On glorious days like today anyone I meet who knows I’m a dog walker usually tells me how jealous they are of me and I must admit, it’s rather lovely when the sun shines! But what’s it really like doing my ‘job’?
Well, on an average day, I have 3 walks and at least one home visit. The walks last for 1 hour each and the home visit is 30 minutes. So that means my day is 3.5 hours long, with a bit of extra time for pick ups and driving right - probably No more than 5 hours? Erm… No… Each day is usually at least 7 hours long of non-stop driving, picking up, dropping off and walking:
9.15am Leave Home to get to first pick up.
9.45am (Provided the traffic is good as it’s often in the middle of Guildford) first pick up.
10.15am (Earliest!) Unload dogs and start Walk 1.
11.15am Load dogs back into car and start drop offs.
11.45am Complete drop offs for walk 1.
12.00am Pick up dogs for Walk 2.
12.15am (Earliest) Unload dogs and start Walk 2 (walk 2 is currently just 2 dogs as I don’t have time to pick up any more!)
1.15pm Load dogs back into car, start drop offs.
1.30pm Drive to pick up dogs for Walk 3.
1.50pm Pick up dogs for Walk 3.
2.30pm Unload dogs and start Walk 3.
3.30pm Load Walk 3 dogs back into car, start drop offs.
4.00pm Finish drop offs and drive to Home Visit.
4.05pm Start home visit
4.35pm Drive home.
This is assuming minimal traffic (bear in mind I cross the middle of Guildford town centre at least twice a day), no incidents on the walks and no problems during pick up and drop offs! Lunch is scoffed in the car at various points during the day and I live on Lucozade for the sugar rush, as walking for 3.5 hours every day in the open air 5 days a week is really quite tiring!
So how many customers is that? Well, it varies, but usually there are at least 10 dogs at 6 different homes, although some days it can be as low as 6 dogs and 3 homes or as high as 13 dogs and 9 different homes. This is why, when customers occasionally ask for extra tasks to be done during drop offs I have to be really careful. If each customer asks for a favour on each visit that takes just 5 minutes, this could add 15-45 minutes extra into an already packed day and make me very late for any training or cat feeding appointments later in the day. Oh yes – don’t forget, dog walking is just one part of this ‘job’ – very often I have extra visits and appointments after I finish, meaning that I get home a lot later than the end of my last home visit.
So timing wise, I’m sure you can see that this is not quite the leisurely, chilled out job that you may think it would be. But at least once you’re walking it’s easy right? You just walk along and the dogs follow? Erm… No…! Walking one dog, or even two of your own is easy, but the mechanics of walking a group of dogs from different homes is very different. Firstly I need to ensure that they all get on in the car. I don’t have cages in my car, just a head guard to stop the dogs getting into the front (although some have been known to wriggle around and they have to be strapped in!) and a tailgate guard to stop them from rushing out the moment I open the boot door. This means that the dogs are in very close proximity with little stopping them from scrapping if they decided to. So I have to be careful to ensure that the dogs I’ve put together are comfortable in the back together. I have one dog who isn’t happy with this situation, but he is fine if he sits up front with me, so he has his own little seatbelt harness and he sits next to me on the passenger seat!
Once we get to the walk, I need to unload the dogs in a safe manner – this sounds easy, but depending on where you’re walking it can be trouble. Usually I prefer to walk in places that have nice, safe car parks (I know the quiet spots that are closest to where we start and finish the walk!) so I can let the dogs off lead straight out of the car, but I still have to be careful that no cars suddenly pull in. It’s a fine tuned strategy now I’ve been doing this for a while! I try to ensure that during the walk I practice recalls periodically, calling all the dogs back to me for treats, practicing standard recall for food, but also teaching them ‘What’s This’ (guaranteed super yummy treats!) and also ‘Find It’ (there’s yummy treats on the floor by my feet, come and find them).
Walking 4 dogs can be very hard work. It’s lovely when you are walking them and there are no other dogs or people in sight, but as most dog owners will know, not all dogs get on, so when we approach other dogs and walkers we give them a wide berth to err on the side of caution. Other professional dog walkers know the routine, and one of us usually either changes course or calls all the dogs over to their side whilst playing or treating, and the other dog walker rushes their charges past and calls out a ‘thank you’ over their shoulder as they head off hurriedly into the distance. This ensures that we run minimal risk of any of the dogs in our care having spats or causing problems in over excitable play. Occasionally a non-professional dog walker will try to strike up a conversation with me as I rush the dogs past them – I always worry that I must look rude, but I’ve learned the hard way that I’d rather look rude than risk the dogs having an incident! All too often someone may say that their dog is ‘friendly’ but sadly they look anything but when my 4 strong group of excited dogs bears down on them. It’s rarely a recipe for success. This is my reason for working hard to develop and improve the recall of all the dogs in my care, if I’m ambushed in a narrow pathway with dogs ahead, I can always call the dogs to me and run past the other dogs and walkers – most of my dogs love running with me anyway, but even more when they know they get spoiled with treats for ignoring the other dogs! This is quite ‘active dog walking’ in comparison to the more leisurely walks that most owners enjoy with their dogs, I have to be on the ball and prepared to call the dogs on or back to me at any moment. Hence why I have a cool dog walking hip pouch that I strap to my hip and leg filled with treats, balls, first aid kit and spare leads!
Other things that I have to be aware of as a walker is that not everyone out on the same walks as me is a dog lover. I’ve unfortunately had my fair share of altercations when the dogs have run up to greet someone just as I realise that the someone is not a ‘dog person’. As a walker it can be really frustrating to watch someone flap their arms to shoo a dog away – you know they are just exciting the dog more! But I equally appreciate that everyone has a right to enjoy their own time and space on a public walk and not be bothered by other people or their animals, so this is normally when I start running as quickly as I can towards the person calling the dogs onwards and squeaking a ball frantically. It’s no good standing back and calling and hoping the dog will come away – if you aren’t careful and the person is especially scared of dogs you could be reported. This isn’t something I’d like to have to tell my customers about, so I tend to call the dogs back the moment I see anyone, with or without a dog, better safe than sorry.
Once the walk is done, I then need to load all the dogs into the car and get them dropped off as quickly and safely as I can. This is never more critical than in the height of summer, on those (two!) days of the year when the temperature is really up there. The advice is to never to leave dogs in a car on hot days, but when you are dropping 4 dogs home to their 4 respective homes, at least 3 dogs will have to be left in the car at some point. So this is normally done at a flat out run!
And, this is all well and good assuming nothing goes wrong. At times (and usually when you most need it not to!) things do go wrong. Injuries, squabbles and lost dogs do happen regardless of how careful you are. It is absolutely horrible to have to call owners to say there is a problem, but on the few occasions when this has happened to me, all the owners have been unanimous in the fact that they were relieved I was up front and honest with them and did my best to sort it out.
Does that sound hectic? Yup, it is, and I do it all 3 times a day! Some dog walkers walk more dogs together and therefore only have to do that once or twice a day, but the problem is that they have more dogs to control and ensure that they all get on together. I’ve seen many local walkers manage this admirably, but personally I would rather limit the amount of dogs, to limit the risks.
So that’s it, a 7+ hour day walking, then training consultations and cat feeds right? Erm… not quite… Once I get home, the real work starts… running a business. Once I get back home I then have to reply to the emails and telephone calls I’ve received throughout the day, keep in touch with customers, check and arrange my schedule for the next day, upload photos that I take whilst I’m out on walks (my customers love that!), write blogs to keep my website up to date, plan my training classes for Saturdays and from September I’ll be studying a diploma! Not to mention end of year accounts and invoicing - although this is made easier through the marvellous Petsitter Plus tool! But even this requires updating on a weekly basis and when taking on new customers. Oh and of course, new customers, somewhere in all this chaos I have to find time to meet with them and work out if their dogs will fit in with my little rabble.
So, still jealous?! Truth be told, I love running my own business and I love my 'job', but it is a lot harder than people think, hopefully this has been an insight into why. Really I don't think you can consider running your own dog walking or pet care business to be a job, it's more a lifestyle!