Professional Dog Walker's Corner. Muddy pawprints and poobags a speciality...

(17 Posts)
AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 12:37:31

I keep being asked on MN about how I set up my dogwalking business, and I know I'm not the only one of us on here, so this thread is (a) so that I can type out my advice just once, and then next time I'm asked I can just send people a link to here and (b) maybe a place we can all chatter about the highs and lows of taking care of other people's pets.

I'll pm all the posters who I know do this, but anyone else feel free to join in too!

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 13:07:37

I've been doing this for eleven years now, I advertise with a website, on FB and with a few postcards in local vets and pet supply shops. However my best advertising is Word of Mouth.

I am a member of NARPS (National Association of Registered Petsitters) here who supply a code of conduct, a voice for our industry, a dispute resolution service and lots of practical advice.

I am insured through Cliverton

Yes, I love my job but no, it's never going to make me rich! It's best seen as a part time additional income which fits in really well with the responsibilities of parenting young-ish children. I've always been able to juggle it so I've never missed family assemblies, sports days, school productions etc etc. Also it's reasonably easy to fit in dentists, and if you have one off with a minor bug, you can take them along too. The only time I had a child at home ill, too ill to come out for a walk, I roped in my own mum.

I use a Renault Scenic car with aircon which has had its rear seats removed and Barjo crating fitted to create two compartments. I have ten tons of VetBed on the floors. My part time staff all either walk to their clients or use their own cars. All my part-timers are dog owners and basically are taking a couple of extras along with their own dogs. Another nearby dogwalking company bought a pair of ex Police Dog vans at auction, but actually can fit fewer dogs in them than I can in my smaller vehicle. But they do have special aircon so they don't worry about hot dog in car syndrome. I avoid it by always parking in shade, and in any case dogs are never in a stationary car with the engine off for longer than it takes to pick up and drop off.

In the early days, when I worked alone, I used to make sure clients knew I had young children and would need to take holidays to fit with school. I also made an effort to seek clients who had school age families themselves so would be happy with the same weeks as me. Later I took to employing students home from university to cover the holiday periods. I now have six part time dogwalkers, and we all try to meet up regularly so we know each other's dogs. Between us we can cover most possibilities.

I normally work Monday-Friday. I charge extra for evenings, weekends and public holidays, and retain the right to say no!

On a really busy day I will walk four times, starting at 8 a.m. and finishing around 6. My insurance covers me for up to six dogs in a group, although I'm happier to keep it down to four if they are active busy ones. I charge £10 per dog for an one-hour walk, and £7 for each extra dog from the same household. I'm willing to negotiate if it's a daily job - £45 a week.

I am registered as Self Employed and get Working Family Tax Credits, and in the early days I also received Council Tax Benefit. The initial setting up of these was a slight faff, but it now takes me about two hours a year to sort this paperwork out.

Mitchy1nge Tue 03-Jun-14 16:44:18

I will chip in a bit later. Did this for a while a few years back and recently resumed but am far far choosier about customers. My favourite thing was my group canine therapy sessions for dogs with ishoos, and being an existential canine psychotherapist. Actually I chain-smoked while my spaniel did all that sort of work.

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 17:22:31

yy to being choosy with the customers! Way back when I wasn't that experienced in spotting users, I ended up breaking my back for weeks on end with a dog who had zero recall but whose owner insisted he'd be okay off lead. So I was driving miles at my own expense to the only place I knew where I could let him off but still find him again, a huge securely fenced field. And then the blasted National Trust put sheep in it! (<grrr> and <wail> at the memory).

I ended up inventing a totally spurious excuse to get rid of client and dog and have been hiding in the supermarket aisles if I see her ever since.

So you've got a spaniel who's a qualified existential canine psychotherapist? grin

I've got a couple of spaniels on the books to whom the 'psycho' bit would apply, but not the rest...

soddinghormones Tue 03-Jun-14 19:47:37

Ooh this is interesting! Dpup goes out with a fab dogwalker twice a week who only does 'proper' off-lead walks to places like Richmond Park, Box Hill etc

The other day I'd been working from home in the morning so was just about to head off to the office at the time dpup was being picked up - in his regular 'pack' there's a young spaniel, a lab and a goldie so they all have v similar play styles and he has a whale of a time. It was a lovely spring day and I thought I'd got life all wrong and it would be much better to be out walking dogs for a living than going to a stuffy office

But then you see dogwalkers like the girl I saw today struggling with four dogs on leads - all pulling like trains. There were two puppies and one much older dog - and they were wildly different sizes - nobody looked like they were having much fun, least of all the dogwalker ...

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 20:40:27

Hi soddinghormones we're big enough (just) to avoid the situation that girl was in - the economics of dog-walking mean you don't make any money unless you take them in groups. We're able to split them into groups that will work together. So I've got the elderly potterers, the trip hazards (shih-tzus, cavaliers, miniature schnauzers, bichons etc), and the high-energy bigger dogs - spaniels, labs, retrievers, vizlas, ridgebacks etc.

The elderly potterers we normally take for a short private walk. Realistically they only need a short trip to empty their bladders and a chance to check out the local smells. The Trip Hazards are really rather fun. We usually take them to a big, well wooded park, where they can go off lead safely. The older more staid ones will focus on strolling and sniffing, the younger ones will run around a lot and try to get you to throw balls. The high energy big dogs we normally take well out into woods or even as far as Salisbury Plain, where they can really let rip.

Also if you go out into really deep countryside, chances are they'll do the deed deep in the nettles, where no-one expects you to go to pick up poo...

Obviously you're in London, and I know that's a very different environment from where I work, basically rural but commutable from London.

Snugglepiggy Tue 03-Jun-14 21:02:51

Been professional for a decade now and feel I could write a book on my experiences - good and bad.We have two vans caged for transporting the dogs safely.They all get on and are well socialised but it would be just too chaotic to drive around with several excited dogs sloshing around in the back of a 4x4 ,or even a hatchback or estate as some of the other dog walkers that have sprung up around here recently.We are fully insured and walk 4/5 at a time - occasionally 6 but only if one is our own and the others are the most reliable and it's a quiet location.
Recently I have regularly seen a dog walker who started up recently out with 8 - on her own - and where our vans are signed up with contact details clearly visible so we are identifiable and accountable whilst out and about there's not a scrap of ID on their vehicle.tbh it makes myself and the other dog walkers who operate the same way annoyed because it gives us all a bad name.
On balance though I love my business and despite a few awkward customers most of the dogs we walk ,and their owners,have pleasure to deal with.I also have become much more selective,and become very good at sussing out owners who will mess us around,with bookings,payment or unrealistic expectations.

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 21:38:49

Hi Snugglepiggy I'd been trying to remember your nn - I knew there was one of us on MN with a name with piggy in it!

yy to the getting pissed off with the ones who don't do it properly. I don't think there are any insurers who cover for more than six per handler off lead, Cliverton and NARPS certainly don't. I'll take six of the Trip Hazards at the same time, if most of them are the older ones who don't wander off, but like you I'm happier if there's four. Even then, one's constantly counting heads and trying to spot anti-social pooping. And I'm in the fortunate position of being able to use deep woodland or Salisbury Plain, with plenty of bramble and nettle where poo-picking isn't an automatic requirement.

So do you have individual compartments for each dog in your vans?

About five years ago I started to include a cancellation clause, which I copied more or less word for word from my dentist, strangely enough! Basically I now need 24 hours notice if clients decide we won't be needed. I'd had a particularly bad run of turning up and finding either no-one was there, including the dog, or owner was working from home and would be taking dog out himself. Although a couple of them had been a bit guilty and offered to pay, a couple more had not, including a household fifteen miles round trip away. Twice. We definitely get messed around far less now.

In practise, I'm happy to be flexible about this - sometimes circumstances are truly beyond the client's control. If it's illness etc of course I won't make an issue of it.

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 21:49:37

I'm beginning to think about what to replace the converted Scenic dogmobile with when she finally fails her MOT terminally? The dogs do seem to enjoy being able to see out, on the other hand we've used DP's Transit van a couple of times when the Dogmobile has been in car hospital, and not being able to see out has meant they're slightly less liable to start barking hysterically if we drive past other dogs on the pavement, or a field with sheep in. What does everyone else think?

Snugglepiggy Tue 03-Jun-14 22:14:44

Hi there Alpaca.We got our vans divided into 4 compartments with rigid mesh by an ironmonger and there's a small caged secured in one of the compartments for a smaller dog.obviously some customers have 2 dogs and they share a space.And some of the dogs jump in with their 'best mates' as they know each other so well.But at least I can segregate if needed.
Likewise I try to be flexible and understanding.Busy families sometimes forget to let me know change of plans ,but the ones who seem to have no regard for how the logistics of organising walks to suit the dogs,times and geographically really brass me off.
I'm up North and lucky to have woods and moors on the doorstep where the dogs can go off lead and have great fun and picking up poo isn't essential.Of course I do on footpaths and around parking areas but once off track I don't.Its not just an excuse but the rain - lots of it up here !-and slugs get rid of it faster than a plastic bag can decompose.
My other bugbear are the few clients who expect almost a full dog grooming service as well for £ 10 a walk.With the best will in the world when it's so wet and muddy it's impossible to leave dogs spotlessly clean and dry when they forget to leave towels and have a useless hosepipe or washing off facilities.Most are pretty relaxed ,and gave a good set up for their dogs.

AlpacaLypse Tue 03-Jun-14 23:01:28

One of my regular clients has just become one of my part-timers. She's actually wired the hot water supply into her outdoor tap so when her dogs get filthy we can wash them down with warm water! And then they go into a warm utility room with loads of fluffy towels and VetBed! Lucky lucky dogs... they both came from Many Tears rescue, she's a total star and I'm really pleased she's joined the team.

Yes, I've had the odd client get all surprised that they've booked a walk in winter with a firm who make a point of doing offlead walks in open countryside and their dog comes back covered in mud. I have a supply of old towels, but without a decent hosepipe a towel won't achieve much on the average coat. Even Vislas, Ridgebacks, Pointers and the other short coat breeds need a proper washdown if they've had a good wallow. And don't get me started on fox-poo rollers.... grin

Actually fox-poo - I only recently discovered the incredible properties of tomato ketchup for shifting this. I am now a total convert. Amazing stuff.

Before I forget, the original purpose of this thread was advice and support for beginners in the professional dogwalking world. You will find that virtually everyone wants their dog walked at lunchtime. That's probably why soddinghormones saw that girl struggling with four unsuited dogs on a lead - she was trying to fit everything into a narrow window.

NARPS and RSPCA advice is not to leave a dog alone for more than four hours and we do try to stick to this. However, sometimes it's possible to cope with this, either because someone will be home earlier, even if it's not to walk them, or by making second short visits later in the day.

When we have our occasional spells of dramatic weather, I go onto a slightly different regime. I talk about this with clients when we first book in. For very strong winds, I will avoid woodland. This is mostly because when I was about 12 a tree fell down behind me when I was walking home from school and the twigs scratched down the back of my legs. Another step behind I would have been seriously injured. Another couple of steps behind I would probably be dead. I've got The Fear, I can't help it.

For snow, I'll attempt to talk to all clients in the morning. Chances are, if it's too snowy for me to get to them, it's been too snowy for them to get to work.

For extreme heat, I move everything forward. The rota of walkies that starts at 8.30 will start at 7.15 and will be compressed, so everyone's had a walk by 11. At around 3 I'll go round to all households that are out all day working owners and take everyone out for a wee, if they want. Frankly they're normally too whacked by the heat to be interested in anything much.

Mitchy1nge Wed 04-Jun-14 09:15:28

I was so lucky to have a 10 acre enclosed field to use for work, the sessions were about 2 hours to allow for pick ups/drop offs (in a scabby land rover van type defender) and at least an hour of group frolics. It was a huge help for under socialised dogs who had never learned how to talk dog to other dogs or dogs who had previously been attacked and had become difficult to walk, a massive wide open space. I charged I think it was about £20 per dog and would have groups of 6-8 but had two helpers to help in case of something going wrong. I did the canine psychology courses through the animal care college, am sure these things are largely a load of shit but it was interesting and I enjoyed some of the projects along the way.

I did do the one at a time thing but living somewhere so sparsely populated made it an expensive hobby rather than a job. Now I just say 'these are my hours of work, this is where I will walk the dogs (think am insured up to 6 but 4 is plenty), these are the rough time slots if you are interested and all the dogs get on ok I'll walk them at some point during this time period' otherwise no.

If you want to make a sort of living (I have a tiny mortgage so it was possible) house sitting is a good one to combine with the groups. Not sure how much I would charge for it now but it was a basic £35 a day plus pizza food and then a supplement for whatever extras, horses to ride that sort of thing.

I'm also insured with Cliverton and was before, but I can't remember who indemnified us (gave behavioural and other advice)

with the vehicles overwhelmingly our customers did not want any kind of sign writing that might indicate they were out at work while someone popped in to give their cat some medicine or whatever, which is a shame because I had some neon paw prints to decorate the defender with and never got to use them sad

Mitchy1nge Wed 04-Jun-14 09:18:36

we did day care and overnight boarding too but you need to register with the local council for that

unless that is just a thing here

Snugglepiggy Wed 04-Jun-14 15:12:00

Alpaca ditto to how I organise walks in extreme weather.But you can be sure if 3 clients phone up on snowy days and say don't come I'm not going to venture out the 4th one nearby will call to say made it to my train and out for day and please ,please can you try to get to the dogs in case I get stuck/ delayed and you still end up schlepping along snowy tracks.I won't risk life and limb tho, and after a huge branch fell off tree just behind me I'm averse to wood walks in high winds too.
Mitchy not one client has ever queried our vans being signed up?! in fact we've had loads of compliments on out quirky logo and smart vans.Maybe folks are more trusting / naive up North.And tbh they have been by far our best form of advertising for new business ,alongside word of mouth.Also we never promise a specific time - unless a special request- so times of collection and delivery are very random.That said with recent reports of dog thefts it has crossed my mind when out I the middle of nowhere I could be vulnerable.But then again anyone watching those areas would also see the large transit van with no markings that lets out 8 + dogs at roughly the same time each day also.
I did do dog day care but gave up a few months ago.Takings are down but I wanted some of my life back!because despite what I thought were generous drop off times - 2 hours am. And 2 hours pm a certain no of clients seemed to think because it was my home they could turn up earlier and later and I just got fed up of it.Likewise with the overnight boarding.I still do a very select few who I know won't mess me around with dogs I like to walk ,but have cut back drastically.We are worse off financially but it's worth it to have some free time, and I'm much more enjoying the daily walks again.
I would advise any new start up to set your stall out clearly from the start regards prices,times ,cancellations etc and STICK TO IT.I let too many clients become friends - a few still are- but then it's hard to say No.Especially to boarding when they say 'oh but that's the only dates we can go' or we can't pick up at your times because da de dah.Kennels don't put up with that and won't be emotionally blackmailed !

AlpacaLypse Wed 04-Jun-14 18:17:58

It's really interesting to see everyone's different approaches isn't it?

I thought of renting a field for the incurable bolters at one point, but all the rough grazing I could afford had pretty rubbish fencing and I've seen lab+ size dogs sail straight over the standard waist high sheep wire with a strand of barbed wire at the top, so I've left that idea on hold for now. Also one aspect I love is being able to choose different areas and routes every day, even with the pleasure of the changing seasons it gets very boring doing the same walk day in day out. I've got about ten regular routes and a few others that I use when some of the occasional clients book in.

I charge 25p a mile to go outside a three mile radius of my home town, but some of the part-timers live in outlying villages, so they take on the dogs that are nearest to them. They don't have the bother of running the advertising/invoicing/chasing up payments etc etc. Basically, they're all people who work from home or who have retired, and have a dog of their own that was going to be walked anyway, so they take one or two extras along.

There seem to be quite a lot of Animal Psychology courses etc online, some of which look dubious to put it mildly. The whole animal care industry is a bit of an unregulated minefield isn't it! Having said, a friend of mine who dogwalks (independently of me) about ten miles away did a course and reckons it's really helped her understand her own two collies and husky cross. The husky cross had come through rescue and had been driving her towards her wit's end, but the strategies she learned on the course apparently really worked and he's now a happy, settled dog who no longer bolts for the hills at the drop of a hat!

I've got house-sitting in our price-list, but I don't chase it very much. The only really nasty experiences I've had have both been house-sitting situations, one involving getting bitten during the initial setting up visit, followed by being cancelled at 48 hours notice, and the other eventually needing NARPS dispute resolution service. The family had arranged to have some work done on the ensuite bathroom in the master suite while they were away. I was staying in the guest suite at the other end of the house. Apparently an electronic device in the master suite was badly damaged when it was unplugged... and although I had absolutely no reason to even enter the room, whereas the builders were using power tools and must have been plugging them into something, her line was 'I've known the builders and my cleaner for years and years and they said it wasn't them so it must have been you.' These were the same builders and cleaner who had described the lady as 'a bit of a bitch' and 'you know she got through three nannies in less than a year!' when we all got chatting.

So, I tend to avoid house-sitting. I've agreed to do one this summer, for a regular, and I'm not going to turn it down if asked, but I'd rather have the dogs come to stay with me.

Our vehicles aren't sign written, but more because I still haven't got round to it blush than any other reason. DP's transit van isn't sign-written for his business, but his main job is actually transporting antiques. Before now he's had £1million + worth aboard the van overnight, parked in the street outside, and the last thing he needs is to claim insurance for that sort of figure even though he's got special insurance for it.

With our council, if you have animals from more than one household staying with you simultaneously you have to get a boarding licence. So I only have one at any time. I've got an amazingly cute Cavalier asleep on my lap right now while her family enjoy a bit of sunshine in Majorca! But each council has different rules.

Snugglepiggy I think I remember chatting with you before about being mucked about with the day care. yy to starting on a really business like footing, if a friendship develops between you and a client later at least the ground rules have been set. And I am genuinely friends with several of my clients - and have also taken on three so far as part-timers as their life-situations changed and developed!

Snugglepiggy Wed 04-Jun-14 20:07:46

Two former customers that became friends have set up their own businesses and we've given them lots of help.But one is purely dog day care - which I no longer want to do.And the other dog walks on the other side of town in areas too far from my client base.
I have a council licence - but what a farce and not sure after this years 'inspection ' I will renew as scaling back that side of things.The jobswoth that came round ,and showed no interest in the dogs whatsoever,seemed unable to comprehend that even though we use the lower level of our big four storey house to accommodate the dogs they are still in our home.They spend all day out and about with us on walks but sleep downstairs where there are two huge rooms on garden level.Light and airy.Heated.One with a wood burner where I do laundry.Radio on and an old sofa and chairs to lounge on.A warm dog shower for wash offs and access to a big paved area.Plus a very secure garden with 14 foot walls.But he said a max of 3 dogs which as a lot of our customers have two makes us exceed no's if holiday dates overlap.Or a lovely regular needs a last minute booking.
So I have to admit at times we do exceed no's but all our clients love the facilities and think it's bonkers.
What really annoys me is knowing they gave a licence for the same no to someone who boards them in cages in a conservatory.And another 'sitter' persuaded them to up her licence to 6 and uses a modest sized utility room with cages.
Alpaca I got accused if damaging a vacuum cleaner once when cat feeding even though I never touched it.Didn't even know where it was kept.I was feeding the cats in a utility room with access from side door and no need to go in rest of the house.On the first visit I arrived to find a full pack of cat biscuits had been knocked over into a sink full of water,leaving insufficient food for the holiday period.I dutifully cleaned up the soggy stuff, bought some more biscuits and left the receipt plus a note explaining what I'd found and why the cat food was now in the cupboard.Only to receive an irate and unpleasant call to say you must have used our vac, and it's broken.

AlpacaLypse Wed 04-Jun-14 22:25:45

I had a volunteer a couple of years ago, she was in recovery from a MH breakdown caused (mostly) by being a very nice person working for DSS and unable to cope with the unremitting grind of saying 'no' to families in crisis. Whole other thread...

She's moved on from volunteering, to being a part-timer, and is now a (very happy) trainer/behaviourist. Although to be fair about half of her income is from her day-job in a local supermarket smile - but she and her OH are so much happier with their lives than they were when I first met them.
And I think with all these life-choice jobs we take on, THAT is something that doesn't have a monetary value. That's not to say that I expect the State to pick up my bills from me choosing to not earn a normal graduate salary, but I do agree with my old teacher, the one I ran into out walkies a while ago, who said that my education had given me a choice. Without it, I might HAVE to have ended up with a job that pays not much better than NMW. Instead I have the satisfaction of running a business that (I believe) is providing a good service to people who want to have the happiness that having a companion animal brings and also want to ensure the best they can do for that animal in their circumstances, and give the people who work for me as good a deal as I can manage.

Sorry, reading back that all looks a bit prissy and halo-polishing. But it's basically true.

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