Emergency prevention, planning, & protocols for dog walkers

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

Taking care of other people’s best friends means living with the chilling prospect of emergencies. Dog walking emergencies can come in all shapes and sizes, from a vehicle break down to a sprained ankle to potentially traumatic accidents. Out on a trail, an otherwise reliable dog takes off chasing an unknown scent and is lost or hit by a car. Two dogs who normally play well together get into a nasty fight. A dog you are walking swallows a rock or other non-edible item whole. All are scenarios that make dog walkers sweat. But failing to consider and prepare for accidents makes them more likely and will only aggravate an already bad situation if it happens.

Your clients, the dogs, your staff, yourself—everyone is better served by a 3 P’s approach—taking deliberate care to prevent emergencies, planning for their eventuality (life does happen, after all), and having set protocols to follow for each type of emergency to stave off panic and keep things under control.

Emergency prevention

Preventing emergencies is much easier than dealing with them. And preventing emergencies is really a matter of following good dog walking practices:

Set the tone. A dog who is calm and focused on you is less likely to be involved in an emergency. Consistently asking your charges sit to greet you and leash up, sit and wait at doorways and curbs, walk nicely on a loose leash instead of pulling, etc. will make your days both easier and safer.

Walk dogs, don’t socialize them. You can’t bite what you’re not near enough to reach. Live beings—both humans and other dogs—are unpredictable. Use strong recalls and focus techniques (like “Let’s go!” or “Watch me!”) to keep dogs interacting with you instead of strangers or dogs you don’t know. When appropriate, pull over to the side for a focused sit-stay to allow others to pass. Politely decline requests to pet your dogs, even if you know them to be friendly. They may well be, but every dog has her limits and you never know when a well-meaning but blundering dog lover will find one of them.

Practice good screening and group composition. Choosing the right dogs—and matching them carefully if you’re a group walker—can go a long way toward avoiding fights and other emergencies. Always decline dogs with behavioral challenges that are beyond your skill and knowledge set, and avoid more than one challenging dog (we call them project dogs) per group, at most.

Actively monitor and interrupt. When walking groups, interrupt play or other interactions before they tip into conflict. Frequent obedience breaks (such as practicing circle stay pull-overs), and calling dogs (recall off leash or “Let’s go!” on leash) to break up potentially heated interactions, keeps things light and fun. Think of it a bit like monitoring a group of children—it’s best to initiate a break in play before a squabble breaks out.

Keep up on vehicle maintenance. The only thing worse than your car breaking down is your car breaking down with dogs in it! Maintain roadside assistance, schedule routine maintenance, and head to the shop at the first sign of trouble. Treat your vehicle like the key business investment and tool it is.

Watch the temperature. NEVER leave dogs in your car other than to pick up other dogs. Keep your keys with you, and the windows cracked. If you live in a particularly warm area, outfit your windows with dog-proof screens that keep dogs in, hands out, and air flowing.

Use proper equipment. To avoid a startled dog breaking free from you, secure leashes to head harnesses, body harnesses, or martingale-style anti-slip collars. Never use flexi-leashes, as they are too easily pulled out of your hand by a bolting dog, and can also cause serious injury to you and the dogs you walk. Be sure all dogs wear a large tag with your cell number to expedite a quick reunion with a lost dog.

Emergency planning

Being prepared keeps emergencies contained when they do happen. Better a small emergency than one that blooms into a crisis.

Carry a 1st aid kit—and know how to use it. Keep a full kit in your vehicle and a small kit on your person as you walk. Visit DogSafe or PetTech websites for canine 1st aid kit information and to look for 1st aid classes if you are not already certified.

Always have client contact information on hand. You should never have to rummage frantically through your vehicle for your phone list or, perish the thought, go home to get it. Keep up-to-date, well-organized client contact details in your car or phone at all times, and require any staff to do so as well.

Program emergency vet phone numbers into your phone. Write down or program into a work phone emergency directions to the closest vets from your most-used trails or the neighborhoods you service and keep them in any car ever used to transport dogs. Make sure all staff members know where to find the directions and understand them. Even if you work solo and you know the directions well, have them pre-programmed into your phone or GPS. When a crisis hits, it’s all too easy to forget one’s own name, let alone how to get to the veterinary hospital.

Get permission to help in writing. Your client service contract should clearly spell out what’s expected of you in an emergency.

  1. Have clients give you permission to seek emergency treatment and agree to cover the cost.
  2. Have clients specify whether there’s a cap on the cost they will accept. (Don’t assume everyone shares your willingness to take out a second mortgage to pay for surgery.)
  3. Have clients specify whether they authorize you to take the dog to whichever vet or animal hospital is closest. In other words, they want you to exercise discretion in getting their dog the best, fastest care. Otherwise, they may refuse to pay because you didn’t use their vet.
  4. Have clients state their wishes with regards to resuscitative care. For example, some clients may not wish to have senior dogs resuscitated.

Recruit an emergency assistant. One way to prevent panic in an emergency is to have a person to call who can help you keep calm and assist with urgent tasks. Don’t just make a mental list of cool-headed friends, though. Your emergency assistant must know and agree to his or her new designation, and the two of you should set up a protocol for such calls. Maybe it’s her job to meet you at the vet clinic and provide general support. Maybe she is the one who takes the other dogs home. Maybe she finishes your walking stops for the day. Whatever it is, you always know that someone can come to your aid. You and a fellow dog pro can do this for each other, or you can ask a friend who works from home or has a flexible office schedule.

Take your emergency assistant out with you on your regular rounds so she can meet all the dogs. Then practice your emergency protocol with your assistant to make sure everything goes as planned when you really need it to.

Emergency protocols

Knowing what to do in an emergency will help keep you calm. And being calm will allow you to more effectively handle whatever situation comes your way.

At the Dog Walking Academy we provide step-by-step protocols for handling all manner of emergencies, including vehicle breakdowns, you being injured or becoming ill during a walk, a dog in your car biting another dog or person, and losing a dog. We encourage our grads to carry these protocols with them, giving them a clear path forward should panic or shock set in. If you don’t have specific emergency protocols, take some time to develop them—or come join us for the Dog Walking Academy.

Secure dogs and call your emergency assistant. Regardless of the situation, one important step in any protocol when walking groups is to secure all dogs to keep the situation from escalating. The last thing you need while dealing with an injured dog or sprained ankle is for another one to take himself off on an adventure. Get everyone safely leashed if they aren’t already, then call your emergency assistant. In most protocols, your emergency assistant is the first call you’ll make. Knowing someone is in your corner and on the way to help can do a lot to bring calm, no matter the emergency.

Communicate with the client. Call the client when you have calmed down, not before. Also hold off until you know the precise nature of the damage. Sprained leg or amputation? Eye patch for a few days or blindness? Best to find out before you make the dreaded call. When you do, speak in a calm, confident tone. A distressed owner needs to know a professional is in charge of the crisis. Clearly state whether everything is handled and this is just a courtesy call to let the client know, or whether some action on her part is required.

With any kind of mishap, even if everything turned out fine, the best policy is to tell the client. Some clients might not care that their dog was missing for 20 minutes on a deer-chasing adventure, or that he got into a scuffle in which no one was hurt, but that risk is preferable to a client who hears it from someone else and is outraged at your failure to tell her about the dramatic event, regardless of the outcome. And if running off or scuffles become a trend, your client may be angry to learn something’s been brewing and wonder why you didn’t let her know sooner.

Take responsibility as appropriate—you are an adult and a professional. But don’t verbally rub sand in your hair, don’t heap blame on yourself, and don’t ever tell the client they ought to sue you. Accidents happen. Dogs are not appliances.

Depending on the situation, here is a possible strategy for the conversation: describe in a straightforward manner exactly what happened, share all the steps you took to handle the situation, give a report of the current status of the dog, and share anything you plan to do (if relevant) in the way of policy or process changes to avoid something similar happening in the future. Stress your concern for the dog’s and the client’s well-being, and ask if there’s anything else you can do to be of support at this particular moment.

Emergency follow-up

If the worst happens and a dog is seriously injured or killed while under your care, let your other clients know in writing. Bad news travels fast and if you are not the one to tell them, they may think you’re trying to hide the episode. You have to protect your business and your brand, and honesty is the best policy.

The letter should include any policy changes you are making to prevent the same thing happening again. Be thoughtful about protecting anonymity; don’t hang clients out to dry. If a dog is expelled, for example, don’t name that dog. If a dog is killed, find out whether the owner wants the dog named or not. Some do, some don’t. But don’t name the dog who killed, just say he was expelled.

Openness is the best policy about smaller incidents, too. A scuffle in a walking group that results in a dog needing a couple of stitches, for example, should also be communicated. Doing so breeds confidence, prevents rumors from festering and growing, and demystifies normal canine behavior. Emphasize what is being done about the problem: “We had another tiff over tennis balls today, so we have decided not to bring them to the beach with us anymore.” Hopefully, you are communicating with your clients every week anyway (highlights from Fido’s week, etc.), so bad news isn’t the only news they get.

(Of course, if scuffles happen more than once in a blue moon, something is wrong. Screening procedures and staff training are the first places to look for a possible issue.)

Don’t fret

If you generally run a strong business, if you take good care of dogs and of people, if you handle a crisis with responsibility and grace, it’s rare to lose clients over injury incidents. Be open and honest, be calm, and face the situation down—it can happen to anyone.

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Making behavior a win-win

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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.

Rules of engagement for great dog walks

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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.