Is Dog Walking Right For Me?
By J.D. Antell
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved.
So you are thinking about starting your own dog walking business? As a dog walker of over seven years and author of a book on starting your own dog walking business, I’m going to give you the 5 most important aspects of running a successful and lucrative dog walking business.
Before we get into these in more detail, I would like to offer a little history and some explanation about dog walking and pet sitting in general. First of all I’d like to define the distinction between “pet sitting” and “dog walking.” These terms have been used interchangeably for far too long and there are major differences between the two you should be aware of, and which will have a direct impact on moms looking to start a business.
Pet sitting, as it’s known, really began to take hold back in the late 80s and early 90s. Why then? Near as I can tell Americans simply started caring more about their pets and decided that leaving the dog in a kennel for a week or more just wasn’t fair or humane. It was during this “age of enlightenment” that some entrepreneurial pet lovers decided there was a market for “pet sitting” and created businesses that served that need. Thus the pet sitting industry was born.
Dog walking, a newer variation on the pet sitting theme, differs considerably from traditional pet sitting and through its smaller commitment, offers more flexibility, and therefore a much better opportunity for stay-at-home moms who need to be home in the mornings to see the kids off, and home in the afternoons when they get home.
So what exactly is the difference? Pet sitting is about pet visits: feeding the cat, bird, dog, or fish, making sure they are fed and have water, making sure the owners house is still standing, watering plants, taking in mail, taking the dog out for a potty break or a walk and some companionship. Pet sitters take care of many different types of animals from domestic pets to live-stock. But here is the cincher: the hours are pretty much 4 blocks of time in each day: early morning, noon, late afternoon, and an evening tuck-in. Pet sitting was born out of the need for kennel alternatives and best serves those who are away on vacation, not just at work for the day. If you are a pet sitter you can expect to be working very hard and to be out most of the day with brief 1-2 hour blocks of down-time scattered here and there throughout the day.
By contrast, a dog walker’s job, focus, and services are very different and the hours are much more conducive to stay-at-home moms. Dog walkers generally work between the hours of 10am-3pm leaving mornings, afternoons, and evenings free. Dog walking is a Zen-like business model, providing a steady, predictable income, and your customer base is much, much larger.
America has experienced changes to its neighborhoods and subsequently its municipal laws, and it’s not just us humans who have felt the impact of urban sprawl. Congested neighborhoods and vehicular traffic is now the norm–leaving little room for dogs to tour the streets on their own, as they once did. In most communities in America it’s now against the law to let your dog roam free or be left out in a yard all day; and socially unacceptable to leave it locked up all day in the house. I remember reading somewhere that commute times have increased 200-300% in the last 20 years as more and more dual earner households have become the norm. Unfortunately, dogs’ bladders haven’t kept pace! In sum, all of these changes have created an opportunity for those in the dog-care industry. What we’ve seen is a growing number of commuters needing to hire DOG WALKERS to take their dogs out during the day.
Long commutes and hours of endless boredom in the lives of dogs have resulted in many opportunities for creative animal lovers, which is why it’s such a hot business to get into. Stay-at-home moms would be well advised to consider starting their own dog walking business. The hours work out so well for moms that it’s probably why 9 out of 10 dog walkers seem to be women. Folks need their dogs walked during the mid-day hours and this is usually when children are in school. A dog walker can walk about 4 dogs in two hours (and more if you offer group walks or outings) at $15 per dog (a fairly standard rate.) That’s $60+ for a couple of hours work. Most moms can squeeze in at least 4 hours per day so let’s double that making their daily part-time income $120. So this part-time job can earn $600 or more per week. When you start getting more clients than you can handle consider hiring another walker and simply manage the business from your home; then watch your part-time business generate full-time income!
Dog walking is pretty much recession proof. American households with dogs have increased exponentially and continue to grow. We aren’t going to get rid of our pets, and since we can’t stop working and commuting, dog walkers will still be needed–even in a down economy. There is competition but the field is still new and there is a lot of room for new-comers. Those who offer the best services and top-notch customer service will be the leaders. Those who don’t put much effort or time into the business will likely fail; making it even easier for dog walkers with a plan to succeed. Which brings me to the 5 main points that make or break a dog walking business; and at times I quote directly from my book: The Dog Walker’s Startup Guide: Create Your Own Lucrative Dog Walking Business in 12 Easy Steps.
Trust: This is the most important one of all. People are very particular about who takes care of their pets. Animals, as of yet, have not learned to communicate in our language and so it’s up to the owners to screen their care-givers very carefully. While it’s true that trust is earned–and in this business earning trust will be a daily practice–there are a few shortcuts that can help you get your foot in the door. The way to overcome your potential customers’ initial resistance is through credibility indicators such as: your past work experience, memberships and associations, community involvement, past references and advertising. These things will establish an initial level of credibility and trust. Once you’re hired your new clients will be seeking confirmation that their trust is well placed, and this brings us to the next point.
Reliability: This is so crucial I cannot say enough about it but I will try to be succinct. You absolutely must be consistent, both for the dog’s sake and your own. Your clients have asked their friends and neighbors to keep an eye on you and believe me, they are. If you show up late for walks or short change them to try and catch up it’s going to catch up with you! Your clients will hear about it and it will erode their confidence in you. Once that kind of word-of-mouth gets going, it’s very hard to stop. You want your reputation to be good! Being consistent is critical, but there are a few other things that can generate good word-of-mouth which brings me to the next key element.
Professionalism: How you do appear to others when you are out walking dogs? Your appearance can be as simple as your attitude, mannerisms, your clothing, or your car. You need to make sure you look professional, clean, and reliable. Old sweats and an old jalopy aren’t very good indicators of your business success. The other key issue in the professionalism category is how you handle the dog. Are your handling techniques selling your services–or selling you out? I go into this in detail in my book and it’s crucial you understand how your actions when out on a walk say more about your business than any advertising copy ever will!
Contact: You may be working with dogs 90% of the time but you must be able to connect with people. You may be a dog whisperer but if you don’t connect with the dog’s owner you’re unlikely to ever be given the chance to whisper in old Fido’s ear. Let’s assume you are pretty good with people. You get hired and you begin taking care of their dog. What then? Do you know that I have met most of my clients only once? In one year of walking a particular client’s dog, I had only seen the owner once–at the client interview! This can create quite a distance between you and the people you serve. That’s why it is imperative you maintain contact at least on a weekly basis. When I started out, blogging wasn’t even on the radar screen. Now it’s everywhere, but many dog walkers aren’t even using this fantastic medium for keeping in contact. Make sure you create a weblog for your business! I discuss all the angles for making a weblog for your business in my book and even ways of generating secondary income with it through PPC (pay-per-click) advertising!
Services: You might be wondering why I have put this last. It’s really quite simple: dog walking, as its name implies, is pretty straightforward. Feel free to add things to your services such as transportation to the vet or groomers and other ala-carte services, but the bread-and-butter of dog walking is well, walking dogs. There are important (and lucrative) variations on that theme which I discuss at length in my book.
I started out when “professional dog walking” was really a new idea in most of America. My background was in advertising and video/film production but that didn’t stop me. I made mistakes along the way and found what worked and what didn’t. My wife and I read tons of books on dog behavior, training, and history. She took courses at Harvard University and attended lectures by world renowned scientists at the forefront of animal behavior studies, and we both learned quite a lot. Over that time the idea of creating a dog walking startup guide and kit began to emerge and eventually I put my pen to paper to tell others what we had learned. What has resulted is: “The Dog Walker’s Startup Guide” and “The Dog Walker’s Companion (DVD),” which give you step-by-step instructions on how to start your own dog walking business. The DVD adds the practical instruction aspects of the training through demonstrations and also contains all the forms and materials you’ll need once you get your business set up.
Author, “The Dog Walker’s Startup Guide: Create Your Own Lucrative Dog Walking Business in 12 Easy Steps”
photo credit: di_the_huntress