As the owner of a dog walking company, I get asked LOTS of questions. The one question I never get asked is: what would you ask? This would be my favourite….if someone had ever asked me. Why? Simple. I’ve seen it all. I’ve been working as a dog walker since 2006. I’ve seen this industry grow dramatically during that time. However, it still remains completely unregulated. Outside of needing a City of Toronto Permit (you need insurance to get your permit) and insurance, you don’t really need anything to call yourself a professional Dog Walker. You really don’t even need those two things. You can call yourself a Professional Dog Walker because you feel like it. Therefore, the majority of the industry regulation is self-imposed. None of this is mandatory, so the onus is on the client to figure out with whom you’re sending your dog. These would be the questions I would ask if I was looking for walker, included are the answers I would be looking for, and why. With that thought in mind, let’s get down to business.
- Insurance and Licences? (The insurance I’m talking about is dog walking insurance.) As per the City of Toronto By-Law Chapter 608 34.1: No person shall have control of more than three dogs unless authorized by a commercial dog walker permit. So if you’re sending your dog out on group walks (on leash or off leash) your walker needs to have a City of Toronto Permit. In order to get the permit, we need to show proof of insurance. If your walker has a permit, you know they have insurance. But you can request to see copies of both these, the permit and the insurance. Why is this important? I’m a big believer in: if something is worth doing, its worth doing right. The insurance is there to protect both you and the walker. If a dog is seriously injured the insurance could cover the bill and any rehab costs that might be incurred. While the City Permit, doesn’t actually add anything specific (outside of someone else checking the insurance and being able to bring the dogs to city off leash parks without a fine), it adds something intangible: Because there are so many ways dog walkers can cut corners, it’s important to find someone follows the rules and does things right.
- Training Philosophy? There is always an element of training involved with dog walking—either in management, working on recall or working with puppies. This is really important to me, because having a great relationship with the dogs in our care is really important to me. In order for us to have a great relationship with our dogs, we need to foster a safe and predictable environment for them. I’m looking for a walker who uses Positive Reinforcement. That means they don’t use any dominance theory based training with the dogs. Dominance theory could include: hitting the dogs, alpha rolling the dogs, choking the dogs, kneeling on the dogs, kicking the dogs. All they should do is pet the dogs. This helps promote a safe and predictable relationship between the walker and the dogs. Because we do off leash parks visits, I always want a dog to come when I call them. That means they need to know we are always a safe place for them. I never want a dog thinking: “Oh no, Jennifer just called me. Should I go? She might hurt me.” I only want them thinking: “Yes! Jennifer called me! That’s the best! I love seeing her!”
- How many dogs do you take on the walks? And how do you manage them all? The city of Toronto sets the limit at six dogs. If they take more than six, do they have an assistant who helps? Managing six off leash dogs is work. You basically have six toddlers with weapons running around a playground with any number of unknown toddlers who also have weapons. (When you look at it like that, it sounds kinda scary.) But there are ways to manage the dogs. What techniques does the walker use? Do these ways fit in line with your training philosophy? Do they work with all the dogs on their recall—this is a great tool to use to bring the dogs close. You should be looking for someone who is knowledgeable in dog behaviour and dog body language. This helps the walker know when a dog is being bullied, terrorized or is afraid, and then they can intervene. This also helps to prevent behaviour from escalating in to a fight and prevents resulting injuries.
- What do you do if a dangerous dog comes in to the park? Some walkers don’t even know when a dangerous dog is in the park—they don’t know enough about dog behaviour to know that the dog is dangerous. Again, you should be looking for a walker who is knowledgeable about dog behaviour, so they can at least identify a dangerous dog. The best thing to do in this situation is to leash up the dogs and leave the park. No one wants their dog to be the victim of a dog attack.
- What do you do if my dog is misbehaving? I know my dog can be a jerk sometimes—he ain’t perfect. If my dog is being naughty, I don’t want my walker to allow it. But how do they manage it? I’m looking for someone who will use leashed time-outs, or maybe leashing up the group and leaving the park. I don’t want someone who will physically punish my dog for misbehaving—that will hurt my dog and damage the relationship between walker and dog.
- Where do you walk off leash? I want to know where my walker takes my dog—not every day, but in general. Is it to city off leash parks? Or are they going to places that aren’t official off leash parks? It makes a difference to me because there are more potential hazards at non-off leash areas like: dead animals that my dog might eat or roll in; dumped garbage that could hurt my dog; broken tree branches or debris that could injury my dog as he runs through the bushes. Also, I know that many insurance companies aren’t going to allow a claim from a dog walker if the dog was injured while being off leash outside of an official off leash area. Some people may be comfortable with that, some may not be.
- Pet First Aid? First Aid kit? There are several courses you can take that will help a walker deal with an injury. They don’t cost a lot of money, and they’re great at teaching the basics like bandaging wounds, Canine CPR, Canine AR. A First Aid kit can be really useful at treating anything that might happen while on the walk, like cut pads, scrapes, broken nails, etc.
- Policy on Communication? What is the walker’s policy on communicating issues? I know my dog can be bad sometimes, so I expect to hear about those times. Dogs aren’t perfect creatures—they get into arguments with other dogs, just like people do. It’s normal when you’re taking dogs off leash at a park. But keeping an open line of communication is really important. And this works both ways, if you, the owner, are noticing changes, it’s a good idea to let your walker know.
- Cancellation policy? You also make sure you’re clear on the cancellation policy…how much notice do you need to give without a charge? Does the walker have a holiday policy? How often do they take holidays and how much notice can you expect? Are you clear on the cost of the walks? And when you will be invoiced?
These questions may not seem like a lot, but they will give you a good sense of how the walker treats the dogs in their care, their knowledge and their professionalism. And at the end of the day, you can’t prevent all the accidents, but you can minimize or eliminate some of them, and that’s what you’re looking for with a dog walker….someone who will your pup’s best friend and keep them safe.