Job: Professional dog walker
Role: Dog walking is no day at the park. The role of a professional dog walker comes with a lot of responsibility, and requires relationship building with both pets and their owners. That is because dog walkers are often given access to their clients' homes, and trusted with the care of their beloved animals. Doing so requires keeping a close eye on their pet at all times, which can be difficult when walking more than one dog at a time.
"I treat the dogs like my children," said Jon Chaisson, the owner of Busters Dog Walking Co. in Toronto and chairman of Professional Dog Walkers Canada, a non-profit organization that provides resources for commercial dog walkers.
"When I go to the park, I'm making sure they're not pooping [in inappropriate places], and if they are I'm picking it up, making sure they're not misbehaving, doing inappropriate things. I have to watch out for things they're not accustomed to, like some may not be friendly around smaller children, so I need to keep them away from smaller children."
Salary: The salary of a dog walker will depend on how many clients they have, whether they are self-employed or work for a company, and the level of service they are providing. Dog walkers typically charge between $15 and $25 per dog a day for their services, and in an industry heavily dependent on word-of-mouth, salaries typically grow along with reputation.
As such, Mr. Chaisson predicts that starting salaries can be as low as $15,000 a year, as beginners often need to charge less in order to attract their first few clients. As they build their client base and renegotiate their fees, however, that salary can skyrocket with time.
"You can make $100,000 a year, but it's a lot of work," he said, adding that many well-established professional dog walkers make around $80,000 per year, but only if they've received positive references, built a large client base and are working as many hours as possible each day.
Education: While there are no educational requirements for commercial dog walkers, some municipalities enforce strict licensing standards. In the City of Toronto, for example, dog walkers need to obtain a $250 commercial dog walker permit in order to walk more than three dogs at a time (with a maximum of six), all of which must be on a leash unless in one of the city's designated leash-free zones. Licensing laws vary between districts in Vancouver, where the price of a permit ranges from $350 in West Vancouver to $830 for a licence obtained in North Vancouver for businesses located outside of that district.
"It's unique to big cities right now," Mr. Chaisson said.
Obtaining a permit typically requires dog walkers to have liability insurance – at a cost of about $600 a year – and file taxes as registered businesses.
Dog walkers are also encouraged to get pet first aid and pet training certification, which can provide added credentials and allow them to charge more for their services, though it is not a requirement.
Job prospects: There is no shortage of dog lovers in Canada, many of whom need a little help taking care of their pets. The barrier to entry as a professional dog walker is quite low, but landing those first few clients can be difficult.
"It's better if you can meet up with other dog walkers, start networking, and then they will refer people to you," said Dianne Eibner, owner of Jog-a-Dog and founder of the Professional Dog Walkers Association International, which later became Professional Dog Walkers Canada. "That's probably your best bet if you're starting out; get to know other dog walkers who would be willing to refer you."
Ms. Eibner adds that well-established dog walkers often reach their maximum capacity, and are typically willing to refer new clients to other dog walkers they trust.
Challenges: The biggest challenge dog walkers face in the great white north is undoubtedly the cold weather, which can make the job unbearable during the winter months.
"The winters can be hell, but you dress in layers and take the dogs out for shorter walks, because they do freeze as well," Mr. Chaisson said.
Ms. Eibner, who is also the author of The Face in the Window – A Guide to Professional Dog Walking, adds that those who work as sole proprietors or run their own dog walking businesses also take on a lot of risk.
"It isn't the most secure occupation," she said. "If our client gets laid off from their work, we get laid off too."
Why they do it: While the winter months make the outdoors the least pleasant aspect of the job, Mr. Chaisson says the opposite is true in summer. "You get to hang out in the sunshine all day while everybody else is stuck inside in their stuffy jobs," he said.
Furthermore, since many professional dog walkers work as sole proprietors or owners of their own business, they often get to set their own hours and pay.
"I'm able to work only three or four hours a day, and get a full day's pay," Mr. Chaisson said. "For six hours a day you can be making upwards of $80,000 to $100,000 [a year] if you really want to put work into it."
Ms. Eibner adds that most dog walkers simply love spending their time caring for and playing with dogs.
"I love my job, I love hanging out with dogs," she said. "It's almost not like a job, but I treat it like a job – you have to on the business end of it – but other times I'm rolling around on the ground with them, that's the part I enjoy."
Misconceptions: Mr. Chaisson says that many people believe it's an easy job, failing to comprehend the level of responsibility that comes with the role.
"You have to be fully aware that these are other people's property," he said. "It's like a daycare; you constantly have to watch over the dogs as if they were your own."
Ms. Eibner adds that some dog walkers have given the rest a bad name, and that people make assumptions based on a few bad apples.
"Unfortunately, there have been such incidents where a dog walker has caused problems for other people and park users," she said. "It's not pleasant when we are deemed guilty by association if or when one dog walker is seen not picking up after their dogs."
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