The Dog Walker’s Guide To Choosing A Dog Walker
The Whole Dog Journal just published a handy article on stuff you should know about hiring a dog walker. Since anyone can call themselves a dog walker (just like anyone can call themselves a dog trainer), you gotta know how to pick a qualified person if you’re going to hire one. WDJ recommends asking smart questions, such as:
- If your company has multiple employees, who will actually be the person walking my dog?
- How many dogs do you walk at once? How do you choose which dogs walk with each other?
- What kind of training do you have to walk multiple dogs at a time?
- What happens when you can’t make it? What kind of experience do you have with dogs?
- Where will you go on your walks? Will you be taking my dog to the dog park?
These are all good. Please ask these questions. Since I’m a pro street walker myself, I wanted to share some other tips to help you in your search.
How to find a dog walker:
You can always start with a search on the interwebz. Companies with multiple employees should have a website. That being said, some of the best, most reliable and skilled dog walkers I know aren’t necessarily advertising their services. So always ask around.
Ask your vet tech, your groomer, your trainer, your local pet store owner, or your rescue and shelter workers for recommendations. Who do they hire for their own dogs? Who are their clients (with dogs that are similar to yours) using?
There are some very skilled dog walkers that are flying under the radar, working part-time as vet techs, groomers, and in animal shelters (or in my case, as part time writers), who might be an excellent fit for your dogs.
Go with someone that does this for a living (part or full time), rather than someone who is a student or retiree or a kid that loves dogs. It’s a huge commitment to show up at someone’s home every single day for months and years. You want a pro – someone who is internally motivated to hold themselves accountable to the job they’ve committed to doing, no matter how cold it is outside.
People often ask me if they should hire a solo dog walking artiste, such as myself, or a larger dog walking service. I wish I could say that one is a more reliable bet than the other. In my experience, there is an equal risk with both that your dog might spend 30 minutes every afternoon wearing a sombrero and busking for change in the park.
So, start with yourself: what kind of relationship do you want and what kind of service does your schedule require? To generalize in a big, big way:
Solo dog walkers are like shopping at a small, locally owned store: highly personal relationships, flexible service, but with individual quirks and varying availability.
Dog walking companies are more like shopping at a large store: increased convenience, more accountability, but with more rules and less personalized service.
Overall, they’re both fine. You just have to pick which works best for you. And remember: there is little to no oversight in dog walking. The bosses rarely see their employees in action. So ultimately, the person who is walking your dog – whether or not they are self-employed or working for a service – is alone with your dogs almost all of the time.
I’m not trying to scare you. I just want you to understand that this is a weird job. Other than the folks at the dog park or that old Italian lady that’s always peeking out her window trying to catch us letting dogs pee on her curb so she can chase us away with a broom, no one is watching us walk your dogs. So you have to do your homework during the hiring process.
Let’s say you’ve found a few people/companies that look pretty good. Here are some tips for meeting with a potential dog walker:
1. There should be a free consultation at your home, with no obligation to hire the dog walker. This is the meet and greet. With larger companies, sometimes only the boss comes to meet you. Ask that whomever will actually be walking your dog – the primary walker – comes with them too.
2. Watch them interact with your dogs during this initial meeting. Unless your dog is fearful, they should pretty much love the dog walker right away. Dog walkers stink of other dogs and have meat dust leaking out of every pore. Dogs should react accordingly. And the dog walker? You should see pure joy on their faces. Meeting new dogs is FUN for us.
2a. If your dog is fearful with new people, watch how the dog walker handles this. Are they forcing themselves on your dog, insisting that they interact? Or are they hanging back, sitting on the floor, and calmly talking to you while your dog launches a covert exploration of their coat?
If your dog is uber-shy or has other serious quirks, it’s ok to ask for a second meeting. You’ll probably have to pay for it this time, but it will be helpful to have the dog walker meet your dog with you there again. Then, if you see that a little progress has been made and/or you trust that the dog walker is a good one, go for it. Sometimes shy dogs are less shy when you’re not home. Which leads to…
2b. Remember that dogs are different when you’re not around. I have a friend with three big, loud-ass dogs that go bananas when someone comes to the door. She assumed that when I came to walk them that they would make an insane racket – enough to scare off a dozen intruders. Turns out, all three of her dogs were mute when I walked in the door. So much for her security system.
This kind of thing happens a lot. Your dogs may be bolder or shyer in your presence. Friendly dogs might charge the door, growling and barking, when they are alone in the house and a stranger walks in. Shy dogs might be emboldened to go for a walk with the meat-dusted stranger, now that mom isn’t looking. At some point, if you like the dog walker, you just have to let them show up alone and see what happens.
3. Ask them to go on a walk with you and your dogs. If your dog is cool with it, ask to do this step during the initial meeting. Unless your dog is a robot (or super easy going) then you’ll want to see the dog walker handling them. Have the dog walker put on their harness/collar/leash and go for a short walk together.
If your dog is reactive, you don’t want to skip this part. Anyone can talk a good game, but that doesn’t mean they can stay cool when your reactive dog starts a break dancing competition with the neighbor’s dog. Go for a group walk and see them interact with your dog.
4. If your dog has medical or behavioral issues, talk about them honestly. You want to know if the dog walker has the skills to work with your dog and they need to be able to make an informed decision. A good dog walker knows their limits. It’s ok for them to tell you they aren’t skilled enough to work with your aggressive dog. In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do. So don’t hide anything from them.
And don’t try to sugarcoat your dog’s issues so they’ll want to work for you. It’s not fair and it’s not safe. If you hire them, they will have to walk into your home – alone – and it can be dangerous if you fail to mention that your 110 pound dog will be loose in the house and has been known to pin strangers to the wall (I still love you Mo!). This is the time to be honest. Come up with a management plan for future visits, so that the dog walker can enter your home safely with minimal stress for them and your dogs. For instance, if your dog is fearful, you can plan to leave their harness on, so that the dog walker doesn’t have to touch them too much on the first visit. Or if your dog is a nutter with strangers, you can plan to crate or gate them away from the door. This is a good time to start talking about this stuff.
Also, the more you share, the more you can get a feel for their experience and skill level. Let’s say you tell them your dog is reactive. A dog walker that’s any good will have many follow up questions for you, so that the can better understand what your dog’s triggers are, what walking routes are safest, and what your training plans are, etc. If they say, “Oh, I know how to walk reactive dogs,” but they don’t care to hear about your individual reactive dog’s needs or have any questions, move on.
5. Find out how you’ll know that they were there. I leave a note after every walk. My clients have affectionately dubbed these “The Poop Diaries” and I’m proud to say that after more than ten years of leaving these notes each day for multiple clients, I’ve written the dog walker’s equivalent of War and Peace. But, I’m willing to concede that writing a note takes a minute or two away from your dogs and the average dog walker isn’t as excited as I am about finding a thousand different ways to say, “Your dog made a sizable deposit at the turd bank today.”
Many dog walkers will do cool stuff like get little post-it-sized checklists that are pre-printed, so they can leave you a quick report:
Poop – check
Pee – check
Butt Scritches – check
If they don’t leave notes, ask them how you’ll know they’ve been there each day. This company does all kinds of stuff to prove they’re doing their jobs. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but it’s totally fine to ask for some sort of proof your dog walker showed up.
6. They should have their professional goods on hand to show you. Dog walkers should have liability insurance, references, a detailed service contract, and clear, written policies and rates. No matter who they work for or if they’re self-employed, all dog walkers should have this stuff. Before you hire them, you’ll want to know: what’s their cancellation policy? What are your daily and weekly rates and what forms of payment do you accept? What window of time will you be coming each day? Who pays the vet bills if my dog gets hurt at the dog park? Who will pay my dry cleaning bills if I catch you wearing my evening gowns? This stuff should be in writing.
Then at some point, you’ll have to just cross your heart, lock up grandma’s diamonds, and give them the keys to your house. It’s scary to trust a stranger with your dog and your home. I’m always amazed at how many people have given me the keys to their houses within 30 minutes of meeting me over the years. Quite frankly, it’s an honor to be trusted that way. Good dog walkers understand this and do everything they can to make you feel comfortable and confident in them.
In the end, go with your gut and choose the person your dogs and you really dig.
In the comments, tell me about your dog walkers. Are they good, bad, weirdos, life-savers? I wanna know.
p.s. You think you wanna be a dog walker, huh punk? It’s hard and there is epic poop involved. Read all about here.