I was asked to do many surprising and unusual things over the 10 or so years I worked as a dog walker, but putting myself in mortal danger wasn’t typically on the agenda. Navigating a diamante collar around the neck of a snarling chihuahua is no easy task.
Neither is holding your ground while an enormous German shepherd tries to pull you into the road to retrieve an empty crisp packet, but thankfully I survived both unharmed.
I have quietly died inside walking a Pomeranian in a fairy costume, and a King Charles spaniel in a pet stroller, and my pride has been wounded far too many times to keep count by unsatisfiable customers whose dogs will never be tired enough or clean enough, but I have never actually felt my life was ever at risk.
It all started a bit accidentally for me. Bored and butterfingered, I left my job in the furniture department at Sotheby’s after breaking one too many antiques, and decided, somewhat on a whim, to set up a little dog walking company. A lifelong love of dogs was certainly a driving factor, but the main advantage I had in such a bold endeavour was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Not at the start anyway. If I had, I might still be struggling with a photocopier somewhere, as the responsibility and the complexity of looking after other people’s pets is enormous – I took a good year to get to grips with it – and, if anything, dog walking has become a whole lot more serious now.
The horrific case of Ryan Fischer, Lady Gaga’s dog walker, being shot in the chest in Los Angeles last month by dognappers – who then absconded with two of the pop star’s French bulldogs – has not only shed an even brighter light on the growing issue of dog theft (in the past year, reported cases are up by 65 per cent in some areas of the UK), but has also raised a very important and highly prescient question for many: how good is my dog walker?
With the end of lockdown finally in sight, now is the time that the more organised (and the more desperate to get back into the office) among us will be starting to think about canine care. Working from home has allowed us to spend some wonderful quality time with our pets – and quite frankly, our dogs have often been the crutch that has helped us to limp through this pandemic.
However, with the promise of actual human interaction on the horizon, and the fact that dog ownership has risen by a whopping 84 per cent in some parts of the UK in the past year alone, back-up may be needed. I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t just leave a dog on its own all day. Never. Ever. Dogs need exercise, but almost more importantly, they need company.
So, what should you be looking for in a dog walker? When I started my business back in 2004 there was virtually no competition and customers had to take what was on offer (me in some tracky bums with a bag of Bonios in my pocket). But with the market now buoyant, a personal recommendation from friends and family is always a good start.
Word of mouth was how we attracted most clients, but if you are completely new to dog ownership, then your vet should be able to suggest a local, reputable walker or sitter. A daily dog walk to break up the hours is the cheaper and most popular option, and should in theory be more than enough for most dogs, provided they are getting a good hour of exercise. But if you have longer working hours, a very energetic dog or a dog who finds it difficult to be left alone, then day care might be more suitable.
What’s available in your area will dictate your decision to a certain extent, as will your dog’s individual needs, and their requirements will change over the years, with very young and very old dogs needing plenty of quiet time at home.
It’s important that you are completely honest – with yourself and with your walker – about any foibles your dog may have so that potential conflicts can be averted. A miniature dachshund who growls at big black labradors might seem amusing and harmless, but when it comes across one who has issues with small, annoying dogs, it might not be quite so charming.
Nervous rescue dogs might need one-to-one walks, whereas fit and healthy collies, spaniels and retrievers would benefit from being in a pack. Work out what you are looking for first and your search will be far easier.
If after meeting a potential candidate you are not recoiling in horror at the thought of handing them your keys and your beloved hound, then you are honestly off to a great start. Instinct goes a long way in decisions like these – both yours and that of your dog – who is probably a far better judge of character than you and will let you know if something is not quite right. If they are able to give you the paws-up, and if you have managed to have a sensible, coherent conversation with someone who was polite and punctual, then you are certainly already viewing the top 1 or 2 per cent of what’s out there.
The rest comes with time, faith and good communication. A trial walk is a good idea to calm any lingering nerves, and don’t feel bad about asking for text or photo updates. In a world where dogs are served Evian and read bedtime stories, I can guarantee that will be one of the more routine requests they receive.
In terms of security, pet cams have been in use for a while now, and the use of GPS and lockable lead and collar sets, such as the ones made by UK-based Petloc, are becoming more and more popular. I had clients who insisted on security guards accompanying the dog walker, and ones who wanted to be on video call for the entire walk, but the fact remains that all the kit and clobber in the world is not going to match up to a vigilant dog walker who has their canine charge in their sights at all times.
That’s the crux of it really. A walker who loves dogs. A walker who loves your dog. Not as much as you do obviously – nobody is going to be able to quite recreate that lovely little high-pitched voice you do when you tell them what a good dog they are – but someone who simply cares. Which sounds so obvious and easy but is certainly not a given.
Crack that, and almost everything else will fall nicely into place. Luckily, it did for me.
Seven questions to ask a potential dog walker or sitter
1. How much will I pay?
Expect to pay £12-15 per walk, and £15-30 for day care, dependent on area.
2. What experience do you have?
Experience is always a bonus, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be professional. A love of dogs is far more important.
3. How many dogs do you walk at once?
Four dogs per walker should be the limit.
4. Where do you walk them and how are they being transported?
Ensure they are getting plenty of exercise and are not just stuck in a van.
5. What insurance do you have?
Specialist pet care insurance is preferable as it will be specifically tailored to the needs of you and your dog walker.
6. What happens if my dog walker is unavailable? Will there be cover?
Ensure they have a contingency plan.
7. Are you able to do overnight stays?
Not essential, but we are all feeling a bit more hopeful about the odd weekend away, aren't we?
Kate MacDougall is the author of London’s Number One Dog Walking Agency, published April 8 (Bonnier Books UK); katemacdougallwrites.com