Secrets to pet business success

Dog trainer teaching dogs

This article was originally published in the dog*tec blog. 

We’re asked often by clients and workshop attendees as we lecture across the country for the secrets to success in this industry. Here’s what we tell them.

Get and keep yourself educated

Whether you are already or wish to become a dog trainer, walker, sitter, or daycare or boarding facility owner, you owe it to yourself, your clients, and the dogs in your care to know everything you can about dog behavior. We have an unfortunate habit of assuming we understand dogs because we’ve lived with them all our lives. The truth is we suffer from a host of often damaging misconceptions and pieces of conventional wisdom about why dogs do what they do. Ridding yourself of these myths will make you a more effective dog pro.

Start by attending a scientifically-sound program based on positive reinforcement, then keep up your education through seminars, reading, DVDs, and professional conferences.

Learn how to market yourself

A lack of or poor marketing is the number one reason for failure in our industry. Too many dog pros rely on a “build it and they will come” approach, or a few brochures or fliers spread around town. This rarely gets the job done, especially in a busy market like the Bay Area. I also see dog pros waste precious money on passive advertising that rarely works—Google ads, yellow pages ads, direct mailers, etc. Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive or stressful, but it needs to be done and done smart.

My focus when working with clients is to develop inexpensive community-based marketing plans that play to personal strengths—good writers can write an ongoing column or newsletter, for example. I also recommend finding a way to stand out. Look around at other service providers in your area. What can you do differently, better? There are lots of pet sitters– is anyone focusing on animals with special health or behavioral needs? Anyone sending video report cards to clients on vacation? There are lots of dog walkers—is anyone focusing on small dogs? There are lots of daycares—what will make yours special? Small playgroups and a well-crafted daily itinerary? Special monthly event days?

Work ON the business, not just in it

I can’t stress this enough. To be a successful dog pro, you have to do more than see clients and care for dogs. You have to be your own secretary promptly returning phone calls and emails, your own admin assistant handling paperwork, your own accountant managing your books, your own marketing manager executing your marketing plan, and so on. Though you can (and should) get help with many of these tasks, the reality remains: You have to actually run the business. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of client needs, but if you don’t work on the business itself it won’t grow.

Keep to a master schedule

Working on and in the business demands efficient use of time. I teach my clients how to create a smart work schedule that allows them to effectively run their businesses while also enjoying plenty of down time and flexibility. After all, there are supposed to be perks to working for yourself. Whether you’re the type to flounder under a lack of structure, getting little done without the external pressures of a job and boss, or the type to work yourself to the bone when there’s no one to tell you to knock off for the day, a master schedule creates a sustainable balance.

This approach to scheduling involves setting aside specific days and times for each business activity, as well as protected personal downtime. When there’s a specific task to be done, it’s assigned to its logical spot in the weekly schedule, rather than relegated to a post-it note, intimidating to-do list, or a hopeful “I’d like to get to this someday when I have time.” A master schedule operates on the concept of “do dates,” listing when something will actually be accomplished, instead of “due dates” that simply cause stress. When everything has its place things get done—and that means success and peace of mind, too.

Though running your own dog business can be challenging, few who do it will tell you they’d rather do something else. Working with dogs and dog lovers is a great way to make a living, especially when combined with the freedom that comes with owning a well run business. So be bold. If you already own a dog business, take it to a new level. If it’s been a long-standing dream, give yourself permission to pursue it.

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Walking reactive dogs: distraction to the rescue!

beagle

By Beck Rothke, former FetchFind Academy and dog*tec Dog Walking Academy instructor 

When I think about working with reactive dogs, I often think about the use of comic relief for intense moments. Essentially, I know that a door out or away from an intense or possibly intense moment is to find a distraction powerful enough to turn the dog’s attention to something else. It’s the same concept as a moment of comic relief and it serves the same purpose.

As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching sitcoms. What I loved about sitcoms as a kid was seeing people going through hard and emotional experiences, but at the most critical moments, there would be a bit of humor to offset the drama of the hard stuff. By no means did it minimize the impact of the emotional moment, but it did make the moment a bit easier to digest. Incorporating comic relief in to my everyday interactions with other humans – making jokes when the tension is too high or finding humor in less than humorous situations – lessens the tension of the moment and serves to help us throughout our personal and professional lives. While we still experience the intense emotion of the moment, we do so in a more regulated way, allowing us to keep our true focus where it needs to be. It doesn’t ruin our day. The comedy distracts us and we move on. As dog walkers, we all know how well distractions can work and are familiar with the idea of using them to our advantage!

Let’s take a look at using distraction techniques to avoid or get out of hot moments.

Knowing your dogs – Making use of distractions to relieve a reactive dog from an intense situation relies on a full understanding of two important concepts for the dog: (1) what he is bothered by (or is reactive to) and (2) what he loves or is interested in (if the former isn’t too intense). For instance, when we work with dogs who are reactive towards other dogs, we can work to avoid running into other dogs to a certain extent, but not fully. Knowing a dog’s triggers (both the ones to be worried about and the ones that we can use to our advantage) can help immensely when negative interactions cannot be avoided.

Distraction tools – One reliable “go-to” as a distraction for dogs is treats. Most dogs like them and they are easy to have on hand. But what if the dog isn’t interested in the treats you have or is generally unmotivated by them? Indeed, sometimes the dog’s emotional state may render treats completely uninteresting. Well, it’s not as easy, but knowing the dog’s favorite motivators can help provide the right and appropriate level of distraction. One item I always carry with me is a squeaker from an old toy. I put mine in the side pocket of my treat pouch. It’s easy to access this way by just hitting the side of my pouch to squeak the squeaker. Some dogs are very tuned into the sound of crinkling. For this you can use an empty bag of chips in your pocket. Another good distraction might be simply the sound of your voice. Experiment with different pitches and volumes to see what the dog you are walking is most easily attracted to. Use of verbal praise or cues is quite effective in distracting a dog from tempting stimuli as well.

It’s all about timing – As is true with comic relief, one very important factor in implementing distractions is timing. If you are too early, the dog might be attracted to the distraction, but it might not understand why, and worse, it may become bored with the distraction before you have a chance to make use of it. If you are too late, you may unintentionally reinforce behavior (if it’s operant/ learned) or miss the chance to make a difference (if it’s classical/ emotional). So how do we determine the appropriate timing? Take note of each dog’s trigger zone (i.e. where the scary or concerning stimuli is okay as opposed to not okay) and implement the distraction right before the point that is not ok. Practice makes perfect. Use your eyes and ears to determine the dog’s body language or any vocalizations that tell you the interaction (or stimuli) is not okay. Implement your distraction before the dog shows any signs of distress and you’re sure to be on time!

Walking dogs is exciting and rewarding. You can make it even more rewarding for all involved through purposeful, well-timed distractions to set everyone up for success.

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http://dogtec.org/dogwalkingacademy.php

Making behavior a win-win

dog sun

By Erin Taylor, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training

It’s easy to forget that dogs operate in very simple ways: Does it work for me? Does it not work for me? Is it safe? Is it dangerous?

Unfortunately, what works for dogs often is not what works for us dog pros: jumping up on us when we pick them up for their walk, deciding to roll in a stinky dead fish right before it’s time to head back inside, chasing the cat/squirrel/bicycle/crow instead of coming when we call, dragging us down the driveway to the car…the list goes on.

As human beings we often believe that, because other dogs have “understood” what we wanted, because we’ve shown this dog what we prefer once or twice, or even because he got it right in the past, he understands what we want, and any behavior contrary to that is “stubborn” or “willful” or “blowing us off.”

But dogs are honest. Their behavior very clearly shows us what they do and don’t understand. They aren’t built with the capacity to be stubborn or to blow us off. If they aren’t doing what we’ve asked them to do, it’s because we haven’t successfully shown them that it works for them to do it. Getting mad at a puppy for peeing in the house because “he knows better” is the equivalent of getting mad at a toddler for having a potty training accident. The understanding just isn’t quite there yet, requiring us to be better teachers and to manage the situation to set the dog (or child) up for success.

Unfortunately dogs don’t read minds, and we can’t make them understand what we’ve tried to teach them simply because we desire it or other dogs have gotten it. This way of thinking sets the dogs up for failure, sets our relationships with dogs up for conflict, and sets us up for irritation, anger, and frustration on the job.

Next time you’re feeling frustrated with a dog who “should know better,” try a different viewpoint.

It’s a matter of helping the dog understand what you want by making what you want work for the dog. Manage the dog’s space, time, and access to anything she wants to set her up for success, and then consistently reward the resulting desired behavior. For example, if you’d like your canine charge to sit while you converse with her owner, ask for or lure the sit and then reward it. Lean your body towards her to help her remain sitting and continue to reward her as long as she holds her position. By identifying what you want, helping the dog to do it, and rewarding the results, you set the dog up for success. This line of thinking and action removes conflict, pressure, and irritation for dog and the walker both.

Here are some questions that can help when you’re facing a training challenge on your walks: How can I help the dog understand? How can I make this more rewarding? How can I teach him that doing what I ask yields the biggest, best, most fun, most rewarding experience, so he sees that doing what I ask works best for him? These questions can help create a more pleasant outing for walker and dog alike, help maintain the bond and trust we can have with our dogs, and ensure we’re helping our charges really and truly understand the precise behaviors that we might be asking of them in that specific environment, in that specific moment and on that particular day.

Here’s another example: Say you’ve got a dedicated leash puller on your hands. Every day this dog strains your shoulders and back trying to get to all his favorite sniff spots. He wants to get to that great pee-mail bush on the corner. You want him to walk nicely alongside you. How can you make doing so more rewarding? How can you get him to see that walking alongside you works? One strategy would be to head toward the bush while he’s not pulling and to turn around in the opposite direction when he does. Take a few steps away from his desired object, then turn around and try again, rewarding with forward progress toward the bush and, if you want to up the ante, treats, too. It may take a few minutes to get to that bush for a few days, but eventually he’ll realize that it works to walk patiently with you to get where he wants to go. This way works for everyone—you get what you want, the dog gets what he wants, and your back probably feels a lot better, too.

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erin-taylorErin Taylor qualified as a dog trainer in South Africa in 2004. She wanted to expand her experience working with positive reinforcement with dogs and moved to Canada in 2007 to do so. She owned and operated a successful dog walking business for a number of years. She currently owns and operates Pawsitive Connection Dog Training & Services where she is very excited to offer the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, Dogsafe Canine First Aid classes and both puppy and adult dog training classes. She has a passion for helping to connect people (both pet parents and dog professionals) with their dogs to develop strong bonds and relationships, positively.

Joyful work: mental health days

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By Erin Taylor, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training

About five years ago, I experienced a serious case of burnout. After six months of feeling stressed, exhausted, and short-tempered, I wondered if there might be something physically wrong with me. When I finally found the time and energy to make a doctor’s appointment, I learned that the years of stress from running my own business, being responsible for other people’s dogs on a daily basis, and always feeling like I needed to take on more and more I had flooded my body with so much stress hormone that my adrenal glands were no longer able to function as they should.

As it turns out, everyone needs down time, a break from work and responsibility and everyday life. Everyone needs mental health days. For me, that means days where the only expectation I have of myself is to take care of me, to rest, to recuperate, to lounge around and read and snuggle with my dogs. It is critical to my sanity to be able to go for long, leisurely strolls with them where the goal isn’t exercise or mental stimulation, but simply to enjoy ourselves and be. I have to allow myself to gently and kindly replace the thoughts of everything I need to do the next day with what is right here, in this very moment. On these days, I find ways to help distract my brain from the laundry list of things to do because a day off is not a day off if the mind is still occupied with work. Some days I allow myself to get completely lost in a good book that isn’t dog related. I have to force myself to (gasp!) actually take a vacation and spend money on myself without the fear of what will happen if an emergency arises and I have “frivolously wasted” that money on down time and vacation time.

This period in my life caused me to profoundly shift my perspective, to understand that in order for me to be able to give the very best to my clients, I need to take time for myself. I had to learn to say no to them, to honor the time I need and to understand that it doesn’t make me lazy or unproductive, and that my business isn’t going to fall apart if I take two weeks off.

When I eventually bit the bullet and worked up enough courage to take that first vacation, I agonized over how to tell my clients, worried that I’d get a backlash of frustration and anger. What I got instead were emails filled with support and comments like “Wow, it’s about time, you really deserve a break” and “I hope you have a fantastic time, I’m so glad you’re taking time for yourself.” I was flabbergasted. I had made myself a priority, and other people thought that was a good thing. Who knew??

I took my dogs and spent two weeks at a lovely B&B, where I spent my days reading, napping, exploring with my dogs, and sitting in the hot tub. I even went horseback riding, something I hadn’t done in years, which invigorated me more than I ever could have imagined. That was the start of me getting me back. Together with the treatment for adrenal fatigue, depression, and anxiety, the time off allowed me to slowly start seeing more of myself again. I began taking one weekend a month where I had no boarding dogs, where I didn’t think about the coming week and what needed to be done. Instead I spent it in the moment, celebrating and enjoying my own dogs and my life. I lost one client because I said “no,” and I had the amazing realization that that was okay. Losing that client lowered my stress levels even more, because she was replaced by another client who respected my boundaries and my down time, and didn’t expect me to always say “yes.” Not surprisingly, my new client was much, much easier (and nicer) to deal with.

Mental health days are not something we should do. They are something we need to do.

They are vital to us being able to provide the best care and service for our clients and their dogs. As dog walkers, we take on such huge responsibility for other people’s dogs. Not just the physical responsibility, but the mental and emotional one as well. I see so many dog*tec grads and other colleagues seeking each other out to discuss issues with their clients’ dogs, learning how they can make things better, looking for ways that (outside of work hours) they can make a difference. Each and every one is emotionally connected and engaged with their clients’ dogs.

The connection that can exist between dog walker and dog is a beautiful, amazing, touching thing. But it can also be an exhausting, draining thing, because when we care, we give of ourselves. And we give and we give and we give. I wish for everyone reading this a way to find that desire to give to themselves. I encourage you to find the things you can do on your mental health days that recharge and reinvigorate you, to give yourself permission to take those mental health days (whether it be a two-week vacation or simply taking a weekend off, fully and completely), to learn to say “no” so that you can continue to say “yes” to all of those dogs who benefit from you being at your very best.

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erin-taylorErin Taylor qualified as a dog trainer in South Africa in 2004. She wanted to expand her experience working with positive reinforcement with dogs and moved to Canada in 2007 to do so. She owned and operated a successful dog walking business for a number of years. She currently owns and operates Pawsitive Connection Dog Training & Services where she is very excited to offer the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, Dogsafe Canine First Aid classes and both puppy and adult dog training classes. She has a passion for helping to connect people (both pet parents and dog professionals) with their dogs to develop strong bonds and relationships, positively.

 

 

 

Rules of engagement for great dog walks

dog-walker

By Pat Blocker, Denver, CO Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Peaceful Paws Dog Training

Imagine a parallel universe where dogs are as compelled to respond to their person as humans are to instantly answer our cell phones­ — anytime, anywhere. A decidedly essential skill for dog walkers is the ability to overcome canine distraction. This can be a tall order. For instance, hailing a dog away from a fascinating pee-mail would be like having me notice your eye color while Johnny Depp walked through the room.

Two vital skills needed for successful and safe walks are the capacity to engage dogs while walking and getting a reliable recall. Whether you walk dogs on or off leash, whether you walk dogs singly or multiple dogs together, you’ll want to master the rules of engagement.

Off on the right paw
. It’s important to engage dogs before the walk as well as during. For example, ask dogs to sit and focus when you enter their home and again before exiting. This sets the tone for your outing. If you are transporting a dog to a trail or off-leash park, you’ll set the mood with a polite sit before loading, after unloading from your vehicle, and again before heading on to the trail.

On the walk
. If a dog is engaged during the walk, he’s not completely absorbed in his own world where things can get risky. Talk to the dog. Have him check in. In the meantime, you’re practicing situational awareness to see potential distractions early. With dogs engaged, you can redirect if necessary and reinforce proper behavior. If you’re connecting with the dog, you’ll be proactive instead of reactive. When you’re proactive, would-be problems are more easily averted. Preventing a situation is always less complicated than dealing with its aftermath.

Circle up
. Engage dogs by circling them up. This means having dogs gather close, sit, focus on you, and wait for treats. Whether walking on or off-leash, single or multiple dogs, you’ll want the ability to circle them up. It turns distracting situations and potential problems into a positive, safe experience.

When to circle up:

  • Other dogs passing by at a distance
  • People passing by (especially joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, etc.)
  • Before loading into your vehicle
  • After unloading from your vehicle
  • Before crossing the street
  • Highly distracting situations (think squirrels)

Teaching circle up. It’s easiest to teach behaviors to individual dogs as opposed to group learning. If you walk multiple dogs, have each one reliable on the behavior before attempting a whole-group circle up.

To teach circle up, start with little or no distraction. With the dog on leash, call him to you. Then cue him to sit and treat him for doing so. Next, practice off leash. Even if you don’t walk dogs off lead, you’ll want the ability to circle up in the event of a dropped or broken leash.

For a group circle up, call all dogs to you and cue a sit. As each dog sits, say his name and treat him. Speaking each dog’s name teaches the dogs to wait their turn for treats.

Bonus: Passersby will marvel at your dogs’ polite behavior under distraction. You are a model for your business. Be sure to carry your business cards!

Reliable recalls
. It’s been said that dogs come when called and cats come when they’re interested. In reality, dogs also need to be interested. We want to build a rapport with our charges that has them interested and knowing that compliance is worthwhile.

A reliable recall allows us to:

  • Call dogs away from danger
  • Call dogs out of an escalating situation
  • Call dogs away from distractions
  • Rules of recall

Be ridiculously happy. Even if you’re feeling scared and frustrated, use a happy, high-pitched voice.

Resist the urge to chase. Running toward a dog will incite him to run away, either from fear or because it’s fun. Do the counterintuitive thing and run away from the dog while calling him.

Teaching recall. Enthusiastically call the dog’s name. Be very animated by slapping your knees or clapping your hands.

When you have the dog’s attention, move away from him and say, “Come.”

Upon the dog’s arrival, lavish on praise and treats.

To teach successful recalls, begin with little or no distraction. If a dog can’t come when it’s easy, he can’t do it when it’s difficult. Don’t begin training recall on the trail or at the park where dogs are susceptible to fun induced deafness. Start easy and work up to increasingly difficult situations.

Practice makes perfect
. If you only call dogs to come or circle up when you’re ready to leave the trail or park, they’ll quickly learn that these cues mean the fun is over. To avoid this consequence, practice the cues randomly throughout the walk. Praise, treat, and let the dogs return to whatever fun they were having

With training, understanding, and fun, dogs will be happy to comply with the rules of engagement—anytime, anywhere.

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pat-blockerPat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is the author of Taking the Lead without Jerking the Leash: The Art of Mindful Dog Training, Pat has been training for over 20 years. She owns Peaceful Paws Dog Training, through which she specializes in canine behavior issues and also offers group training classes. She is a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and an evaluator for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen and S.T.A.R. Puppy programs. A dedicated educator, Pat delights in teaching dog guardians through public talks and as a featured writer in local dog magazines and newsletters, and in helping to shape the next generation of dog professionals as a training mentor and Dog Walking Academy instructor.

 

What everybody should know about growth plates

puppy

By Kimberly Burgan, Dog Walking Academy director and Austin, TX DWA instructor

Who doesn’t love the sweet smell of puppy breath? Most of us jump at any chance to work with puppies and teenagers, and their owners are all too glad to have us wear out their whirling dervishes. But there’s a downside to too much exercise for dogs who haven’t yet reached sexual maturity: high-impact play and exercise can damage a growing dog’s growth plates, causing ongoing damage.

Here’s what you should know about growth plates and how to balance their protection with much-needed exercise for young dogs.

What you should know about growth plates
Growth plates are regions of cartilage that sit at the ends of the long bones of the legs. They are ultimately responsible for healthy bone growth. As a puppy grows and develops, moving and working their muscles, hormonal changes trigger this cartilage to calcify and develop into a denser matter. This calcification ultimately fuses and becomes a stable part of the bone. Until fusing completes at sexual maturity, these soft areas are much more prone to injury from hard impacts, repetitive impacts, and even too much exercise. And a fracture during this time can present problems for proper healing, prevent the growth plate from fully forming, and create uneven pressure on the other legs that produces secondary physical health challenges over a dog’s a lifetime.

Walking puppies
A good rule of thumb to keep you on the safe side of preventing injury is to assume sexual maturity and growth plate fusing by 9 months for small dogs, 12 months for mid-sized pooches, 18 months for big dogs, and 24 months for the giants. A fully mature canine client may now safely enjoy things like jogging or running on hard surfaces, doing stairs regularly, jumping, and high-impact activities like catching a Frisbee in the air that might also involve any leg twisting.

Spay/neuter timing & growth plates
Recent studies and findings indicate that altering a dog prior to reaching sexual maturity removes the sex hormones needed for physical maturity to fully occur.

With nationwide early spay/neuter campaigns still on the rise (for all of the right reasons including overcrowded shelters), veterinarians are seeing a greater number of adult dogs experiencing problems such as early-onset of arthritis, shortened leg length, functional gate abnormalities, twisted limb or paw, and non-healing fracture sites—all of which mean unnecessary and possibly avoidable pain and discomfort for the aging dog (as well as secondary health problems often attached). Veterinarians are now choosing to wait for sexual maturity or are now choosing alternate options. Responsible breeders will regularly promote delaying alteration until sexual maturity and inhibit early spay and neuter options within their contract.

The increase in these practices among vets and breeders means an increase in unaltered young dogs needing your services.

How does this impact my work as a professional dog walker?
Carefully planning increasing exercise for puppies and adolescents is a must. Doing so provides a potential niche for dog walkers who can factor in screening parameters such as: Are you in a position to lift the puppy or teenager in and out of your vehicle to avoid injury? Are you comfortable including an unaltered dog on your route and is it safe to do so? If you’re walking off leash, can you control the environment to keep the puppy from jumping over logs, for example, or running too hard with her group mates? It’s also best to keep very young puppy walks a bit shorter to avoid stressing growth plates, and, where possible, choose routes with soft substrates like grass and dirt rather than concrete.

For intact dogs, can you keep un-neutered males safe from targeting by other males, and intact females safe from unwanted attention and impregnation? Do you walk on leash so you can avoid an intact male running off to investigate a female scent? Many professional walkers choose not to include the menagerie of additional responsibilities that come with walking intact dogs. Given that more prospective clients will be holding out for longer durations of time before altering, it might be a good place to put some thought into your screening policies: What works for you? If you decide the risks involved in walking intact dogs remain too high for you, stick to your policies.

If the additional challenges that come with walking puppies and teenagers aren’t for you, consider networking to find walkers willing to work with puppies or adolescents that don’t fit your walking model so you can provide quality referrals when your answer is no. Pet parents will appreciate your professional knowledge, ethical integrity, and insight even if you ultimately have to decline their business. Healthy walking is happy walking, after all.

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kimberly-burganKimberly Burgan
, CPDT-KA, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a professional member of the APDT, an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, and a nationally recognized, award-winning dog trainer with over 12 years of experience. She is one of only a handful of U.S. trainers accredited through renowned behaviorist John Rogerson’s Northern Centre for Canine Behaviour (UK). As 
Director of the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Certification Program, Kimberly also teaches the program in Austin, TX. A wearer of many hats, Kimberly additionally lends her teaching and support talents as a dog*tec business consultant, helping dog pros reach their career goals. She is the author of the children’s book, Poppy and Puppy Are Friends: A Child’s Introduction to Responsible Dog Ownership and continues to be a driving force for proactive education for dog-bite prevention and rewards-based training.

The joys and challenges of dog walking for a living

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By Veronica Boutelle, dog*tec Dog Walking Academy co-founder and San Francisco Dog Walking Academy instructor

Gazing outside from behind the dreary landscape of our desks, few are the people who can say they’ve never given a thought to a career change that involved working outside–river guide, perhaps, or a rancher or deckhand on a luxury liner. For many dog lovers, those rosy-tinged, outdoorsy dreams concern dog walking. A life of easy days, surrounded by nature and happy pooches—but in reality, there’s much more to the job.

dog*tec runs a certification program for dog walkers, called the Dog Walking Academy, and over the years we have seen people from every thinkable vocation—lawyers and computer programmers, sales reps and accountants, nurses and writers, ex-military personnel and classical musicians—give up their previous, often very successful, careers to walk other people’s dogs. And yes, if you love dogs and worship the outdoors, if you yearn to be your own boss and don’t mind being your own office manager, marketing exec, and customer service representative to boot, dog walking just might be for you. That said, if it seems as easy as slapping a leash on a few dogs and going for a stroll you’ll likely be surprised.

In today’s densely populated, greatly regulated, and litigious world, in which people’s pets are integral to the family like never before, good, safe dog walking demands technical skill, physical stamina, and in-depth knowledge of everything from dog behavior and pack management to canine first aid and trail etiquette.

There are advantages, of course. The freedom, for one thing—a dog walker starts her day at whatever time suits her and doesn’t have to dress up for work. 

For another, there’s the daily shower of love. In each house on his route, a dog walker is greeted by his charges with an enthusiasm quite unequaled by anything known in the corporate world. And for the type of person best suited for dog walking, the time on the sidewalk or trail—or at the beach or dog park—is what makes it all worthwhile. Aside from the obvious physical and mental health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and being in a tranquil natural setting for hours every day, some walkers talk of the sheer pleasure of watching dogs sniff and romp. For anyone with an interest in dog behavior, dog walking is fertile study ground, whether it’s a single leashed dog navigating a busy street or unconstrained play and group interaction on a trail far from the city center.

That, however, bring us to what dog walkers often rank as the worst part of the job: the driving. The grind of going from house to house to collect dogs is fine at the outset, but it wears you down over time—how many happy taxi drivers have you met in your life? Most dog walkers keep the driving to a minimum by choosing clients within a limited geographical area and timing their driving cycles to avoid heavy traffic. Still, if you’re considering dog walking as a career, expect to spend at least as much time in the car as on the sidewalk or trail.

If traffic is impossible to control, so is the weather, and as with any outdoor work, bad weather brings its own set of trials for dog walkers. Soaked, muddy dogs have to be cleaned up before they can be let back into their homes, so count toweling off and possibly hosing down each dog plus washing loads of dirty towels as part of the job, too. And finally there’s the loneliness inherent in a job that comprises minimal human contact.

These are the pros and cons most people juggle when they consider dog walking. Freedom, exercise, and doggie love are the major pluses, and too much driving, occasional bad weather, and scant human contact are the minuses. That, however, is not all there is to dog walking. First of all, it is a business like any other and as such it involves paperwork, customer service, marketing, accounting, and so on, all of which the walker has to find time for outside of the hours he or she spends walking and driving. Secondly, it is a common misconception that dog walking is easy. It might be, if you are walking two arthritic dachshunds that you know well, but that won’t pay the rent. Or even buy the movie tickets.

No doubt this fallacy stems from the humble beginnings of dog walking. Once upon the 1950s and 60s we simply paid the kid down the street a dollar to get Fido out for us. As we have packed into tighter urban spaces, the risks involved in little Jimmy walking Fido no longer allow for that solution, but pet owners have even less time to walk Fido, who needs regular, vigorous exercise over and above what he can get in our smaller and smaller backyards. Hence the birth of professional dog walking. And a professional is what it takes to safely navigate dogs through densely populated areas and heavily used natural spaces.

As Mik Moeller, a Dog Walking Academy founder and instructor, puts it, “To manage and train a group of dogs–or even a single one– is much more difficult than people realize. Nobody is surprised that training a sled dog pack requires expert knowledge and skill. I don’t know why anyone thinks dog walking is different.”

Many walkers start out with just their outdoor dreams, a love of dogs, and the experience of walking their own pets, and soon realize the job is also about dog training and being responsible for the safety of someone else’s beloved companion. It’s about interacting with other sidewalk and trail users (some of whom are not dog lovers) in a responsible fashion and having the appropriate licenses and insurance, knowing when and how to say no to a client whose dog would fit badly into your particular group or service, knowing what to do if a fight breaks out on the trail or an unleashed dog rushes you on the street, structuring your route to cut down on driving time and gasoline consumption, and so on.

Despite the challenges, most dog walkers think they have the best job in the world. As one Dog Walking Academy graduate said, “My worst day on the trail is better than the best day in my old job.”

It is pointed out too rarely what a great contribution dog walkers make to the quality of life of the dogs they serve. Instead of being home alone all day, these dogs are given crucial exercise and social interactions, which isn’t just healthy, it keeps dogs safe and in permanent homes, too. Studies show that many dogs given up or returned to shelters are there because of normal expressions of boredom or lack of exercise: barking, chewing, excess energy, and so on. Dogs are doing their level best to fit into our twenty-first century lifestyles, the least we can do in return is to take their physical and mental health seriously. That means entrusting your pet to a professional.

If You Want to Walk Dogs

•    Get educated and certified. Learn dog body language, walk management techniques, building a strong recall, fight prevention and protocols, canine first aid, group composition, business practices, etc.

•    Start a legitimate business—get your business license and other necessary paperwork, obtain professional insurance, and research the rules for walking in your area.

•    Talk to other certified professional walkers to learn of their experiences and ask to join them for some hands-on experience.

This article was originally published on the dog*tec blog

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veronicaboutelleVeronica Boutelle is the founder of dog*tec, the dog pro industry’s leading business consultancy, through which she has been helping dog professionals create their dream businesses since 2003. She is the author of How to Run a Dog Business: Putting Your Career Where Your Heart Is and The Business of Dog Walking: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, and the coauthor of Minding Your Dog Business: A Practical Guide to Business Success for Dog Professionals, and writes for many industry journals, including a regular business column for the Association of Professional Dog Trainer’s Chronicle of the Dog. Veronica is a sought after speaker at conferences and dog training schools across the country and internationally. She is former Director of Behavior & Training at the San Francisco SPCA.

Go pro!

swmtdog

Do you want to work with dogs full time, but can’t see how? Do you struggle part time, telling yourself you’ll keep the other job just until the training really takes off? It’s a common refrain. Coaching and supporting dog businesses for a living, I’ve seen every kind of business model and every type of owner, from wildly successful full-timers to weekend hobbyists. Mostly, though, dog pros work part or full time at other jobs, and run a dog business on the side, hoping it will one day support them.

Years of experience have taught me the key differences between pros that make it as full-time entrepreneurs and those that don’t. Read on to see if you have the temperament, skill set, and drive necessary to pull it off. If so, you absolutely can bring a new or part-time business into the full-time realm and make a living doing what you love.

The magic of niches

Most successful dog businesses have one simple concept in common: specialization. This is particularly important if a lot of competitors operate in your geographical area. When a potential client opens the phone book or scans the bulletin board at the local vet office, what will make you stand out? A walker who emphasizes a particular breed will draw owners of that breed. A day care specializing in small dogs will no doubt be more attractive to a Yorkie guardian. Trainers who focus on one type of training or behavioral issue set themselves apart and give clients a reason to call them. If, for example, an owner has a dog with separation anxiety and he sees that a particular trainer specializes in that problem, he is much more likely to call that trainer than the fifteen who advertise generic obedience training. This doesn’t mean, however, that the trainer in question will do nothing but home alone training for the rest of her career. On the contrary. Satisfied clients refer their friends, who again refer their friends, and only a few of those new clients are likely to be sep anx cases. The trick is to get those initial calls so you can begin building the all-important word of mouth.

Tip: Find a niche

Think about what you are particularly good at. Working with small dogs? Unruly adolescents? Dog-baby intros? Family training? Look at what other professionals in your area offer. Is there a gap in the market you can fill? Whatever you decide, make sure it is something you enjoy.

Know where you’re going

Most of us are dog professionals because we love dogs, not business development. When we decide to set up shop, we do the bare minimum necessary: think up a name, file for a business license and other paperwork, have stationery and maybe a brochure printed, and post a few fliers around town. And then we wait eagerly for the phone to ring. Which would work well in an ideal world with endless demand for our product and next-to-zero competition. But the reality is that setting up and marketing a new business, let alone building a profitable one, requires sustained focus, attention, and action. Simply hanging out a shingle rarely does the job, especially if there are other trainers and services available in your area. It is critical to develop a business plan and actively build relationships with other dog service providers (vets, supply stores, groomers, etc.).

Tip: Hatch a plan

Trainers often plan to work part time until the business takes off. Sound familiar? The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t provide a framework for making anything happen. For that, you need a comprehensive business plan. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal as long as it helps you assess viability and provides guidance as you move forward. Your plan should include goals for the business, a numbers assessment, a marketing plan—your niche and message, image, services, materials, and how you will get the word out—and an overall checklist of tasks and due dates. If you’re moving from part to full time, decide on a clear set of success indicators (number of clients per month, amount of income, etc.) to help you determine when it’s time to leave your other job.

Tip: Get organized

Scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes doesn’t often inspire confidence. Worse, it hinders the organization that distinguishes a professional business. As soon as you have more than a few clients you need to keep solid records, notes, and training plans. Consider purchasing a ready-made set of tools (diagnostic flowcharts, interview forms, etc.) to save start-up time and effort.

Tip: Establish a schedule and routine

One pitfall of self-employment is the lack of a routine. If a flexible schedule without a boss and specific deadlines makes you feel rudderless, working for yourself can be a challenge. It’s easy to do little or nothing when you have unlimited time. I’ve seen trainers struggle for months to do what could have been done in weeks or even days. To keep yourself working toward your goals without losing focus, make a realistic schedule and commit to deadlines. Avoid wasting time by structuring your workdays carefully. What days will you see clients? When will you work on training plans? When will you take care of administrative tasks? When will you spend time growing your business?

Professional image

A person hunting for a dog pro might look at the cards pinned up on her vet’s bulletin board or at the local dog park. She might do a web search. But how does she choose? As mentioned, a business that specializes in filling a particular need or speaking to a preference is an obvious route. Another vital decision-making factor, however, is the professionalism, or not, of your business materials. Given a choice, any client is going to pick the business card or web site that looks professional and established rather than printed at home on the old ink-jet. The adage ‘it takes money to make money’ applies here. Putting money and time into the development of a professional business image—logo, message, and materials—goes a long way toward building a broader client base.

Tip: Dazzle them

Spend some start-up capital on a professional look. This includes your name and logo design, marketing materials such as business cards and brochures, and any materials you leave with clients—contracts, homework sheets, client instructions.

Relationships

A hallmark of the successful trainer is to prioritize working relationships, and carefully cultivate and maintain them. Letting one client after another fade into the woodwork is a mistake. Smart dog pros follow up with clients, even if they aren’t currently using services, because staying on your clients’ radar screen means you’re at hand when a need arises—for them or for a friend’s dog. Collegial relationships are equally important. They allow you to keep up with industry standards, exchange best practices, and support each other by brainstorming difficult situations, acting as each other’s support systems and, most importantly, through mutual referrals. A separation anxiety trainer, for example, is likely to receive referrals from other trainers not interested in or willing to take sep anx cases if she fosters strong collegial relationships. And she can return the favor when she gets calls outside of her own comfort or skill zone. I’ve seen many niche-based dog pros form strong networks and build prosperous businesses with very little marketing expense.

Tip: Invest time in people

Follow up with former clients. Take an interest in the progress of their pooch beyond your own involvement. And cultivate relationships with pros in the area—how might you be mutually supportive? What do you each do differently and might you trade referrals?

Temperament

How comfortable are you with risks? Starting most dog businesses takes less capital than most enterprises, but you still run the risk of losing money and possibly failing. It takes tenacity and perspective to face such prospects and still work hard and enthusiastically. I’ve seen many trainers quit or go back to part-time work long before their businesses could reasonably be expected to succeed.

Tip: Know thyself

Are you comfortable dipping into your savings or borrowing money? Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you stick with your plans over time? Could you see yourself doing this in five years? Do you enjoy a variety of tasks? If you’ve answered yes to most of these, self-employment could be perfect for you.

Skills

When you run a small business you have to oversee everything. You may be an excellent dog trainer or pet sitter but are you ready to be a bookkeeper, accountant, marketing manager, secretary, and office manager? A key to successful full-time business ownership is to recognize your weaknesses and subcontract tasks that confound you or that require expertise you don’t possess.

Tip: Assess your skills

List the skills required to run your business. Then ask yourself: What are you good at? Where do your interests lie? Which tasks can you readily do? Which will stress you, weaken the business, or possibly be left undone? For those, get help. Trade skills with a friend or hire a contractor.

The must-knows: taxes & insurance

Self-employment unfortunately comes with the 15% so-called ‘Self Employment Tax,’ but this is off-set by a deduction of almost half that. Still, take it into account before you decide to make the jump to full time. Also consider becoming a Limited Liability Company. There are many advantages to operating this way, one of which is that LLCs can choose to be taxed as a sole proprietorship or as a corporation. To be sure what tax implications apply to you and what options you have, consult a qualified tax accountant. But don’t let these issues throw you. Deal with them up front so you can relax and enjoy your work with the pooches.

As for professional liability insurance, it’s easy and inexpensive for dog pros to acquire through professional associations or independent brokers. Health insurance is another matter altogether. Many part-timers stay in non-training jobs solely to retain insurance benefits. If that’s you, contact an insurance broker to discuss your insurability and consider your options. Then look into becoming an LLC. Some trainers hire employees to qualify for group insurance plans, but this is seldom cost-effective when you factor in other employee expenses, such as time spent on paperwork. A two-person LLC, however, can access the same group insurance plans. So if there’s someone you’d like to partner with or you can incorporate a spouse as a silent partner, you can usually form an LLC and get health insurance that way.

Tip: Consult the pros

Consulting a tax accountant before starting a business or going full time is always a good idea, because you will know the financial implications ahead of time. Additionally, having a professional prepare your taxes in your first year has major advantages, like avoiding mistakes and relieving stress. But it also provides a model for doing them yourself in subsequent years, and often saves you money because the professionals know of deductions and other details that can benefit you at tax time. And if you think you might have difficulty procuring private health insurance, talk to an insurance broker before you launch your business.

Will it work?

Finally, if you’re poised to take the plunge, but worry about whether you’ll be able to afford electricity, try this simple assessment: Figure out how much you need to live on each year. Be detailed and realistic and don’t forget the annual or occasional expenses like taxes, insurance, car repair, etc. Then assess your competition—what are others in the area charging, and what services do they provide? Use this information to determine your own rates. Now estimate a reasonable, conservative number of clients per month and year, being careful to consider seasonal variables. Then do the math—does it add up? If it doesn’t, don’t give up—go back to the drawing board to see what kind of creative solutions are waiting. Other people are doing it. You can too.

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This post was originally published on the dog*tec blog. 

Low-Stress Handling — What Groomers Should Know About This Hot Niche Market

Dog grooming

By Nan Kené Arthur, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, KPACTP

Low-stress handling is becoming a big trend in the veterinary community, with more and more facilities committing to teaching, rather than forcing, dogs to cooperate with needed vet care.

Following that trend is the grooming community, and while it’s still a nova, humane handling is making inroads on its way to full stardom. As this movement grows, so does a well-needed niche market that groomers can glom onto and build reputations as gentle groomers.

Dog trainers that deal with behavior cases readily confess that one of the more challenging behaviors to modify is sensitivity to touch and handling. This is especially true once a dog or puppy has had one or more negative experiences with things like grooming or rough handling during vet visits. (Is this torture?)

For some dogs, it can take only one scary experience to become “hand shy,” or worse. This can quickly grow to the point where the dog feels a need to lash out at hands or equipment as a way to protect themselves from perceived danger. Sadly, many of these same dogs then advance their reactions and often have to be anesthetized for routine care such as nail trims, de-matting, and ear cleaning. This risks the dog’s life, and further perpetuates the handling and grooming issues, as the dog still has to be restrained during the anesthesia process.

Benefits of proper touching and handling

It’s sometimes hard for humans to remember that dogs are a different species, and therefore communicate differently. As humans, we approach life in a species-specific manner, as do canines, and it’s important to keep that in mind any time you approach a dog during grooming or any handling.

Humans are frontal in our approach to one another — we stand vertically, we have hands with opposable thumbs, and we communicate with the spoken language and physical gestures, particularly when things are painful or scary for us.

Dogs, on the other hand, are horizontal— they rarely approach each other from the front, they readily protect their paws from injury given that it could incapacitate them, and they too communicate with one another in their own language, which includes growling, snapping, and biting if they really need to make a point.

Adding to the complexity of these differences are the learning experiences when dogs are forced to endure routine handling during vet visits or grooming. This can make a dog even more sensitive to being touched or handled when compounded with our mixed messages when we arbitrarily offer human behavior towards them.

Regardless of why or how a dog builds a sensitivity to handling (or anything else), it’s always a shock when someone’s sweet dog all of the sudden turns into Cujo and growls, snaps, or bites during the course of handling, petting, or grooming. No matter how shocking, it’s important as a professional to respond, not react, if a dog displays any of these behaviors, and even better to be proactive to prevent the fear in the first place. If a dog has resorted to using one of these stronger statements, you can be sure that communications have broken down somewhere along the line.

Some professionals might be inclined to just “make” the dog accept grooming and handling, but that not only puts the welfare of the dog in question, it increases your risk for getting bitten, and all the while making the sensitivity stronger.

Even when dogs have had a steady course of positive experiences with handling, it’s still beneficial for groomers and support staff to sustain and maintain good handling experiences for each dog they encounter. If for no other reason than to offset any potential negative experiences in the future, this ethical approach to handling dogs helps minimize everyone’s stress levels.

Luckily, with some simple techniques, training can become the bridge for helping dogs relax more with grooming and to overcome issues that might already in place.

In addition, the good news is that you don’t have to have a long training background to help dogs be more comfortable with grooming; you only need to understand more about dogs and behavior. Working with a positive, certified trainer can teach you the basics, and by doing so, you will be building an alliance that can send you more business.

Building that niche market

The majority of people want their dogs handled with care and kindness, and those that want to work on helping their dogs be less stressed with grooming are going to be willing to pay extra for you to go slowly and build trust.

The problem is that most people have no idea what takes place in a typical grooming session. While most groomers are professional and know their craft well, they are taught a lot of restraint and “get it done” techniques that can lead to the aforementioned sensitivities. Sara Scott, a groomer in Salt Lake City, offers a service where the owners are able to watch her groom for an extra fee, and she can show the owner how she strives to be as gentle as possible with the dog. That extra fee covers the additional time spent, but gives the owners the assurance that their beloved dog is in good hands.

Scott works with a number of trainers who also refer to her when they have more difficult handling cases, even for things as simple as baths, because they know she will not undo any of the work they are doing to help the dog be more comfortable with handling in general.

Setting your own policy about how you will go about grooming dogs is another easy way to enhance your business. If you decide that you will only use gentle methods of grooming, you can set your prices higher to begin with and market yourself as a specialty groomer up front. Then, by learning techniques that help dogs relax with grooming, not only do you get a dog that is able to cooperate with you (making grooming easier), you have techniques that you can then offer to teach other groomers or give classes to owners that teach them to keep up with their pet’s grooming in a positive way. For example, Sara Scott offers classes such as “Untangled,” how to keep mats to a manageable level, and “Stable on the Table,” which helps dogs learn to be steady and accept touching and handling while on the grooming table.

All of these ideas add to the revenue stream, and even give you a way to profit from selling things like brushes, combs, and other related equipment and products that the owners can buy to keep up with what you have taught them.

Creating “Buy In”

Likely, the most difficult pushback of instituting this sort of plan will be from busy grooming shops that are used to production grooming where time is money, but if you can demonstrate how doing this can actually increase the revenue by helping make the venue “the place” to go, and where they specialize in humane handling, post-grooming support, and education, the pace can slow down and the revenue can increase.

Being an expert in that arena can also put you in front of the local news cameras as filler content for morning news shows, which are always looking for new things to offer their pet-friendly audiences. It can be a pretty impressive piece when a dog offers his paw for a nail trim!

Working with trainers who have certifications in behavior and training, such as those from the Karen Pryor Academy’s Certified Professional Dog Training program, is an excellent place to start, and groomers such as Jennie Willoughby (who owns Waggin Tails in Moorpark, CA), have taken the course to augment their business and train their groomers how to use training techniques that make it easier for the dogs.

Conclusion

Looking at low-stress handling as an option to augment your current or new business is not only is beneficial for the dogs, it’s a wonderful way to help you grow a niche market that provides solid traction into the ever-growing community that wants their pets groomed with as little stress as possible. And that foothold equals additional income when you work with training and behavior experts via referrals and by building your reputation as the groomer who wants to take grooming to the next level.

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Nan Kené Arthur, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, KPACTP, is the owner of Whole Dog Training and author of “Chill Out Fido!: How to Calm Your Dog”. Nan is a Certification Instructor with dog*tec Dog Walking Academy in San Diego, and also serves as Faculty with the Karen Pryor Academy.

This post was originally published on January 25, 2016. 

Want to Be a Dog Walker? Here’s What to Expect.

Photo credit: dog walker by dee_dee_creamer@flickr.com

We know a lot of pet industry entrepreneurs who got their start in the biz as a dog walker, either as a side job or student employment. Although in most cases you don’t have to have previous experience as a dog walker to get a job as a dog walker, you do need to be able to handle a variety of responsibilities and “non-negotiable” job requirements, such as:

  • Be consistently available during one or more time slots every day (e.g., 11am – 2pm or 4pm – 7pm), and have good time-management skills.
  • Be willing to commit to a certain period of time in the job, sometimes as long as a year.
  • Be willing and able to take on a variety of assignments, from Chihuahuas to Pit Bulls to Great Danes. (Not to mention cats, birds, reptiles, and small mammals.)
  • Be prepared to go out in all types of weather, and be able to get around on foot, by car, by bicycle, or by public transportation.
  • Be willing and able to administer medicine, put on dog booties or coats, and put out food and water as necessary.
  • Be able to respect client confidentiality and privacy expectations, and be comfortable running into clients if they are at home; discretion is the name of the game.
  • Be able to use your smartphone to check in with the head office and inform clients when dogs have been walked, and be willing to take pictures and post on social media, as appropriate. Many companies also require a smartphone for GPS/time tracking purposes.
  • Be willing to develop and practice solid dog handling skills, and be able to exercise good judgment during walks. No one is expecting you to be a Grand Master of Dog Walking when you first start out, but you should know how to handle a variety of dogs on leash.

Jump start your dog walking career with dog*tec’s Dog Walking Academy – classes are offered worldwide!

Compensation: you can expect to get paid around $6-10/walk, depending on duration and time of day. Weekend, evening, and holiday hours tend to have higher rates of pay.

Equipment: a sturdy leash, treats, poop bags, a good pair of walking shoes, and some sort of all-weather coat. Some companies may request that you wear a company logo shirt.

Pros: lots of fresh air and exercise (no desks!) and the acquisition of an impressive array of dog handling skills. You will also get to meet like-minded people (staff and other dog walkers), and owners will absolutely love you because you are allowing them to own a dog and work without feeling guilty.

Cons: holiday and evening hours, no health or vacation benefits, and being outside in all types of weather.

 

PP