Professional Dog Walking

Sometimes, I am embarrassed to call myself a dog walker.  This profession has such a bad reputation, and I can’t blame people who think lowly of it.  I found a video on youtube of a walker entering the house, checking around for the owner, and, finding no one, leaves without so much as a pat for the dog.  There’s another video of someone coming in to the house for a puppy visit and putting the pup in the yard (unsupervised) for a few minutes before crating it and leaving.  Sure, those are just unconfirmed videos, but I also see some pretty bizarre stuff in the parks first hand.  My primary concerns are rough handling of the dogs (frequently in the name of “training”) and bringing inappropriate dogs into a park who are anything from an unsupervised nuisance to downright dangerous to other dogs.

Dog walkers are increasingly banned from more and more of Toronto off-leash areas (OLAs), and I honestly do see the argument.  At the same time, I am concerned about this being a ‘slippery slope’ and soon there may be no place left to walk my group.  Local owners and neighbours are also taking matters into their own hands, running walkers out of the dog park both with legal means (bans) and aggressive bullying tactics that at times border on vigilantism.

To ease this anxiety associated with many of Toronto’s dog walkers and their charges, I tend to frequent the larger, unfenced, and less populated parks.  I will profile dogs from afar and if I see a dog involved in unsafe interactions, especially if these interactions are poorly managed, I will stay on the far side of a large park or will perhaps choose not to enter that park at all. My priority is to keep the dogs in my care safe and happy.

I think it’s terrible that I have such an adverse reaction to my profession.  While there are a lot of bad apples out there, as there are in any business, I remind myself to focus on connecting with those who conduct their business along the same line of ethics, who give clients their money’s worth by showing the dogs a fun and safe time at the park, and who hold the same values and knowledge of training and behaviour.  It can be hard to do, but I try, because the other option is continuing to gripe….

In the spirit of ending this blog post constructively, below is an article about dog walking that I wrote for this year’s winter issue of “Dogs! Dogs! Dogs!” magazine:

Choosing the right dog walker is essential both for the health and safety of your dog and for your peace of mind. This process can seem overwhelming, but with a few tips you can feel secure in making a decision that is best for you and your dog.

Municipalities will often require dog walkers to meet certain criteria to acquire a commercial dog walker permit. This does not test the permit-holder’s dog skills or first aid, however, it does guarantee that the walker is insured and that her business is legitimate. Municipalities, including Toronto, may also limit the number of dogs to be walked at any one time.

It is common for a walker to ask a new client to fill out an application and contract, as well as arrange for a “meet and greet” before commencing walks.  There are as many intake processes as there are dog walkers, but the crucial aspect is that only friendly dogs are accepted into group walks. Remember that every dog in the group will be screened similarly and it is this process that will help to exclude unfriendly dogs who you may not want walked with your own pooch.   It is important to tell your new walker if your dog is fearful of anything in particular and how he reacts, if your dog is allowed off-leash and how he behaves, if he chases anything (including squirrels, joggers or toboggans), how he reacts to strangers, and his play-style with other dogs. Your new walker should take your concerns seriously at all times. Armed with this information, she can be proactive with regard to how she will manage her group of dogs in the park.  This is another step towards ensuring the safety of your dog while he enjoys his outing.

Group walks can be conducted in several ways.  A walker can travel on foot from house to house collecting dogs in a group to either walk on street or through neighbourhood parks. Alternately, she can drive to pick up each dog and take the group to a park. Many walkers also offer private walks, potty breaks, or ‘puppy visits.’  Decide what service suits your dog’s needs and find a walker to match.

It is a good idea to select a dog walker who has some dog training skills. While she does not have to be an expert, training a recall (come when called) is a very important safety consideration.  The best and most reliable recall training is accomplished with the use of delicious food.  If a dog is rewarded with something he finds valuable (liver or hot dogs, for example) upon each return to the walker, he will be far more likely to return to the walker the next time she calls.  Some dogs who are not food-crazy may instead prefer a toy, but the process is the same.  Many walkers will initially keep new dogs on-leash to assess their recall before allowing them more freedom off-leash.

As well as recall training, it is also important to choose a walker who will monitor play between dogs in her group and with other dogs in the park.  Not all dogs will play in the same manner, and a dog can become upset if they are pestered.  That dog’s reaction may range from shutting down, to running out of the park, to a fisticuff with the offending dog. Sometimes a dog will appear as if he is playing ‘chase’ when he is actually trying unsuccessfully to get away from an over-enthusiastic playmate. A dog walker should understand how dogs signal stress and should be proactive in managing any situation that may arise among the dogs in her group.

Your dog may not indicate to you whether he is having fun on the walks and for this reason a good dog walker will be honest with you about whether your dog is enjoying the outing.  For example, you may see your dog decline to meet a walker at the door despite having a blast on the walk, or alternately he will enthusiastically greet a walker despite being stressed on the walk.  It is critical that your walker communicate with you, especially during the first weeks in a new group.  Some nervous dogs, with proper management, can thoroughly enjoy group walks. Keep in mind that group walks do not meet the needs of every dog. If you find yourself in this situation, private walks might be the better option.

Dog walkers will keep group dynamics in mind when accepting new clients.  Occasionally, she may decide that a particular dog will more thoroughly enjoy an outing with a different bunch of dogs.  A rough-and-tumble adolescent is not well-matched to fairly sedate older dogs. Transferring this dog to another group will benefit both him – who can be matched with appropriate playmates – and the group.

Do your research when looking for a dog walker.  Ask questions freely and be sure that all of your concerns are addressed. While accidents can happen especially when physical activity is involved, risks can be minimized if proper precautions are taken. You should feel secure in leaving your dog in the care of your dog walker, and know that your dog is safe and comfortable while he plays and explores at the park.

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