There's more to dog walking than walking your dog.
To most people, dog walking seems like an easy and fun job. I mean, we get to play and hang out with dogs all day, how hard can it be? Anyone can do that, right? Well... this is where it gets complicated. The pet care industry, which also includes animal training and pet sitting, is unregulated. This means that anyone can train, walk or pet sit your dog without any qualifications or knowledge about dog behaviour nor their needs, their language, and so on, and charge money for their "expertise" and services. Dogs, like all animals, have their own language, and have physical, as well as emotional and cognitive needs. While walking dogs IS fun, you want a dog walker to know what those needs are and how to fulfill them. The following will help you know what to look for and what to ask when hiring a dog walker!
You're in charge of who you're hiring to care for your pet. While your dog can communicate, they can't talk. They can't tell you if your dog walker did something bad, was mean to them, if they were good to them, if they had fun during their walk that day. You don't get to have a conversation like you would with a child in daycare or who had an outing with a family member. "How was your day with auntie Amelie? What did you do together?" You don't get a weird toddler response that you have to decipher "Amelie went to jail" translation: my nephew was pretending to be a cop and he put me in jail because I was "the bad guy". So ask a million questions, ask stupid questions, ask difficult questions. Do your due diligence. I LOVE when potential clients ask me a million questions, it actually comforts and reassures me.
Don't know what to ask? Here are some suggestions:
1- How or where did you learn about dog behaviour?
Knowing and understanding dog behaviour allows the walker to provide your dog with a low stress and fulfilling walk. It helps prevent any possible negative interaction between dogs or between your dog and a human. Dogs communicate when they're uncomfortable, when they're stressed, when they want to be left alone, etc. Being able to know when a dog is saying "no" is important, and knowing what to do when the dog says "no" is crucial. Also, as a dog walker, we spend so much time with your dog, it's helpful to notice and understand behaviour changes, a normally happy and friendly dog, suddenly being aggressive or reactive, or a high energy dog suddenly being more calm, even lethargic, may be not feeling well and might need a visit to the vet. Anything from a bladder infection, to having diarrhea caused by eating something they shouldn't have, to more serious health issues, can, and often does, affect behaviour. Ask how they learned about dog behaviour. Did they take classes or do they feel they know dogs because they've been around them? There's NO REASON why someone working with dogs wouldn't have even just a basic dog language course as there are so many, often free, available. For example;
2- What do the walks consist of?
There's so much a dog walker can provide your dog during their walk. Enrichment activities, cognitive games, training, decompression walks, sniffaris, agility, etc. are all things that can be done during the 30min or 1hr walk and they will improve your dogs well being. Scent work helps improve cognitive health and can actually delay or decrease mental health issues such as anxiety and dementia. Brain games increase confidence and can reduce fear in dogs. Decompression walks are excellent for fearful and anxious dogs. Agility exercises are great for high energy dog. Also, ask what they mean by the terms their using. If they say they do social walks, what does that mean? What does socialising involve? Other terms I've seen used for dog walking are "mindful walks", "focused exercise", and "educational walks". See what I did there? If you contact me for dog walking, you should ask what educational walks mean to me. Someone else might refer to their services as "educational walks" and do something completely different. So ask for clarification!
3- Are they Pet First Aid Certified?
Just as important as knowing how dogs communicate is learning what to do in a medical emergency. This should be renewed every year or 2 (depending on where they get certified). Pet First Aid teaches many things, including CPR, how to bandage wounds on different parts of the body, and what to do in different emergency situations. There are so many things that can happen while out and about with your dog. They can get punctured by a stick while running, they can choke on something, they can get cut, break a nail, etc. You don't want your dog walker to have to use this training, but you'll be glad they have it if something happens!
4- What equipment do they use?
No matter whether you opt for individual or group walks, ask about what tools the walker uses. Will they put a choker or slip lead on your dog? Will they use a head halti? Will they use a harness? Are they using their own tools or are they using yours? Also, if they're going to use different tools than what you use, how are they introducing it to your dog? Make sure to say what you agree and don't agree to. Seeing as the goal and purpose of the walk is to allow your dog to spend some energy, to do their business and to have fun, the best tool recommended is a Y or H shaped harness. These provide comfort and don't restrict your dogs movement. They also have a low to no risk of injury. Tools worn around the neck can affect the spine, the esophagus, the nerves, etc. A harness that restricts movement can affect the clavicle, the shoulders, and the spine and can be uncomfortable for your dog to walk and run in. Keep in mind that a tool doesn't make a dog pull or teach a dog to stop pulling. To a dog, they're not pulling, they're just trying to get to whatever it is that has their attention or piqued their curiosity, and most dogs naturally walk at a faster pace than a human. Anything that "stops" pulling is simply making it uncomfortable or painful for your dog to do so, this means your dog isn't simply not pulling, they're avoiding pain.
Other things to look for
Is your dog walker asking you questions?
While you are asking all these questions and gathering information, the dog walker should be asking YOU questions as well. They should be asking about your dogs behaviour, motivations, schedule, any training they've had, etc. As a dog walker, I need to know if your dog is reactive, if they have triggers and what those triggers are, what they like, what they don't like, if they have allergies, etc. I also need to know who to contact in case of an emergency if I can't get a hold of you, what your dogs cues are so I'm using the same vocabulary as you.
Dog walking should allow for a dog to move naturally.
As for the actual walks, dogs don't mindlessly walk from point a to point b. They aren't trying to hit a certain number of steps or distance nor are they trying to do x amount of kilometers in 1hr. Dogs walk to explore, to sniff, to get to things, to move away from things, etc. Like humans, dogs require more than just physical exercise, their walks need to meet their mental and emotional needs as well. When we, as humans, go out for a walk, we stop or slow down to look at our surroundings. We people watch, we change our pace as we go, sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down, we avoid certain areas and prefer others, we'll stop and chat with friends, neighbours, acquaintances. Well, dogs are the same! They need to engage with their surroundings. I love offering scent work, it's something you can do with all dogs, from puppies to seniors. For dogs that are more active, I love using picnic tables and park benches to have them jump on, crawl under and zig zag around it. Dogs can stop and sniff, and choose where they want to go. It's a DOG walk, therefore it should be about the dog!
Being a dog walker isn't just walking dogs.
We supervise your dog, how they react and interact with other dogs, how they feel in different environments, and behave towards different people. We manage the surroundings and are proactive about it. We plan their outings, what we'll do with them and where we'll go, ahead of time. We keep you updated with photos, videos and summaries of the walk and there's often a lot of poop talk and finding creative ways to describe the poop. Being a dog walker also means taking classes, attending workshops and seminars, and taking care of ourselves. This job can take a toll physically (i developed plantar fasciitis after 3 years!), mentally and emotionally. Because we're out around dogs so much, it means we see a lot. Yes we get to see a lot of cute doggies, but we also see a lot of bad human behaviour towards dogs. Every single person I've worked with has witnessed dog walkers and dog trainers abusing their clients dogs, or being lazy. From dogs being choked by the person hired to care for them, to dog walkers ignoring the dogs in their care to talk on the phone, socialize with friends. I've even seen a dog walker shop a side walk sale with 4 dogs sitting in the sun while she looked through sale racks! So, be selective, be picky, set specific criteria when hiring a dog walker. It's great to love dogs, but it's not enough of a qualification to work with them.
Amelie Koury is the owner and operator of Bon Chien Good Dog. She works as a dog walker and pet sitter and manages the Bon Chien Good Dog website and blog. She is responsible for bringing in guest bloggers and contributors to share their knowledge and expertise with readers. A self proclaimed "dog nerd" and "behaviour geek", she regularly is taking courses and attending workshops and seminars to further her knowledge and improve her work and relationship with the animals she works with. She is a member of the IAABC and working on becoming an Accredited Dog Trainer..
Amelie lives in Montreal, Quebec with her dog Boss.