Wednesday, December 1, 2010

So You Want to Start a Dog Walking Business??

So you want to start your own dog walking/pet sitting business, eh? Well, it's a great idea and a wonderfully fulfilling career for many people, but IS IT FOR YOU??!! While the following is by no means a comprehensive guide to being a dog walker/pet sitter, I do believe it answers most of the questions commonly asked by newbies, and gives some good advice on how to start things off on the right paw. If you can master everything listed below, you will indeed be a true professional and your business has a good chance of being successful. Today's pet owner is very saavy, and if you don't know what you're doing they will call someone who does. Someone like me. :) After almost a decade of super-amazing dog walking and pet sitting, here is my advice to you:

Almost every week, I get emails and phone calls from enthusiastic dog lovers looking for a life change and wondering how to go about starting up a dog walking business. It's a long discussion to have, and there are so many things to consider before taking on a commitment like starting a pet care business. I've learned that some people think that it's a walk in park (literally and figuratively), and an 'easy' way to make money without working too hard. In reality, running a pet care business is a huge (and often stressful) responsibility, and entails an exhausting amount of physical labour.

Who Should be a Dog Walker?

Not everyone, that's for sure. Loving dogs isn't enough - you have to have a very broad base of knowledge to be an excellent dog walker. There are a thousand things can that go wrong, including medical and behaviourial issues, and even if you've owned dogs all of your life, you're not necessarily prepared for looking after dozens of other people's pets. Owners very rightly expect you to have expertise in a wide range of topics, from canine psychology and breed traits to health and nutrition. They will come to you with questions about housetraining, local veterinarians, dog parks and a million other things! Being a dog walker goes way beyond simply walking the dog once a day; you become an important resource for the owner, and provide support and advice on an ongoing basis over the years. It's this relationship that separates the true professionals from everyone else.

What do I Need to Know?

In short - everything!! In addition to having experience handling dogs of all breeds & temperaments, here are some topics that you should be thoroughly educated on before you think about becoming a professional dog walker:

- Study all dog breeds, know their genetics and traits. Why is a Beagle a flight risk? Which breeds are prone to bloat? Why should a pug wear a harness and not a collar? What the hell is a Chinese Crested?!

- Know all of the 'lingo'. If you don't know a hot spot from an undercoat, you've got a lot of learnin' to do!

- Canine psychology: knowing how a dog thinks and what drives him is your most valuable tool. It's essential when controlling a group of dogs. Read books, blogs, watch the positive-reinforcement training shows on TV, attend seminars, meet trainers, take classes with your own dog, and spend lots of time in the dog park. If you're not observant, no amount of reading will help you. Hone your instincts!!!

- Health & Nutrition: Know the commercial food & treat brands currently available (keep an eye out for recalls); what's good for a dog and what's toxic, and educate yourself on commercial food vs. raw food vs. home cooked. Learn what constitutes a healthy dog and what are signs of underlying problems. Get used to talking about parasites, anal glands and bloody diarrhea! Oh, and form your own opinion on subjects like flea & heartworm prevention and vaccinations - there are 2 very hotly debated sides to those topics, so be informed. Are the vets always right? Helllls no!!

- Equipment: every dog is different, so you must be able to recommend a product that fits the dog and the situation. There are hundreds of products to know: booties, sprays, training (spray) collars, martingales, Haltis, Gentle Leaders, harnesses, leashes, coats, crates, toys, beds, pheromone diffusers, etc, etc.

- All current training methods: the difference between Brad Pattison and Ian Dunbar, puppy training, housebreaking, aggression, separation anxiety. Know how to stop a fight before it even starts.  This is an endless topic, and no pet care professional should ever stop educating themselves.  Again, hone your instincts.

- Local trainers, behaviourists, groomers, holistic vets & regular vets: know who to refer, and who to avoid

- Get advice on how to walk multiple dogs; learn how to match dogs by energy, size, age & temperament. Figure out the logistics of picking dogs up and dropping them off (including how to introduce dogs for the first time), keeping things calm and organized. What's the best way to hold 6 leashes without getting tangled?


How Do I Start my Business?

- Apprentice with an experienced dog walker if you can swing it.
- Pet Sitters Insurance
- City of Toronto dog walker's license
- Register your business name with the city of Toronto
- Pet First Aid certification - VERY important! And don't do a cheesy online course; make sure it's in-class and hands-on
- Professionally designed logo, website & business cards
- Research different areas to determine whether or not they can support another dog walking business
- Look into furthering your dog-related education with training, lectures, seminars, etc. Learn from the pros
- Join Pet Sitters International (good resource for business start-up as well)
- Make contact with pet stores, vets, and other dog walkers in your area once you've started taking clients. Networking is essential to get referrals to build your business. You will also need them when you take vacation.
- Have a list of 'Phone Screening Questions' at the ready when you take new client calls. Know which dogs & cats to take on, and which to decline.
- Have a 'New Meeting Checklist' to help you through your meetings. You need to know what questions to ask and what information/advice to offer.
- Develop your own (as in, don't steal someone else's) Information Sheet, Pricing, Policies & Procedures for your business.
- Start advertising and networking - and head to the dog parks!

Who Should be a Cat Sitter?

First of all let me point out that most people start out with the dog walking business idea, then take their cue from other established businesses and add on the cat sitting service as a way to make additional income. Which is fine, as long as they are equally as dedicated to (and knowledgeable about) cats. Cat owners are every bit as invested in their pets as dog owners, and they expect a high level of service and expertise. Just as some dogs are 'easier' than others to care for, some cats are higher maintenance than others and may have special needs. With cats, health problems can be harder to detect, so you need to know which behaviours are normal and which may constitute a red flag; that way you'll know immediately if something's wrong and be able take action before it's too late.

If you are a cat owner, love cats, and have done your research, you will probably make a good cat sitter. Here are some topics that you should be thoroughly educated on before you think about becoming a cat sitter:

- Common cat breeds, behaviour & terminology

- How to administer medication

- Cat food and equipment/supplies currently available on the market

- Hairballs

- Feline diabetes

- Fleas, ear mites, ringworm & other parasites

- Plants, etc. that are toxic to cats

- urinary tract infections (UTI)

- the importance of preventing and treating feline constipation

- Viral and Other Infections like feline infectious enteritis, rabies, cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), and the feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Some of these are highly contagious and can be spread by YOU!

Ok, I think I've covered the most important topics, but I should add that above all else, you MUST be reliable, honest, organized, quick-thinking, patient, have loads of common sense, and an amaaaazing sense of humour.

Good luck, and stay off my turf!!!!! :)


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