experts.
    As for poop…well, poop becomes a very important part of your existence. And, you will wear more, step in more and clean up more than you ever thought possible. Still wouldn’t change a thing!

    February 25, 2013
    • Great point – if you want to use a different piece of equipment, you need to discuss with the owner first! These are not our dogs and we don’t get to make major training decisions without consent.

      February 25, 2013
  11. Great post and you’ve covered most everything…the poop, oh my the poop. My life is poop it seems somedays… My only suggestions would be for new dogwalkers to assume that you will have to take on clients that you may not normally..weird times and days, strange requests, some clients that treat you like ‘STAFF’…but once you are built up to a decent client base you can start being more choosey, you will also appreciate your good clients even more!

    Also, be prepared for sprained ankles, fall injuries, thumb/wrist and shoulder tendinitis and other “repetitive strain” injuries. Which means take care of yourself. Stretching, massage, good shoes/boots etc go a LONG way to helping your body keep up with the strain.
    It’s not all just a walk in the park!

    February 25, 2013
  12. Very well written I can relate to everything mentioned 🙂 Here is my take on the same topic.I look forward to reading more from you! Best Wishes from Toronto

    February 25, 2013
  13. Too funny and too true, love your blog =D

    February 25, 2013
  14. I have been dogwalking / house sitting for over 9 years and still have the same client ; i love this job there is none like it * If you are active in tune with dogs and cats I recommend you take up this sport –> yes its like a sport to me , I keep fit and it makes ME happy * The animals pay you with glee on their faces , there is NOTHING like it in this world * take care of an animal and see what happens 🙂
    kathy James green ~

    February 26, 2013
  15. Monique #

    Great article all around kudos you nailed it all on the head!!! Dogs are the greatest PET ever and very friendly and they sure make friends fast in most dog parks I have been to…oh and I am dogsitter part time to boot!!! I enjoy the perks greatly all that exercise, company and I do find myself singing out loud when out walking with dogs too lol……..ARF ARF.

    February 26, 2013
  16. Jane #

    Great article!! I’m fortunate enough to be helping out a friend with her company! What a great way to spend the day, it has it’s challenges that’s for sure but the pleasure of being with a pack of dogs is amazing! Love it more that any job I’ve ever done!!

    March 4, 2013
  17. Great article. Emphasis on customer service! I feel it is important to set expectations with clients ahead of time. Someone mentioned wet dogs. Make certain your client has a supply of ‘wet dog’ towels available for you to use on rainy days. A checklist of what they will supply and what you will supply during a visit/walk is a helpful tool. This can be one of the pages, or half page, of your contract package. Also, I always bring homemade treats to my initial consult.

    March 12, 2013
  18. Great article!!! I myself walk many dogs, mine and clients together. Usually about 6 or 7 at a time. Some of them pull. I’m looking to add more dogs to my walk since for me is an awesome feeling to be around so many dogs plus… it’s better than spreading flyers around. Maybe somebody needs to share their story on how they were able to add more dogs in a consistent and reliable way.

    Also! I walk my dogs on regular flat collars and I hold the leashes to my hands which is sometimes a challenge. I’ve seen some dog walkers use other equipments where the leashes go attached to a belt and that enables them to add more dogs to the walk. It’ll be interesting if somebody could elaborate more on this equipments and how to add more dogs.

    July 19, 2014
  19. Ian Roy #

    Just wanted to know if there is a product out there for dog walkers to use where you can attach multiple leashes on to one handle (like a brass knuckle)?

    My gf has a few problem dogs that are tearing her hands apart and I want to find a way to help her.

    Any thoughts or solutions ?

    November 13, 2014
    • Hi Ian, Some dog walkers use a huge, over-sized carabiner to hold multiple leashes at once. But unless the dogs are trained to walk politely on leash, I’m not sure that the handle will make much a difference? A no-pull harness or gentle leader might make walking less hard on her hands.

      November 13, 2014
  20. Boondogs #

    Awesome! Great article! I walk dogs off and on leash in the woods. Sometimes when it is raining and cold and my legs are aching and I am feeling stressed out, I stop and look around at the dogs running and playing and having a great time, and realize someone is actually paying me to do this, and I think, “I have the best job on the planet!”

    December 22, 2014

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