How to Choose the ‘Right’ Dog Walker

dog walker with dog

Okay, you’ve decided you’d like to hire a dog walker…now what?  I’ve been a Dog Walker for twelve years now, and I’ve seen a lot of things—good and bad.  But one of the biggest mistakes owners make in the process of hiring a walker is: hiring the wrong walker.   I don’t mean a bad walker, I mean the wrong walker or company for their needs.  There are so many dog walking companies in the city now, that you, as a client, have LOTS of choices.  But how do you know ‘how to choose?’  It can be overwhelming with so many options.  That’s what this guide is about:  How to find the right walker for you and your dog.   And what do I mean by ‘right?’  I mean someone who offers the exact right type of service to meet the needs of you and your dog.

How to hire the right Dog Walker:

  1. Your dog. Imagine that everything that is in this section is written in bold.  With italics. And a thousand exclamation points.    Knowing who your dog is and what he likes to do is absolutely critical to finding the right walker.  So ask yourself, if given the choice, what would your dog prefer:  hanging out with other dogs?  Or being by himself?  (We’ll come back to dogs who prefer to be by themselves.)  If your dog likes being with other dogs, you should be looking at group walks. Why?  Because group walks are a great way to give them time with other dogs.  Group walks are also great for socialization and enrichment, as the parks and scenery change frequently.  But which group to choose?  On leash or off leash?  Ask yourself: when I take my dog to the park, what do they do:  Stand around?  Or run and play?  If your dog is prone to standing around, an on leash group walk could be the best option.  Think of it as forced participation—not that they’re being dragged around on the walk, but there’s no place to hide when you’re all walking on leash—you gotta keep up.  If your dog likes to run and play, off leash group walks are a great option.  And off leash adventure walks offer great socialization and enrichment opportunities, because they are having a new experience each day.    Now back to dogs who prefer to be alone.  This group could include, senior dogs, dogs who are afraid of other dogs or people, dogs who are reactive to other dogs or people.  This group is a great candidate for private walks.  These dogs get exercise and socialization, but on a walk which caters exactly to their specific needs in a one-on-one setting.
  2. Understand your needs, as the client. We didn’t forget about you!  What is the most important aspect of walks for you:  Safety?    Socialization?  A tired dog? A clean dog?  Safety:  Each type of service (private, group, off leash) has different levels of safety risks associated with it—you can find out more in our post: Will my Dog get Hurt?  A tired dog:  A dog who runs and plays for an hour with his buddies is going to be more tired than a dog who goes for a 30 minute private walk, but the off leash dogs are more likely to get dirty.  Are you okay with that?  All walks will have some level of socialization involved, but the dogs going on group walks to different off leash areas are getting the most ‘bang for the buck.”  Really understanding your needs, helps you choose the right service level and the right company.
  3. Referrals: Ask your neighbours if they use a walker, and would they refer them?  Check in with your vet or your local vet’s office if you don’t use the one in your neighbourhood.  What about your trainer or a local trainer?  Check out the companies’ websites.  But remember, just because your neighbour uses them, doesn’t necessarily mean they are also a good fit for you.  They might only do private walks, but you want group off leash walks.  Maybe they have a different training philosophy that yours.   The referrals may not fit your needs, but they can be a good place to start.
  4. Research companies:   In this day and age of technology and Google, we can find lots of companies in a couple of seconds.  Review their website for information about the types of services they offer, service area, their training philosophy, and general information about the company.   Does it fall in line with what you are looking for?  Check out their Facebook page, Instagram account and their Twitter accounts-most companies use these to share information and photos of the dogs on their walks.  Do these photos reflect what you are looking for and what your dog would enjoy doing?  Another way to do this, if you want off leash walks, is to go and hangout at your local off leash park.  You can see people in action, and get a sense of how they are with the dogs.
  5. Contact them: This is an initial email or phone call. You’re looking to find out if they are taking on new clients, ask some questions and find out the next steps.  This is where I would ask if they have business insurance (dog walking insurance), City of Toronto Dog Walking Licenses, what type of walking services they offer and about their training philosophy.  Why?  Because I would not meet with them if they didn’t have insurance or licenses, if they didn’t offer the service I wanted or if they weren’t in line with my training philosophy.  Be prepared to answer some questions in return.  When we get an inquiry, we always ask some in return, so we get a better picture of your needs and your dog.
  6. Meet-n-Greet: For most walkers, this is generally the next step.  Most companies are going to want to come out and meet with you and your dog at your house.  Why?  Because they can meet your dog, familiarize themselves with where to find: collars, harnesses, crates, food, etc., and learn any tricks to the crate, house keys or doors.  At this point, you can ask all your other questions, and be prepared to answer some too.  This is when we start building our Profile of your dog…..basically cheat sheets to your dog.  We will learn this all over time, but this gives us a head start.  The questions we ask you, are the same questions we ask everyone.  We want to know as much about your dog as possible before we bring them out with our other dogs.  Be prepared to answer questions like: last vaccination (show proof), dog license tag number, your dog’s fears, triggers, favourite thing, style of play, where is the towel, where can they go when they’re really wet or dirty, vet info, contact info, emergency contact info.
  7. A selection: after you’ve spoken to different companies, and met with a couple, now is the time to make a selection.  I can’t tell you who to choose, but the more honest you’ve been about your dog and yourself, the better your chances of picking the right style of service and the right company.  The same can be said about the walking company.  A good company is going to refer you on if you say you’re looking for on leash walks and they only do off leash.
  8. A trial period: I would expect a check in with the walker after the first walk, and after the first week. Most companies will do a trial period of walks.  Usually two or three weeks…the first week is the ‘honeymoon’ phase for the dog and the second is where they have settled and the walker can see how they are doing on walks.  At this point, you can check in with the walker to make sure all is well.  You can also let your walker know of any changes that you’ve noticed, too.  (Good and bad….we like to hear the good stuff, too.)

A couple of notes:

Questions:  ask open ended questions.  Not ones that can be answered with a yes or a no.  And remember, the questions they ask you, are the questions they ask the owners of other dogs.  Are they learning enough about your dog to make you feel comfortable?

Why insurance and licensing?   For me, this is an indication of the walker’s seriousness about the service they provide.  I feel if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  And I feel like this mindset extends to all aspects of their business.  If they can do the easy stuff right like insurance, it’s more likely that they’ll do the hard stuff right, too.  And insurance helps to protect you, too.

Training philosophy: While walkers are not trainers, there is an aspect of training involved in walking, whether it’s just general management, recall or working with puppies.  Whatever your training style, it’s important to have a walker who shares it.

Senior dogs:   I don’t always recommend senior dogs go on private walks.  As long as they are allowed to go at their own pace, trips to the off leash park can be great for them.  It helps keep them active and social, which, like with people, is very important.

Knowing what I know about the dog walking industry, this is the process I would follow if I was looking for a walker for my dog.  I’ve seen young, social dogs on privates who are bored and under stimulated.  And I’ve seen reactive dogs come out each day to terrorize the occupants of the off leash parks.  But I’ve also seen timid dogs join groups and become vibrant and playful.  And I’ve seen other dogs learn how to become comfortable with strangers while on private walks.    Dog walks can be a tremendous life changing experience for your dog, and a stress relieving service for you, but only if you have the right walker.

What to Expect with Group Dog Walking?

happy dog running at the beach

For the purposes of this post, we are discussing group dog walks.  This could be either for on leash or off leash groups.

Ok, so you’ve hired a walker……now, what to expect?

  1. Expect that there will be some variance in your pick up and drop off times. Sometimes we change the order of pickups, which might make your pup first, or maybe last in the route.  We might be going to a park further away and come earlier to allow for more driving time.
  2. Expect that if there is inclement weather, that the walks may be shortened. Walks are supposed to be fun, not torture.  If it’s very cold or very hot, thundering, hailing, down pouring, we may choose, for the dogs’ safety or well being, to shorten a walk.  Expect to be notified, if walks are being changed to potty breaks or cancelled all together.  Expect to be billed for the full amount of the walk, unless the walk is officially shorted to a potty break.  Once the nice weather rolls around again, we will make up the time, because enjoy being out on those days, too.
  3. We normally suggest a three hour window is necessary to fulfill a service. One hour for pickups.  One hour of the walk.  One hour for drop offs.
  4. Expect that injuries happen. Usually they are minor: bumps, scratches, scrapes, bruises.  But more serious ones, broken legs, bites, broken toe nails, large scrapes, can also happen.  Fights can happen when the dogs are on leash or off leash.  Dogs can step on glass or large holes in the ground both on and off leash.  See our post about Will my Dog get Hurt, here.  Expect to be notified if an injury occurs on the walk.  Find out more, here.
  5. Expect that diarrhea and upset stomachs will happen. When you have six dogs in your care, you can’t possibly be watching them all, all the time.  It only takes a second for them to snatch up a dirty Kleenex or a rotten piece of food off the ground.   Or they drink out of a dirty puddle.  This is true whether they are on leash of off.  Expect to be notified if your dog eats something they shouldn’t, like a chicken bone.
  6. Expect that your dog will come home wet and dirty, on occasion. If it’s pouring rain out, we can’t do much about dogs getting wet.  It’s going to happen.  Leave a towel at the door, so the dog can be dried off.  If your dog is going on off leash walks to parks or other areas, expect that they may go swimming, get sandy or get covered in mud.  Have a towel at the door for the walker to use.  If a wet or dirty dog is a real problem, have a place for the dog to go when he’s wet or dirty.  This could be a crate, a bathroom, a basement or laundry room.  Or anywhere in the house that they can be so they can dry, or just to contain the dirt.   Note:  when you send your dog out for off leash walks, they will get dirty.  The parks are muddy when it has rained.  The group might go to the beach and get sandy and wet.  If this is the type of walk you want for your dog, you should have a place in the house that the dog can go when they come home wet and dirty.  We understand your home is your castle, and we don’t want to ruin it.  We want to fulfill our job of providing great off leash walks, without the worry of a destroyed couch, and so do you.  Having that space for them to go after the walk helps us and you.
  7. Expect that your dog will get burrs in their fur, on occasion. Burrs are very much a part of the late Summer/Fall park scene.  As much as we avoid them, they will happen.  We do our best to get them out, but they will likely go home with a couple embedded in their fur.  Expect that your walker will let you know that this has happened.
  8. Expect that your dog may get sick from the other dogs. Kennel Cough, Bordetella, can spread like wildfire through a group of dogs.  While super irritating, it does happen.  Expect that your walker will let you know when dogs have been exposed to it.
  9. Expect that your walker goes on holiday. If you use a walker who works for himself, expect that there may be days you’re not getting a walk.  Expect that the walker will give you notice of his holidays, so you can plan accordingly.  If you use a company with multiple walkers, expect that you will have someone else covering those days.  Expect to be notified when this is happening.
  10. Expect there to be some adjustments to your dog’s walks. Over time, groups change, dogs get older.   Your dog may start walks on the daily mid-day group at 2 years old, and the group is young and active.  But in 5 years, your dog is 7, and now the walk is full of puppies and your dog isn’t enjoying the group the same way anymore.  Your walker may recommend a change in group to a less active group, or a group with no puppies.  Your walker may even recommend a change in walking companies.  Or it could be that your dog gets bullied in one group, so they may recommend a change to another group for your dog.  These types of adjustments are natural, and not a reflection of your dog.  We want your dog to be happy and successful in group walks.
  11. Expect there to be an adjustment period when your dog starts group walks. Lots of dogs go home tired after their first group walk, especially if they are not used to having a walk in the middle of the day.  They will gradually get used to the increase in exercise.   However, some dogs go home “amped” after their first walks.  Group walks are very stimulating for both their mind and their bodies.  It can be overwhelming for some of the dogs. This is also normal.  This will also gradually decrease as they become accustomed to their new routine.  If it doesn’t, expect your walker to discuss options with you.
  12. Expect your walker may use their own equipment (harnesses) with your dog. Some dogs pull on leash in a group setting, even though they don’t with you.  Using harnesses protect the dog, so they don’t damage their trachea from pulling.  And it protects the walker from back, shoulder or neck injuries.  Expect that a walker will discuss the use the prong collars, e-collars and the like, prior to using them on your dog.
  13. Expect to pay more for off-hour services. Dog walkers are entitled to down time.  Walks in the evenings, mornings or on the weekends, require us to give up our free time.  Expect to pay a surcharge for walks or visits during this time.
  14. Expect to be billed the full amount of the service if you cancel the walk late or your dog’s not home when the walker gets there, or if you live in a condo building and the walker can’t get in. Once a spot in a group is allocated and saved especially for your dog, it’s yours. Expect your walker will let you know that they came by, but your dog was not home or they couldn’t get into the building.
  15. Expect that accidents will happen. Keys get misplaced.  Dogs get forgotten.  A tag falls off.  These types of things happen.  Not every day, but every once in a while.
  16. Expect that your walker really does care for your dog.  They do have your dog’s best interest at heart, and they don’t want anything bad to happen to your dog.

Will my dog get hurt on walks?

happy dog on her walk

Yes.  Most likely, at some point during their life time, your dog will be injured on a dog walk.  That doesn’t mean that your dog is walked in a mine field and once false step, and it’s adios pupper.  However, I would be lying if I told you dogs NEVER got hurt on dog walks.  Injuries can run the gambit from a small scratch or pulled muscle to an impalement or broken leg.

There are several factors that can change the likely hood of an injury: private, on leash only, group walks, off-leash parks, going off leash in non-off leash areas, walks in remote areas.  We will discuss all of them here.

A private walk is exactly like it sounds, private.  Only your dog is out on the walk.  These can be on leash only or include off leash time, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll assume that the private walk is on leash only.  If your private walker includes off leash time, you’ll need to review the “Group Walk” paragraph that reflects the type of off leash time they have.  The walker to dog ratio is 1:1.  There is almost no interaction with unknown dogs, because the walker always has the option to cross a street or turn around.  As such, there is very little risk of them getting into a fight with another dog on the walk.  Theoretically, they could be attacked by another dog while out walking, but the chances are slim.  They are still at risk of stepping on a sharp piece of glass, rock or wood chip.

A Group walk: up to six dogs in a group on the walk together.  The walker to dog ratio is 1:6 (at the most).  Now the walker is watching up to six dogs at a time.  There is no way a walker can be watching ALL six dogs ALL the time.  We’re picking up poop, watching our surroundings and trying to watch six dogs.  This is true of all group walks, on leash and off leash.

On Leash only group walks: these walks are group walks, but on leash only.  These tend to be a reduced risk of injury because all the dogs are leashed all the time.  There’s almost no interaction with unknown dogs, because the walker always has the option to cross the street, hug the edge of a trail or turn around.  The dogs can still get into a fight with each other on leash.  The dogs can step on a sharp piece of glass, rock or wood chip.

Off Leash Group Walks in Off Leash Parks: these are group walks to official city off leash parks.  These dogs are at a greater risk of injury than their on-leash counterparts because, they are running around playing with each other, chasing balls or toys.  They could crash into each other, scratch each other with a nail, or accidentally nip in their excitement.  They could also be intentionally injured by another dog or person.  We don’t know all the other dogs we share the off leash park with each day.  There could be an aggressive dog in the park.  A person could hit a dog.  These areas are free and clear of brush and large environmental objects, though there tend to be holes dug in the ground. If a running dog stepped in a hole they could hurt themselves.  They are still at risk of stepping on a sharp piece of glass, rock or wood chip.

Off Leash Group Walks to Non Off Leash Areas:  these are group walks to areas in the city that are not recognized city run off leash parks.  These dogs are at a greater risk of injury than their on-leash counterparts because, they are running around playing with each other, chasing balls or toys.  They could crash into each other, scratch each other with a nail, or accidentally nip in their excitement.  These dogs may be at a reduced risk from unknown dogs because they tend to run into fewer dogs in these areas, but that would vary from day to day.  These dogs would be at a greater risk from environmental factors, because no one is maintaining the trails or fields they are walking in, or because they are running through thick brush.  Injuries can be sustained from thorns, branches, uneven ground and dumped garbage.  They are still at risk of stepping on a sharp piece of glass, rock or wood chip.

Off Leash Group Walks in Remote Areas: these are group walks in areas outside the city. These dogs are at a greater risk of injury than their on-leash counterparts because, they are running around playing with each other, chasing balls or toys.  They could crash into each other, scratch each other with a nail, or accidentally nip in their excitement.   These dogs may be at a reduced risk from unknown dogs because they tend to run into fewer dogs in these areas, but that would vary from day to day.  These dogs would be at a greater risk from environmental factors, because no one is maintaining the trails or fields they are walking in, or because they are running through thick brush.  Injuries can be sustained from thorns, branches, uneven ground and dumped garbage.  They are still at risk of stepping on a sharp piece of glass, rock or wood chip.  These dogs could also be at a greater risk because of the remoteness of their walking location.  Is there a vet office near them in case of an emergency?

Sharp objects
Other dogs
Unknown dogs
Far from help
Private walks
On leash
Off leash parks
Off leash in non park
Off leash in remote areas

Sharps Objects could be anything from broken glass to rocks and wood chips.  They can be found on sidewalks, dog parks, trails in and out of the city.

Other dogs, for this purpose, are dogs who are known, but could pose a threat.

Unknown dogs, for this purpose, are dogs who are completely unknown.

Environmental is anything from thorns, branches to uneven ground or even garbage that someone has dumped.

Far from help/vet office or even cell service should an emergency occur.

Low means there’s a lower chance of encountering this risk.

Average means there’s an average/ medium chance of encountering this risk while on this type of walk.

High means there’s a higher chance of encountering this risk on this type of walk.

Even with all this being said, freak accidents can still happen. A driver has a heart attack while driving and jumps the curb hitting your dog or the group of dogs walking back to the car after a nice romp at the park.

So, what does all this mean?  What’s the right style of walk for you and your pup?  That’s a personal decision.  Some people are comfortable with environmental risks but not unknown dog risks.  Some people are comfortable with other dog risks but not remoteness. This is here to help you understand the risks associated with different styles of dog walking.  And the beauty thing about this industry, these days, is that you will be able to find any combination of the above, so you’ll be able to get exactly what you and your pup need.

Bha! My dog won’t leave the park!

dog with all the toys at the park

Walk time!   Taking your dog for a walk is such a great experience.  You walk to the park, unclip the leash and watch your pup run free around the off-leash area, enjoying their friends and all the new smells.  Thirty minutes later, it’s time to go.  It’s your turn to put the kids to bed, so you need to get home to relieve your partner.

“Fido, come!” you call.  Fido turns and looks, but keeps playing.

“Fido, com’mon.  Time to go.”  Fido doesn’t even look this time.

Expletive deletives are whispered under your breath.   You know this game—Keep Away.  You’re going to be late getting home.  Your partner is going to yell at you for not being there to put the kids to bed—all because FIDO wouldn’t stop playing with his buddies.

This game is all too familiar.  As a dog walker, it is the one thing that sends me into a rage in 0.05 seconds, flat.  I’ve had dogs who have done this for upwards of half an hour.  Keep Away is a tremendously infuriating game, because there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.  Fido has to choose to show up.    And what could be more fun that being chased all over the park by your human best friend? Why would he want this to end?

We dog walkers have gotten wise to this game, and there are several tricks we employ to prevent it.

  1. Practice makes perfect! Practice recall over and over and over again during your time at the park.  Call Fido every couple of minutes, for no reason—just for the sake of calling him.  If your dog is treat motivated, bring treats with you to the park.  Cut them into small pieces and keep them handy for quick disbursement.   Every time Fido shows up, give him a treat, and then the release command:  “Ok, go play.”  Don’t just wait until it’s time to leave the park to recall Fido.  Fido is smart.  Fido has learned that ‘being called’ equals ‘home time.’  And why would he want to leave?
  1. Up the Ante. Fido has gotten really good at coming when called.  Yah!  ..every time you reach for his collar, he darts away.  The collar grab has been become the marker for leaving the park now.    (This could also be true of holding his leash in your hand.)  Fido thinks:  “I can come in just close enough to get lots of yummy treats, and I only need to avoid the hand….got it!  Easy peasy. “  Up the ante to:  The Collar Grab.    Step one:  get Fido comfortable coming all the way in (right up close to you) to get the treat.  When he’s good at that, move to Step Two:  Hold the treat tightly in the fingers of your right hand, so only a little bit is accessible to Fido.  Call Fido.  Fido comes right in.  Offer him the treat which is tucked in your fingers.  While he nibbles your at the treat, gently grab the collar with your left hand and give it a little tug—just enough so he knows you have a hold of it.  Let go of the collar, give him the whole treat and give the release command: “Ok, go play.”  Keep practicing this until they are confident with the Collar Grab.
  1. The Long Line. A long line is just a really fancy name for a really long leash. They typically are around 10 to 40 feet in length.  For an off-leash park setting something around 10 – 20 feet is ideal.  This would be a special leash that you would bring with you to the park—you wouldn’t walk your dog on this leash.  Once inside the fenced area, you unclip the regular short leash, and clip on the long line.  You would let this drag on the ground.  Now you only have to get within 10 feet of your dog to catch them.  This tool can be used in conjunction with the above, as a backup.  It is also a good idea to tie some knots in the long line—this way you can step on it, and it won’t slide under your shoe.
  1. Break Glass in Case of Emergency. I carry a squeaky toy with me all the time.  Most of our dogs LOVE them.  This toy never leaves my backpack.  This is the emergency toy.  If I’m having a really hard time getting a dog back, I pull it out and give’r the squeak.   I can get lucky sometimes, and the dog will show up for it.  Fido only gets it once he’s back on leash.  It’s a reward for showing up.
  1. L’etranger. If you can’t get close enough to grab Fido, perhaps a stranger can.  This has worked on many occasions.
  1. Never Punish. This one is really important.  No matter what.  Never ever.  Doesn’t matter if Fido ran around playing Keep Away for three hours before FINALLY showing up.  You CANNOT, under any circumstances, punish him for showing up.  Even though it took three hours, he did what you wanted….he showed up.  Give him the treat, put the leash on and go home.  Then scream into your pillow.  Tell your partner you’re really sorry, and you’ll do bedtime and the dishes for the rest of the week.    The dog who shows up and is punished, learns to avoid showing up.

These are our tricks for grabbing a wayward Fido.  We’d love to hear some of yours…
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