I was thinking back recently to my days in the call center – I told you a bit about the experience in Veterinarians, Vet Techs, and Job Burnout. In some ways, it was the best job in the world – I worked with a lot of really great people, many of whom I’m still in touch with to this day. Some of us get together from time to time, and others I keep up with on Facebook. The pay was ridiculously low, though, and no matter what you gave, the client always wanted more. I finally burned out, but I earned the right. Most call center workers last 6 months. I was in it for ten years.
When I finally got to the point where I was just dreading putting on the headset each morning, I knew it was time for a change. I hated leaving, but I loved leaving, if you know what I mean. I was going to miss my friends, miss the routine of going to work each day, and even miss the security of a poverty-level income. And when I left, I had nothing else to go to. I just knew I’d had enough.
My friends at work said “Hey, Ash, you’ll never be out of work – you can always dog sit, or walk dogs, or work at an animal shelter. Anyone who knows you knows how much you love animals, and they’d hire you in a heartbeat.”
Well, maybe. But I didn’t want to work with dogs. Why? Because they’re my weak spot. I could just see me greeting homeowners coming back from vacation with “Hi, welcome back; I’ll be taking Spanky home with me because I’ve fallen in love with him.” Or crying like a baby every time a dog got put down at an animal shelter, and probably developing PTSD.
As to dog walking, well, I couldn’t see myself doing that simply because I’m not much for nasty weather and have no inclination to become a “dog wrangler.” So, these days, I work from home as a freelance writer. And of course I blog. I’m still not rich, but it’s better than the call center.
Okay, so this is a long introduction, but thinking about the call center got me thinking about the dog walking thing, and then got me thinking about the one time I had to hire a dog walker.
I freely admit that sometimes I am the author of my own misfortune. I once cracked my tailbone because I fell off a chair trying to put a star on my Christmas tree, after a few too many Black Russians. I spent three days in bed (when I wasn’t in the bathroom) one time because I thought half-price fish was a good idea. And once I nearly drowned because I got the urge to swim in a lake during near-hurricane force winds. But the escapade that led me to need a dog walker was not my fault.
I was shopping downtown, carrying several packages, and I misjudged the height of the curb. I went down, and my ankle went under me. Groceries spilled out into the road, but I didn’t care because all I could think about was the agony radiating through my ankle. I’d broken it.
Needless to say, Janice and Leroy weren’t going to be going walkies any time soon, but I couldn’t very well have them go without exercise. I needed to find a good dog walker.
So, with my ankle propped up on the ottoman and my laptop at hand, I started researching. I wasn’t going to hand my Boxers off to just anyone. I needed someone who would take them to the dog park, and also on regular walks. I knew that there were actually certified dog walkers – people who took courses to learn about body language in dogs, basic training, pack management, dealing with dog fights, and more. I didn’t think I needed to take it to that level, although I’m glad that dog walking is becoming a profession. In my neighborhood, I don’t need to worry about dogs getting into fights or anything like that, but for people who do have to consider such possibilities, I think it’s great that there are people who are trained in how to respond.
No, I just needed someone to take Janice and Leroy out for their daily exercise. My bad experience was taking that nasty fall, and I was determined that Janice and Leroy would have a good experience with their walker. So I started thinking about what a good dog walker would be like, and the questions you should ask them (and yourself), and here’s what I came up with.
A good dog walker will take your dogs out, and not just sit on his or her ass on a park bench playing with their smartphone, thinking that as long as they’ve been gone for a certain length of time, you’ll assume that your dogs got the exercise they need. A good dog walker cares about your dog, and knows that regular activity leads to good cardiovascular health and joint flexibility, reduces stress and relieves boredom.
Of course your dog is a dog walker’s main concern, but a good dog walker is going to be concerned about you as well. They’re not going to want to have you dealing with an overactive dog at home because they didn’t do their job outside the home. They care about your peace of mind, and they want your dog to come home happy, relaxed, and ready to snuggle quietly with you.
Anyone can say they’re a dog walker, and in fact, it’s pretty common for people who have no marketable job skills to say “I’m a dog walker.” In the final analysis, you and your dog are the only ones who can determine if a person is qualified, and qualifications don’t necessarily have to include formal training. How does the potential dog walker interact with your dog? Do you feel good about them? What about their background – can they provide the names of other people whose dogs they’ve walked?
As to professional training, you could file this under “an asset but not required.” Of course it’s useful if they know something about canine learning theory, pack management and so on, but if they don’t really know how to implement the knowledge they have, it might not be much use – remember, there’s always someone who graduated at the bottom of the class.
Sometimes, you might be dealing with a dog walking service that employs a number of walkers. You’ll want to interview anyone who might be walking your dog, and you should also expect assurances that the company will not replace your regular walker with someone else without your knowledge or approval.
I’ve seen people walking dogs in groups of a dozen or more. The thing here is, that when the dogs don’t know one another, group walking raises the likelihood of injuries, and also the chance of dogs breaking off leash and getting lost. It also means that your dog isn’t likely to get much one-on-one attention.
Imagine a group of dogs consisting of small, medium and large, young and old. Some are going to find it hard to keep up. Younger dogs may be aggressive with older dogs, and big dogs may be inclined to dominate smaller ones. You want to be sure that your dog is in a compatible group, and that the walker is able to keep them under control without using intimidation tactics.
Is your dog going to be walked in familiar surroundings, or will he be taken somewhere else? If the dogs are transported to another location to be walked, does the walker have an appropriate vehicle where dogs can be suitably restrained in crates or using seat belts? The last thing you want is to have your dog shoved into a van and tied by his collar – if an accident occurs, he could be strangled to death or suffer internal injuries.
Often, dog walkers are picking up and dropping off multiple dogs. If this is the case, how long are the dogs that are already in the vehicle left unattended? And when they are left alone during a pick-up or drop-off, are the doors locked so that the dogs can’t be stolen?
If a dog walker tells you that they’ll pick up your dog and bring him back in two hours, confirm that the two hours is actually the time that your dog will be exercised. It shouldn’t include transportation time.
Back to the call center, I remember how management used to conduct interviews for potential employees. It’s called behavioral interviewing, and it goes beyond what’s shown on a resume. Management would ask questions like “Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker and what you did to resolve it,” or “Tell me about a time that you did something outside your normal job description, why you did it, and what the outcome was.” The goal, of course, is to find out how people behave in certain situations, what skills they have, and how those skills work to benefit the company.
You can take the same approach with your potential dog walker. Ask questions like “Tell me about a time you encountered an aggressive dog, and how you dealt with it,” “Tell me about the worst dog you ever walked and how you handled him,” or “Tell me about a time when you had to do something extra for a client.”
Since safety is a priority, you can also ask questions like “Have you ever lost a dog?” Ask if they have a cell phone, and if they’ll call you if anything goes wrong. What will they do if your dog gets hurt? What if their vehicle breaks down?
You can’t put it all on the dog walker. You need to look after the details as well. Make sure your dog is collared and tagged, and make sure the walker has phone numbers where they can reach you.
What if the weather turns bad? Will the walker still exercise your dog? Do they have access to an indoor facility where your dog can run or play, or maybe use interactive toys? Will they give you a walk report? It’s not good enough to just come back and say “We had a great time!” You want to know where they went, what they did, and if anything unusual happened.
Well, obviously, I couldn’t – with a broken ankle, there was no way I was going to be going along on a walk. For that matter, if I hadn’t had a broken ankle, I wouldn’t have been considering a dog walker in the first place – I’d have been taking Janice and Leroy out myself. If you’re just checking out a walker, go along with them the first time out. Of course you’ll have to pay for the walk, but it’s a small price to pay when you think of the peace of mind it will give you.
This isn’t always an “etched in stone” requirement. But if you’re dealing with a company that walks a lot of dogs, you might want to be assured that they’re covered for anything that can go wrong. When dealing with a company, it’s also a good idea to make sure they provide you with a contract, which you should read carefully.
Keep in mind that it is not the job of a dog walker to train your dog. However, if you have been training your dog in a certain way, you should be able to communicate what you’ve been doing to the dog walker, and they should be able to continue with your training protocols. The last thing you want is for your dog to pick up bad habits when he’s out with his walker.
Some walkers love to offer treats to dogs when they’re out walking. If your dog has any specific dietary issues, you’ll need to communicate them to the walker. And if your dog has a tendency to pick up and ingest anything that he finds on the sidewalk, the walker needs to know that so he or she can be alert and prevent your dog from eating anything that could be harmful to him.
Always let your walker know if something unusual has occurred in between walks. Perhaps your dog has had a bout with diarrhea, or has been in a fight with another dog, or just seems unlike himself. Your dog walker needs to know about these things so that they can be alert to anything that might seem “off” during the walk, and that might require a visit to the vet. You should consider your dog walker as a partner in your dog’s health, and treat him or her accordingly. Next to you, your dog walker is the person who is going to be most in tune with your dog, so communicate with them, and listen to them.
In addition to working with your dog walker and paying attention to what they report back to you, you should also pay attention to what your dog might be trying to tell you. When he gets back from his walk, does he seem happy and relaxed, or is he stressed? When his walker picks him up, does your dog seem happy to see the walker and more than willing to go with him or her, or is he hanging back? If he greets the walker enthusiastically and just wants to snuggle up and take a nap when he comes home, then he’s probably had a good experience. If he doesn’t want to go with the walker, or seems agitated on return, then it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s time to look for another walker.
Whether you’re dealing with a dog walking company, or a private walker, it’s simply not right to cancel without giving plenty of notice. Your dog walker isn’t your property, there for you to take out when it’s convenient and put away when it’s not convenient. When you cancel without notice and they have no chance to book another client, they’re losing money, and that’s not fair. Find out what the cancellation policy is, and adhere to it.
Remember, too, that if you’re dealing with a private walker (someone who’s walking dogs to help pay for their education, for instance) they may not have a formal cancellation policy, and they may just suck up whatever you throw at them. If you do that to some young person who’s trying to work their way through college, then you’re an asshat, plain and simple.
These are all important things to think about when you’re considering hiring a dog walker. When it comes right down to it, though, the most important thing is personality. Does the walker genuinely like dogs in general, and your dog in particular? Are they kind and gentle? Does your dog like the walker? Do you like the walker? These are the considerations that matter the most.
Anyone who knows me knows that I obsess over Janice and Leroy. I love them to distraction and I want them to be the happiest dogs in the whole world. So, I investigated tons of dog walking companies, and also investigated dozens of private walkers. The companies mostly seemed very business-like, and I didn’t think I’d be unhappy handing Janice and Leroy off to them while I recovered from my injury. I also felt pretty good about some of the private walkers I’d interviewed. The one I liked best was Graham, a 20-something college student. I liked him because Janice and Leroy liked him. Upon meeting Graham, Janice wiggled her stubby little tail and gave him kisses. Leroy practically crawled into his lap.
I just about had my mind made up. Then I called Neila, just wanting to touch base with her, and I told her about my accident, and my foray into trying to find a dog walker. I said I’d pretty much decided on Graham.
Neila responded with “Fercryinoutloud, Ash! You broke your ankle and you didn’t tell me? And you’re looking for dog walkers? Is there something wrong with me?”
I have to admit I was a little embarrassed. Of course Neila was the perfect walker for my dogs! Janice and Leroy spent six weeks hanging out with Neila and her Rottweilers while I lounged on the sofa eating ice cream (still gotta lose five pounds), watching Netflix and playing Minecraft. All that work, and all I really needed to do was make one phone call.
Oh, well, I learned a lot, and I’ve been able to share what I’ve learned with you, so it’s all good.
If you’re looking for a dog walker, make sure to do your research. Don’t just pick the first one that comes along. They need to be a good fit with your dog, and with you as well. Sometimes, though, if you just need help in the short term, the best dog walker is someone you already know.