Summary: A personal and detailed account of what a dog walker’s life is actually like, including the mistakes I made and tips to make your own business successful.
“Hi, how do I become a dog walker?”
My name is Jamie Shanks and I’ve been a pro dog walker since May 2010. I often get calls and emails from people either asking for a job or for information so they can start their own dog walking business. If you’re thinking about becoming a dog walker then I hope this article can help you become one of the successful ones because sadly I’ve seen many try but fail. If you’ve definitely decided you want to walk dogs for a living then it might make more sense to start your own business rather than work for another dog walker as you will have the unlimited potential that being a business owner provides rather than being trapped working for minimum wage, part time hours, without any future prospects and making some other sucker rich!
Starting any small business is hard especially when living with such a fragile economy as we do now, dog walking especially so as it appeals to so many people, because a) the start up costs are very low, b) requires little knowledge and training and c) enables people to be their own boss and say goodbye to all those bosses that they’ve worked under before! More and more dog walkers are popping everywhere and all share the dream of finally earning a fair and honest wage while doing something they love. Since the recession more and more people have turned to dog walking but the work is still there for you as the general public is becoming more aware that hiring a dog walker is an option should they consider getting a dog. So you can get work and be successful even with little resources but you must be 100% committed and determined to make your new business work!
If you start and especially if you are short on cash then you have to be an optimist and realist cause you have tough times ahead! You’ll be broke and times (many times) feel that you made the wrong choice, especially when you are at home all day earning nothing or spending the day walking a handful of dogs and coming home with just a few pound notes or because your first dog is a nightmare both off and on lead! I looked at the first couple of years as if I was back at college or uni. I put up with being broke-ass-broke because I knew it wouldn’t last and I would come out of it educated and knowing eventually I could make a decent if not very nice living out of it in the long term!
Research everything you can about dog walking and especially the already established dog walkers in your area, the services they offer and the dog walking rates they charge etc. I offer dog walking, dog boarding, pet sitting and puppy care services for parts of Renfrewshire, Scotland. You can leave comments at the bottom of this page if you want to ask me anything, find out how I started and read my blog to see for yourself what dog walking is actually like! Make sure you read the hundreds of comments after this post as they are as valuable as the post itself. A good way to find out where dog walkers are is to locate them using Google maps, many will have websites detailing their services, prices and general info – this is all useful stuff. Find the going rate and make sure you don’t go over it nor beneath it too much as you have to make a living and the first few months (even the first year or two) will be a real test financially.
Deciding your prices
The prices of dog walking can range between £5-£12+ but generally it’s about £7-£10 per hour walked with discounts offered for secondary dogs in the home. There are two types of dog walking, group and solo. Solo walks tend to cost more and demand for it is less compared to group walking which is ideally what you want to do cause that’s where the money is. I remember when I first started (I had no car just a bike) the plan was to do solo walks throughout the day, one after the other from 9am-5pm. I assumed people would prefer their dogs being given a solo walk over a group walk and not have their dog put into a vehicle with other dogs and with that reasoning I thought I could charge £10 per walk (in an area where other’s charge around £8) with needing just 5 dogs a day to make a living. It didn’t work out!
Most people want their dogs walked at lunchtime while they’re at work and many owners of socialised dogs would prefer their dogs to be out with other dogs especially if those dogs are young and enjoy socialising. Sure, they’re dogs out there that can only be walked on their own but most can be walked in groups. Also I found out people didn’t want their dogs walked at 9am when they’ve only just left for work an hour before and neither 5pm when they are on there way home and can walk their dog themselves, so the lunchtime walk will be your peak working hours and you may only get three walks in that time and in that time you will earn most of your money for that day, so if you are doing solo walks in that time you are limiting what your income can be. I’m not saying solo walks aren’t important and that you wont do them. You will get asked to do solo walks from people like the elderly and disabled folk who don’t mind what time their dogs get walked during the day as long as they do get walked!
You’d be surprised how much time is spent travelling, picking up and dropping off dogs, even in a small area. I remember when I started I took on the dogs of another dog walker while they went on holiday as well as my own dogs, so at lunchtime I had two group walks to do, I picked up my first lot about 11am took them to park for 1 hours play and then left. By the time I dropped them home, picked up another four dogs and arrived back at the park it was exactly one hour later and none of the dogs I walked that day lived more than 2 miles away! You don’t get paid for travelling so keep you area of work as small as you possibly can. Petrol costs will take a lot of your income if you have a car so if you plan on using the car make sure it’s economical. I’m serious, when I started I had 3 dogs all within 6 miles of me, just picking them up and taking them to the park and back home racked up well over 100 miles a week and I was driving around in a v6 Volvo estate!
I’m allowed to walk 6 dogs at a time by my insurance but am more comfortable with around 4-5 at a time. I know there are people out there who walk 10 dogs at a time but I wouldn’t recommend it. Off-lead very few dogs are trained and while some will come when called some of the time, you are responsible for their well being. I guess it all depends on what kind of dogs you’re walking, whether they will be walked on-lead or off-lead and how many you feel comfortable with. Every dog walker will have a different opinion on this subject and you will have to find out for yourself what you can manage and that will depend on what dogs you are walking at the time. It only takes one dog to turn it into a nightmare.
Regarding the dogs the most important thing is that they are friendly! Most dog owners will tell you their dog is friendly, whether they are or not is another matter. If their dog doesn’t want anything to do with other dogs and refrains from ripping them to bits then you’ll be told it’s friendly! Dog walking can be quite funny that way cause unless it’s a puppy then you will have to find out for yourself what the dog is like. You could have a great wee team filled with lovely sociable dogs all having a great time together then bring in a new dog that ruins the whole walk for everyone. For me, dogs that cause problems in the pack is the worst part of dog walking and if I come across a dog that doesn’t fit in enough, cause it’s not good enough off lead, isn’t socialised enough or shows some form of aggression eg, defence aggression regarding toys and other resources then I will let owner know that its’ not working and end that dog’s time with us.
Deciding what services to offer
Decide what services you are going to offer and your dog walking rates before you start, you don’t want leaflets here and there displaying different prices and services because you’ve learned that your prices were too high to begin with or the services you offered were unrealistic. Services dog walkers/pet sitters offer can include, pet sitting in the owner’s home (including cat’s and other animals), dog (and other pet) boarding, puppy visits, pet visits (including cat’s and other animals) and pet taxi. Some are even groomers. A license may be required to dog board so contact your local council or visit their website for more info!
Outside dog walking, pet visits and pet boarding will be the most popular services, especially in the summer. You’ll see many dog walkers/pet sitters advertising hard to get pets to care for while their owners go for a week or weekend away. Cat visits are quite common as they are people who would prefer their cat remain at home while they are away rather than a cattery. Dog boarding is quite common too. The prices for these services are about £3-£6 per home visit and between £12-£20 per night dog boarding and about £5 per day boarding caged animals. Pet taxi, which is a very uncommon service but so many pet services advertise it regardless of the fact that they’re rarely available during the working day. I’d also like to note that you consider your pet sitting prices reasonably. And on that note…
I’ve seen on a website someone just starting their dog walking business and advertising pet sitting at £50 a day, which is madness! Think about it, it would cost someone £350 on pet care a week plus the cost of their holiday if they were going away. That pet service failed to put themselves in the owners position but I understand their thinking. They were thinking “Hey, £50 is reasonable! After all, it’s only around £2 per hour for 24 hours worth of care! We’ll be living the dream in no time!” But of course they weren’t living the dream but in a dream and soon their business disappeared never to be seen again! A kennel will board a dog for about £8+ a day! I offer dog boarding but only for my dog walking clients, I only charge £10 per night which is low for my area. I also will stay at a clients home to look after their dog on occasion. I charge £10 per night for that service too.
Not long ago I met up a guy who wanted to walk with me because he wanted to learn how to be a dog walker and was ready to start! He was talking about how the people are very well off in the area that he lives in and he could take their dog on a 3-4 hour walk and charge £30-£40 a time! I could see the pound signs appearing in his eyes and tried to let him know it doesn’t work like that. £30 for a dog walk! Think about it! Even if that was just once a week for a month then you are asking someone to pay you £120 to take their dog out four times. Just remember what your clients are going to have to keep aside from their monthly pay checks to pay just you and that hopefully will keep you grounded and from making expensive mistakes. Like I said earlier, I wanted to charge £10 for solo walks and ended up reducing my prices to £8. Sadly I had delivered leaflets to half the village with the old price and the other half with the new price.
Being a professional dog walker is huge responsibility! I often get told I’ve got a dream job and that it’s easy and at times it can be, but I’m responsible for the life and safety of another persons pet and I’m always aware of that! When walking one dog on a lead then it’s a care free walk but when I’m walking six dogs off lead then I am 100% focused and alert and on the lookout for problems and potential problems at all times – my brain is on overdrive, because just one lapse in concentration and I’m left having to explain to owner why their dog is hurt…or worse!
I’ve been dog walking for several years and know a lot of dog owners. I hear about dogs being attacked or injuring themselves regularly. I’m a dog walker who works at Erskine beach mainly and I see broken glass or planks of wood with nails sticking out of them alongside other potential dangers and they keep me focused and alert.
I’ve been lucky that no dog I walk has suffered serious injury – apart from a cut pad that didn’t bleed and a broken toenail I haven’t had to deal with an injured pet under my care! But I’m aware that it will happen eventually no matter how vigilant and careful I am! The dogs I walk tend to be young and very energetic, occasionally getting knocks and limps but then walking them off. But what would I do if a dog I was caring for injured itself?
Walking lurchers and other fast dogs I’ve seen how fast they run and have worried about them breaking a leg. I’ve always thought that I’d try or at least want to try to splint their leg and assumed this would be the right thing to do but after the excellent canine first aid course I recently attended I learnt that if a dog can walk on three legs then there’s no need for a splint. In fact a splint can add extra weight onto their broken leg and you can end up hurting them further.
On my first day back dog walking after doing a first aid course I felt more in control and relaxed than I have ever done and it’s because I know now that if a dog needs CPR, the Heimlich manoeuvre, treatment of a cut or wound or collapses with a seizure I can deal with it and help with the situation until we get that animal to a vet.
If you want to be a dog walker or pet care service or even if you own a pet then I highly recommend doing a first aid course. Dog walking isn’t all the ‘Sunshine and rainbows’ that some think it is and at times can be quite stressful but learning the skills you need so you can deal with the situations you may encounter will make your life a lot easier as well as taking a lot of the anxiety away and could potentially be the difference of life and death for the pet you are caring for!!
Get to know a dog behaviourist! They can be quite easy to find on doggy forums or in your local area but learning and understanding dog behaviour is essential for a dog walker. If a dog is doing something wrong then it is easy to reinforce that behaviour and make it worse! Even just understanding why a dog is doing what it does can be important and help you learn about the dog you are walking. How would you deal with it if a new dog joined the group but one of the other dogs didn’t like it or there were pack issues? The dog behaviourist I work with also writes for my website and she has given me an insight into dog behaviour that I just could of never of found out on my own. Essential if you are walking dogs in groups!
You should really get dog walking insurance, they’re a few dedicated pet insurance businesses around. Pet Businesses Insurance is one, Cliverton is another. It should cost about £15-£20 a month. Pet insurance covers things like liability, should the animal your walking cause an accident for example then you are liable and can be sued. Cover also includes keys and locks of owners homes in case you lose their keys or they are stolen and also cover vet costs should the animal you are looking after be harmed through your own negligence.
Since generally you are going to be given a key to the owners home while they’re away, it’s best to have a certificate showing you have been police checked. Letting strangers into their home alone is a big deal for most people and why dog walkers rely so heavily on recommendations, because if their friend or someone they know trusts you then they are far, far more likely to choose you than someone they know nothing about.
Getting known is the hardest thing. Get nice business cards made and if you want get nice leaflets too. While waiting for work you can distribute your leaflets in the area you want to work in, try and make them stand out and not just black text on white paper and keep the information brief and straight to the point. But just know that leaflets are the equivalent of spam email and most will be binned without ever being looked at. If you are really determined and have the nerve to make a real impact then get a outdoor banner made and place it somewhere like a busy junction in your town letting everyone know about your brand new business. Banners can be made for less than £100 and after a few weeks you can change their location – so good value for money!
Don’t expect to get flooded with phone calls that night, but don’t be disheartened either as many will hold on to the leaflets and keep you in mind if they need a dog walker/pet sitter in the future. Such people are those waiting to get a puppy, or those who know their circumstances may change or those planning a holiday etc. Always keep business cards on you wherever you are, a conversion with a stranger while out walking a dog can lead to a potential new customer. Pet shops, groomers, newsagents are ideal places to display leaflets and business cards, post offices, other small business premises should all be looked into. These methods help but leaflets through the letterbox and in shops can also be easily ignored.
Regarding advertising friends and family are great assets. Get them to spread the word, they can be invaluable as they can give a personal testimonial for you. A good website can also be helpful as those who don’t know of a dog walker will generally search for one online. People most likely to search online for dog walkers are those that have just moved to the area, the younger generation and new puppy owners. On your website make sure you tell potential customers a bit about yourself and what services you offer, also make sure you are listed on Google places and Google + business page as they help you rank better for local searches! But just remember it’s not about being no.1 on Google it’s about building an effective website that turns visitors into clients.
For a free 10 point assessment of your website click here. Graham helped me with my website!
There are loads of dog walking websites that rank high in local searches but their websites are hopeless and will never convert visitors to clients so make sure that if you have a website then you give the visitor what they want straight away. Too many websites focus on themselves and not the clients, paragraph after paragraph of why they are so good, remember people don’t read they scan! That means on the homepage you list what services you offer, how much they cost and how to get in contact with you. Testimonials help greatly as well as pics of happy pets! Don’t forget to add a ‘Call to action’ on every page. Something like, “If you’d like to arrange a dog walking service the please call ***********”.
Once you’re website is built and you have your Google place and Google+ business page setup then it will be time to start making efforts to making sure you website ranks on local search results. When people search online they tend to use phrases so it can be handy to have those phrases on your website. If you live in London and want a dog walker you may Google “London dog walkers”, so having that phrase in your homepage, homepage title and description is going to make sense. Next you’re going to need links from other websites pointing to your website. There are many factors in ranking on Google but it’s a bit like a popularity contest so the more links you get the higher you will list. Generally the easier the link is to get the less it is worth and one great link from a powerful website can be worth hundreds of links from poor websites.
In my opinion stay away from clip-art and the high quality dog pictures taken from the net to make your website, many dog walkers do this and it looks naff, too generic, impersonal and gives potential customers very little information about YOU! Once your businesses begins to take off you can then add a gallery,video and even a blog.
An excellent method of advertising is to get stickers put on your vehicle if you have one, that way hundreds of people see you every day and it doesn’t cost much. I remember when I got stickers for my estate. I was driving along and was slowing down to make a turn and someone was looking at my car and I’m thinking “why you staring at my car?” and then I realized it’s because I’ve got brand new stickers on it. Now when people look at the logos on my car I’m used to it, but I always get a wee thrill from being noticed! I also have hoodies and t-shirts that have my embroidered logo on them. I remember taking a puppy to puppy class while their owners were at work and there was this training exercise going on. We were all lined up and I noticed this woman staring from the corner of her eye at the logo on my hoodie. I pretended I couldn’t see her looking, but I knew she was and she therefore was aware of my business without me saying a word!!!
While walking dogs you will tend to go to dog friendly areas where other people walking their dogs will be – all potential customers, so don’t be shy to say ‘Hi’ and start making as many dog owning friends as you can.
Getting your first job
When you get that first phone call or email find out what services they are after, what area they live in. If you can give them the service they want and they live in your area that you’re prepared to go to and they are happy with the price then you can arrange to meet them and get to know their pet before you start working for them. Personally I wouldn’t like to enter into someone’s home without meeting their dog beforehand. Also understand that most dog owners are very forgiving of their pets sins, so even if their dog is unfriendly with other dogs many will tell you that their dog is fine. Take caution especially if you are doing group walks that this new dog is going to be ok. Also while you are meeting the new dog you can get to know each other, answer any queries they have and show them any documents you want to. Some dog walkers have ‘Welcome packs’ that they give to new owners. Make sure you take down their phone numbers including work, find out if there pet is insured and to what veterinary clinic they are with in case of emergency.
Do exactly as owner requires – no more & no less – do not improvise unless necessary.
Things you’ll need
You’ll need a few things when out dog walking. Always carry a spare lead, I’ve had a new lead snap on me with a dog that was to be walked on-lead only and I got one hell of a fright, thankfully I got the dog back without any problems and put it on another lead. Carry a slip lead! You are responsible only for the dogs you walk but sadly you will confront dogs that are not friendly and owners lacking in response, so a slip lead means you can whip it over anyone else’s dogs that may be troublesome and be in control of that dog before anything bad happens. Poo bags are essential but instead of buying them buy baby nappy(diaper) bags as they cost a fraction of the price.
On hot days you might need to take water with you. And let’s not forget how important treats are. To begin with you wont have the same authority over the dog the owner has and it may take one day, several days or even weeks for the dog to bond with you and recognise you as a pack manager, treats make things a lot easier and I can’t think of a better treat than dried liver, every dog I’ve ever walked would walk on hot coals for a liver tit-bit, forget buying treats they are expensive and wont have the same appeal.
If the dogs can be let off-lead then you might want to take some toys, like a tennis ball, squeaky tennis balls are best I find. Now that I walk many dogs in groups I don’t bother using toys, instead I let them play with each other as it’s easier to manage them that way and toys can also be a quick way to get a scrap going as some dogs can be quite possessive.
It will take time for your businesses to pick up, but it will. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you chuck out a few leaflets that in a week you’ll be inundated with dog walking jobs. Everyone who needs a dog walker already has one that they trust and they ain’t going to chuck ’em cause some Joe put a leaflet through their door saying they’ll do it a £1 less! It’s the people that will need a dog walker/pet sitter in the future cause their circumstances change or because they are getting a puppy or because they have just moved into the area – they will be your potential customers, but just remember you are fighting alongside the other more established dog walkers in your area to get those clients! And on that note why not offer puppy services such as puppy visits, a service to take puppies to puppy classes (or even host puppy classes yourself ) and socialisation walks?
Once you are established
Dog walking is where most of your income will come from (even though cat visits will bring in some nice pocket money). Your most valuable dogs are going to be the dogs you walk Monday – Friday, with shift dogs making up the rest of your dog walking clients. Shift dogs are the dogs you only get a few times a week depending on the work shift patterns of client. The days you will be needed will be either the same days week in, week out or different days each week. The problem with those dogs is that on some days you will get close to being fully booked because on those days you have many shift dogs all needing walked alongside your Monday-Friday dogs and other days you will only have your Monday – Friday dogs leaving you half empty! The problem with shift dogs is that you’re limited to the possibility of being full rather than actually being full. When you reach this point you will have to make a choice if you want to go forward in your career. You can either employ someone to help walk the dogs or you can start to let shift dogs go when a new Monday – Friday dog comes along.
Good luck and please remember I am here to help! Any questions, unsure about anything? Ask me on the comment form below!
Copyright © 2011 – 2014 Jamie Shanks