The following post was written for us by TDWA member, Cindy Carol, owner of For Dog’s Sake, serving certain neighbourhoods in the west end. Cindy’s an experienced dog walker and trainer, a volunteer and foster home for Australian Shepherd Rescue, and a member of the High Park K9 Committee. She believes in continuing education and is therefore always growing her professional knowledge and skills.
If you are considering hiring a dog walker to care for your beloved pet, or perhaps are contemplating becoming one yourself, it is important to reflect on the essential qualities that make a good dog walker. As dog walkers, we have a job and a responsibility that is complex and demanding, but at the end of the day the essence of our job is simple – to love and care for the dogs, have some fun and good exercise, and to bring them home safe.
This article suggests some of the more intangible qualities that go into making an excellent dog walker, rather than legalistic issues such as permitting and insurance. It may not be possible to screen for all these qualities when you are looking for a new dog walker, but you can get a good sense of the walker when you meet and talk during the initial home visit. For those who are considering becoming professional dog walkers, these points may be useful for self-reflection in determining whether you have the skills and qualities necessary to become a true professional.
Caring for your pet does not necessarily mean your dog walker fusses and gushes over your dog every time she sees him (though it may!) It does mean that your walker cares about you and your pet wholeheartedly and wants the best for both of you. This means he or she will go the extra mile to do what is needed to keep your pet healthy, happy and safe. To quote the former poet laureate of Toronto, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco – “Those who are not in love are irresponsible.” Conversely, those who are in love and love what they do have a sense of responsibility – and can make great dog walkers! Caring alone is not enough, however, and needs to be accompanied by many other qualities and skills.
Dog walking is in the details. From keeping track of the schedule, to knowing which dogs have food allergies or are afraid of thunder, safety protocol around opening doors, maintaining a pet-safe temperature in the vehicle, secure handling of keys and contact information, and managing group and park dynamics, skilled dog walkers are good multi-taskers, and are able to keep track of many dogs (and things) happening all at once. A simple dropped or inappropriately hooked leash, or the unsafe opening of a vehicle door, can mean the difference between a pleasant walk and an accident.
Good Observation Skills
The better your dog walker knows your dog the safer and more enjoyable the walk will be. Through careful observation and daily interaction, your walker will learn what your dog likes and dislikes, his or her habits and tendencies, and notice any physical or behaviour changes which may be early indicators of discomfort or illness.
Knowledgeable of Dog Behaviour
This may sound obvious, but a good dog walker has a working understanding of dog behaviour, canine body language and dog-dog and dog-human interactions. This understanding is gained through observation, education and experience with many different dogs of varying ages, breeds and temperaments. Some people make the mistake of assuming all dogs will behave the same as their own dog does, and this is simply not the case. There are as many variations of dog behaviours as there are variations of human behaviours, and it takes time to develop an understanding and instinct for what is safe, and what presents as a warning sign.
Aware and Attentive
A good dog walker is always focused on the dogs in his or her care, constantly alert to body language and canine dynamics, looking ahead for potential trouble, and aware of surrounding and incoming people, dogs and the environment. Potentially harmful items on the ground, an aggressive dog approaching, or a play interaction that is becoming a bit tense, these are the kinds of situations a walker is on the alert for, ready to adjust, change directions, or move away as needed.
Gentle, yet Clear and Consistent
Managing a group of dogs requires establishing clear guidelines and expectations for behaviour, and implementing them consistently. It does not require force, but rather a gentle and compassionate approach, combined with a communication tool, such as positive reinforcement training, to effectively implement the desired behaviours and structure.
Patient, with a Sense of Humour
Dog walking is not always just an easy walk in the park! Weather and traffic conditions can be difficult, and managing a group of six independently minded animals that don’t speak a human language can also present challenges. Occasionally, a dog may accidentally do their business in the vehicle, requiring some unpleasant clean-up. All of these situations demand a certain resilience and sense of humour!
Energetic and Fun
Need we say more?
Good Judgement and Problem Solving Skills
This is a rather intangible quality, but when hiring a walker, this may be one of the most important attributes to look for. Can this person observe a situation, assess any areas of potential difficulty, and make appropriate decisions to avoid any problems? Does this person have what might be called “a good head” on his or her shoulders?
Able to Think and Act Appropriately in an Emergency
Thankfully, emergencies don’t happen often, but if one does occur it is important that your dog walker is able to think and act in an effective manner. This is a skill that can be learned and improved upon through education such as pet first-aid training, and through foresight and planning about what to do in the unlikely event that an accident or emergency present itself.
Has Integrity and the Ability To Communicate Openly
Much of the work we do as dog walkers is unseen. We enter our clients houses when they are away at work, and take their dogs for walks when they are not around. A dog walker must have a high level of integrity, delivering the services safely and as agreed upon, communicating any changes in schedule, a dog’s behaviour, or difficulties encountered along the way. A successful relationship is based on trust, and, in large part, the trust between dog walker and client is based on open and clear communication.
Courteous and Polite in Public
As we care for our clients’ pets, we represent them and are the face of our profession in the public eye. It is important to be able to interact with neighbours, service people and the public in a kind and conscientious manner.
Curious and Interested in Learning
Dog walkers who enjoy what they do are interested in learning new skills, engaging in continuing education opportunities and educating the public about dogs and their profession. It is possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and that includes dog walkers!
Willing and Able to Make Tough Decisions
Occasionally, it happens that we may love a dog we care for, but that dog may just not be suited to the dynamics of our particular group or the park we visit. In these situations, it is important to be able to accurately assess what supports the well-being of the individual dog or group as a whole, and to adjust the situation or even let that client go to another walker if needed. We may also encounter circumstances that may be proving difficult or unmanageable for our clients, and need to recognize what an appropriate solution might be given the presenting circumstances. We may called upon to support our clients in receiving assistance with behaviour modification, re-homing a dog or even euthanasia in the cases of severe illness. This is not the easiest part of our profession, but an important skill to develop if we wish to be of true service to our clients.
Aware of the Flow of Life
Any dog walker who has been around for a while is very aware that life is in a constant state of flux. Our clients move to another city, have babies or lose their jobs. Our beloved dogs get older, and pass away from old age or illness. It is a sad fact, but these animal companions are not with us forever, and we need to recognize that our job is to care for them with all our hearts while they are with us, cherish the moments we have together, and to be able to let them go when it is time. Easier said than done, but something that we learn to accept gracefully with time, delighting in the dogs in our care, while always holding a place in our hearts for the canine friends no longer with us.
To sum it up
Dog walking can be a fun and rewarding profession, but it requires skillfulness and vigilance to practice well. When looking for a dog walker, we can first make sure all the basics are in place – permits and insurance, training and experience, a positive approach – and then get a sense of who the walker is during the initial meeting. The right walker will be the one we feel comfortable and at ease with, trusted completely with our pet.