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~~*~~*~~ So you want to be a Dog Walker? ~~*~~*~~
With the recent recession, there has been a sudden influx of 'Dog walkers' in my area. I don't just mean casual people taking their pooch out for a walk, I mean those who have decided that they like dogs and would like to walk others for a living. During a recent visit to my vets, I noticed that their notice board (well I guess it works then) had 16 Dog Walkers advertising on it - 6 months ago there was me, my friend and two well-known others. It is because of this that I thought I'd write about what's needed to be a dog walker and what Joe Public and his dog, Jack Poodle, should be looking out for.
~~*~~ Experience is everything ~~*~~
Don't get me wrong, I know you can't get experience without experiencing. However, when I see a 16 year old offering group walking for dogs when she's never owned a dog, I do shudder. Dogs are all different. I have a Labrador - she's a chocolate idiot and called Pig. I would pity anyone who tries to walk Pig on a lead as she pulls like a trooper. She also hates dogs in her face (unless she's in season and then she's an uncontrollable flirt) and will not tolerate them getting in the van before a walk. She's my dog and yet I'm still learning about her foibles. I have two other aggressive dogs on my books (yes I count Pig as aggressive because I cannot 100% trust her) - one will tolerate all dogs apart from entire males and one who is now able to travel and play happily with the other walking dogs but beware if one of them has a stick (it seems to be his Achilles heel!). I have walked these two dogs for over two years and now we can all have a pleasant walk together because I know their boundaries. I am also able to 'read' dogs better due to my experience - I know when 'they're just playing' and I know when Baxter's building up to a 'nudge my butt one more time and I'll 'av yer'. I've been dog walking for years - I started in Burnley, which I then passed on to a good friend to run; another friend is using my logo and website in Skipton and I've started again in Lancaster so I feel I know what I'm doing by now! I've also worked with animals since I was 14 - mostly in kennels and vets which has given me a good base for knowing dogs and reading them.
~~*~~ Group vs Individual Walking ~~*~~
Randomly today, my aggressive Border Collie owner said the reason she wanted me during the holidays is to keep the dog socialised as I do a better job than she ever could. I'm not blowing my slightly rusty trumpet (well obviously I am) but I'm an individual and group walker. I do individual walks with those I feel will not benefit from running free with others and I try my bestest to get those that do love a good beach run with friends to tolerate new friends too. Some dogs are nervous ninnies (my Irish Water Spaniel, Puddle was one of these) which can benefit from group walking whereas with others it may make them even worse - a noisy group walk might be the end of them! It is experience that tells me which walk is more suited to each individual dog. Also, it's up to the owner (only a little bit though!) as some want your complete undivided attention on their pooch whereas others feel it's nice for them to make new friends and interact. I prefer a group walk as a dog walker because it's lovely to throw a stick (once Colin's on a lead!) and watch 6 dogs chase madly into the water after it* and I'm at my proudest when I walk past someone with a yapping, lunging dog and mine are all on leads walking calmly behind me - it is a brilliant job when they behave!
~~*~~ Insurance is Important ~~*~~
Whilst it's nice that your neighbour's daughter is able to earn a couple of quid during the school holidays, it is vitally important that the dogs are safe. Having insurance for my business not only gives my customers piece of mind, it shows them that I'm serious - I've invested for the long-term and I have the dog's care at heart. My insurance not only covers accidents that the dogs have whilst out with me (none as yet, touch wood) but also includes public liability, changing their locks if I lose a key and 'lost dog' help. My insurance cost £13 ish a month which I consider a bargain - there are many companies offering it on the tinterweb so have a good search around and pick the one that most suits you. If an accident were to occur such as the mad whippets breaking a leg whilst running at extreme speed or the Puddle running head first into a fence which has always been there but she failed to remember or indeed see, then I have an animal first aid certificate which is a peace of mind for me and my clients. I also have all my doggies' mummy's numbers in my phone just in case.
~~*~~ Transportation, Equipment and Poo ~~*~~
I've recently invested in a lovely, shiny van which set me back a couple o quid but was absolutely essential - I can now take all the dogs to the beach safely rather than walk them from their house around boring streets. I supply the leads I use so that customers don't have to cope with a grimy wet lead when they get home and I feel I can trust the ones I buy! I use slipleads on the flight risks I walk as you really don't want a scaredy dog backing out of their collar on a main road - something else to consider.
I use my own treats that I tend to bake myself now since I've got a dog with a dairy intolerance on my books though bits of cheese are fantastic for gaining the trust of a new dog and ensuring it will recall when needed. During the walk I pick up most of the poo - I say most because randomly, Jack likes to do it in the sea - strange but true. This is probably the worst part of the job: occasionally I realise that I've picked up a stranger's poo and that just disturbs me, also walking with 6 dogs on lead and the equivalent of a bin bag of poo (if Pig's with me) is not particularly attractive but where I walk the council's fantastic with their poo bins so it's not wafting with me for long.
Then when we return to the van, I try and towel the worst offenders off and make sure everyone has a chance for a drink - the non-spill bowls are fantastic for this as I just fill them up again and leave them down for the journey home. Another investment is the crates I have in the van - these are for the little ones (pug, jack russel, cocker, little cross thing, pug cross) so that they don't get squished by the big doggies. I also have a giant crate for my aggressive dogs so that they're not forced into the faces of others with nowhere to escape. Crates are pretty good too when any of the entire bitches I walk are in season.
The above is some of the expenses I've got to consider but the main offender is of course diesel - I travel around 80 miles a day picking up my little friends and taking them to the beach and then dropping them all off at the end - it all adds up. Some days are obviously busier than others but I do cover a wide area in order to maximise my clients and a lot of my day is filled with travelling.
~~*~~ Clients and Finding Them ~~*~~
Most of my clients are absolutely lovely - Christmas presents, giving me plenty of notice when they're having a day off, not bothered when I drop off their westie in an attractive shade of green cos she's rolled in cow pats... and then there are the others who demand their dogs be immaculate, trained and change their mind about walks when I arrive to pick their dog up - I'm not particularly bothered by rude people as at the end of the day I don't have to deal with them too often, it's the dogs that matter to me. As for finding new customers, a lot of mine come from word of mouth which is lucky as they tend to live near each other, then there are the ones that spot me out with the crew having a filthy great time and ask for my number (occasionally they are attractive men, but usually, they're not). I designed my own website and sometimes I get new customers through this but mostly I use it for a blog open only to customers so they can see the naughtiness their dogs get up to. Progress reports and updates are an excellent way for me to keep in touch with the owners - most of my human customers I've only ever physically met at the initial interview or when they've been ill - I keep in touch through texts and little notes left every so often.
~~*~~ Responsibility ~~*~~
I'm a child at heart, one day I may grow up but I doubt it. However, the responsibility I hold when I'm entrusted with someone's £1000 labradoodle and more importantly their bestest friend is pretty great and I have to put my Adult hat on. Bear in mind: I have the key to people's houses and I take their dog to wide open spaces and let them off lead. It may sound simple to most but I'm a worrier and everything I do has to be done properly or I stress out! I try and accommodate everyone's wishes which sometimes means dropping in on dogs at 10pm on a sunday as their mummy is at work til 2am but I think this keeps my customers happy and ensures I am a vital part of their lives. Another thing that disturbs me is that people are advertising puppy training and whelping help - puppies are complex little beings and helping to whelp a litter is a massive responsibility - think along the lines of bringing in infection, upsetting the bitch, over-exercising puppies etc.
~~*~~ Job or Dog ~~*~~
If you'd like to be a Dog Walker, proceed to Section A.
If you'd like a Dog Walker, proceed to Section B.
If you're ambivalent about either, then Lord help you - you need a cat.
~~*~~ Section A ~~*~~
If you think you're ready to embark on becoming a dog walker don't quit your day job yet - when I moved to Lancaster it took me about a year to build up my customer base - it's not cos I'm crap at advertising my wares, it's because a dog walker is essentially a luxury and not everyone needs them.
Get experience! Take your friend's dog out as many different places as possible and meet different dogs (or don't - know your dog). Ask if you can sit in on puppy training classes to learn what's expected of a puppy owner and the basic rules of exercise and training. One poor work experience girl spent a day with me: she got thoroughly drenched as it was pouring all day (told her to bring waterproofs but the trendy cagoule didn't really cut the mustard), tripped over the pug, retched whenever I picked up poo, and complained about the smell of my van all day (cheeky cow, I'd cleaned it out for her!) - I think she discovered it wasn't the job of her dreams and I discovered I'd never agree to work experience again.
Get a bank account and invest in some equipment - Natwest were very nice to me, after all I only needed a small overdraft to get going again.
Do it properly and pay your tax!
Find out your council's local rules - there are limits on the number of dogs you're allowed to walk at once and every council is different.
Pick up poo - don't give us good 'uns a bad name.
Know the other dog walkers and the dog warden in your area - you never know when you'll need their help or to cover your back when someone reports you for a dangerous dog when you've actually not got a staffie on your books!
Try and maintain control - I know that sometimes the insanity kicks in and all the dogs are desperate for the manky empty water bottle they've found but shouting manic dogs are not good if the beach is packed with other dog walkers and kids swimming (only happened once, but there were kids swimming in the freezing dirty sea so me and my doggies went the other way for our own paddling frenzy - just because I walk there pretty much everyday does not mean I own the beach!).
Most of all, make sure you're not in it for the money - when the school holidays arrive it goes quiet; when you're not feeling well someone still has to walk the dogs; when it's p*ssing it down and your waterproofs are stuck to you and your iphone is waterlogged to the tune of £80 and the dogs are playing up because the wind is making them crazy - make sure it's the job you love!
~~*~~ Section B ~~*~~
Ask for references - a good dog walker will have plenty!
Ask for experience - if they haven't got any at least you'll know they're honest and from that point on it's up to you.
Check the insurance dates on their policy.
Check where they walk and how many dogs at a time.
Make sure the dog walker and your pooch meet - preferably the walker will appear in their usual stinking attire so that the dog knows them when they walk in unattended for their first walk.
Sign a contract - you wouldn't let a builder wander into your house day in day out with your key - a contract is a peace of mind for you both and should state the price agreed on it for each walk (I charge between £7 and £10 depending on how many days a week you require and how many dogs you have - I can't account for the rest of the country but I'm one of the cheapest around here).
How long are the walks and are they off lead? An hour is a decent walk for most though your puppy should only have 5 mins for every month of their life, eg: a 4 month old should have 20 mins.
Go on your instincts - if your dog is shying away more than normal, try someone else. If your dog is leaping all over them, it's usually a good sign!
According to my father, dog walking isn't a career, it's a hobby. I like to think of it as both - it's absolutely brilliant that I work for myself and make the rules, I usually finish work about 3 and yet I'm on a better take-home wage than my poor brother answering phone calls about broken boilers. It can be a career - I've basically got 2 people working for me which I technically could have made a franchise but I'm too darn nice. I'm as safe in my career as pretty much anyone else is in this worrying economic situation although I like to see it more like I need 20 of my customers to leave me before I'm stuck.
I absolutely love my job, even in the winter when I'm skating along Morecambe prom being pulled by two Dobermans and my hands are frozen to the lead, or in the sweltering heat when I'm stuck in stupid school traffic. The best part of my day is seeing the dogs' faces when they get to the sea - seriously, everyday they frolic in the water like they've never had so much fun in their lives! I love it.
Names and breeds have been changed to protect furry identities.
*I use sticks because if someone's hogging one, there's always another lying around so no need for jealousy; it costs me nothing; if it gets ripped into a thousand pieces nobody cries. I've never seen a dog impaled on one and nobodys choked on one - I feel there are just as many hazards with other toys but judge me if you like!
Thanks for reading.
Review will most definitely appear elsewhere.
Me, Pig & Puddle
All loving walkies.