When I envisioned my dog-walking service, I saw myself dressed in a cute white sweater and 501 red-tag Levis, walking along the Pacific shoreline with six attentive, well-behaved Golden Retrievers and Labradors. Being my own boss, making my own hours and being around dogs all day long. What could be better?
Reality hit on my second day of professional dog-walking, when I twisted my ankle and fell face-first into the sand after chasing a ball-obsessed, overweight yellow Labrador named Willard and a Sheepdog named Bear who behaved like she was on an acid trip. Sand was everywhere—up my nose; down my pants; in my mouth, my shoes, my hair. It was an exceptionally bad start to my new career.
What did I do after this exceptionally bad start? I brushed myself off, took a shower and continued building my new business, which in time evolved into a client list of 80 dogs, eight employees and a fleet of five dog-appropriate vehicles. I love dogs, and my passion outweighed the hazards of the job.
Perhaps you secretly harbor the same passion, the same dream. If so, here are some tips to help you get started.
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Do your research.
Investigate dog-walking services in your area. When I first started, an off-leash adventure service—one that allowed time for a Labrador Retriever to swim, play chase and destroy picnics—didn’t exist. (Just joking about picnics.) Once you figure out the type of service your area needs, you can begin developing your business.
Create a business plan.
How many dogs can you safely take in a group? How many shifts a day? How long for each walk? How much will you charge? What areas of town will you service? Don’t spread yourself too thin. Choose an area near where you live or, better yet, as my Wall Street financial-analyst father told me, “Choose a recession-proof area; if they lose a million in the market, it won’t matter and they’ll keep you employed so you can pay the rent.”
Establish your business structure.
Most dog-walking services are set up as either a sole proprietorship or an LLC. A sole proprietorship means that the owner’s personal and business assets are in the same pot, so to speak, and he or she is responsible for all debts. An LLC separates the personal and business assets. Incorporation is also an option; in that structure, the owner is not personally liable for the company debts. At first, I had a sole proprietorship but changed to an LLC when I hired employees and then married a fiscally responsible guy who worried about protecting our assets and home.
Set your pricing.
Check out your competition’s rates and services. In 1995 when I started, the average San Francisco dog walking rate was $8 per walk. I charged $5 to build up a clientele but in retrospect, realized that I had devalued my services, which included longer walks and more time out of the house than the others were providing. If you have the skill set, you may also want to offer obedience training and pet-sitting.
Draw up a contract.
Have clients sign a contract that covers at least the basics: information about the dog, any training or behavioral problems, who to contact in an emergency and contact info for the family vet. Also include a release from liability as well as permission to seek vet care if needed (and to be reimbursed for that care, if it comes to that).
Build a website and a social media presence.
Currently, Wordpress, Squarespace and Shopify are three highly rated website and ecommerce platforms. Constructing a social media presence through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is also fundamental for business growth. Eventually, you’ll probably get most of your business via word of mouth, but in the beginning, you’ll need to reach out over the internet.
Get appropriate licenses, insurance and permits.
While the process can try your patience, it’s important to obtain correct government business licenses and permits.
• Business license: Issued by your local city government.
• Liability insurance: Pet Sitters Associates offers affordable plans and covers all your needs.
• Permits: Some public parks, dog parks and other outdoor spaces require permits for those walking multiple dogs.
Consider becoming certified.
Both on-line and (post-pandemic) in-person courses provide their students with basic instruction in a range of related topics, including dog behavior, safety and first-aid skills, and business and client management. Successful completion gets you certification, which can be a good selling point.
Market your services.
Networking, flyer distribution and handing out cards are all part of good marketing. Volume is key; I distributed 500 flyers and obtained two clients, then acquired three more clients via word of mouth. If you’re like me and shy about self-promoting, get someone to help you. An unemployed friend assisted me in exchange for a burger and a beer.
• Mailboxes and cars. Disperse flyers in the area from which you intend to draw your clients.
• Dog park. Early evening is the optimum time to hand out cards.
• Local bars, restaurants, coffee shops. Most of these have an area where you can post a flyer. (Be sure to ask before posting.)
• Groomers and vets. Introduce yourself to a local groomer and vet clinic, preferably near your service area, and drop off a treat for the front-desk staff every so often. A referral incentive also works. In my first month in business, I made friends with a local groomer, who sent me 10 clients over a period of three months; I also offered a vet clinic’s front desk personnel $25 for each successful referral, which led to four new clients.
Invest in equipment.
Basics include six-foot leashes, 20-foot lead lines (great for new dogs until they get to know you), poop bags (I use Earth Rated Dog Poop Bags—lavender scented!), dog cookies (I get a great response to Whole Jerky’s grain-free grilled bison strips) and, most importantly, a reliable, dog-friendly vehicle. My first year, I drove a four-door Mazda. Going down the road, we looked like a canine version of Norman Rockwell’s Road Trip painting, but the dogs managed to find their spots. Ideally, something a bigger—a minivan or a truck with a camper shell, for example—is a better option.
Maintain your sense of humor and be patient.
Patience is your superpower: patience in building your business, with the dogs (because there’s no such thing as a perfect dog) and with clients. Add a love for dogs and a sense of humor and you’ll be on your way.