Walking dogs is an enjoyable thing to do, you’re in the outdoors, getting exercise and you’ve also got some great companions with you. In today’s article we’re going to take a look at how to start a dog walking business, the things you need to look out for and the results you can expect. As with any new venture there are probably things that you haven’t considered when it comes to walking people’s dogs for money and we’re going to do our best to go through everything that could (and probably will) go wrong.
We’re also going to take a look at some courses you should consider taking before offering your dog walking services to the public and what your liability is if something goes wrong with an animal while it’s under your care.
If you approach your business properly and make sure that you are fully aware of all the ins and outs then chances are you’ll be fine. Of course, understanding a business is only the first step so we’re also going to give you some marketing ideas and value adds that you can throw in to make your business more successful.
On top of basic marketing, later in the article, we are going to give you some actionable tips and tricks that you can use to identify the best locations to start your business for walking dogs in your area. Before we get onto the fun stuff, let’s start with the basics.
While we’re going to dig down further in the article, here is a list of five things you can do today to get your dog walking career underway:
- Gain experience: This doesn’t mean walking your own dogs; you need to understand how to control other dogs. If you’re going to be walking more than one neighborhood pooch at a time you’re also going to have to get used to controlling strange dogs in groups under your care. Talk to your neighbors and see if you can get started taking two or three dogs for a short walk around the area.
- Understand legislation as it applies to you – you’re going to need to come to terms with: rules around liability if a dog under your care bites someone, rules about cleaning up after the dogs have done their business and if there are any local bylaws that prohibit dogs in certain places at certain times.
- Research insurance: Insurance for professional dog walkers is a must. The law in most places states that the person responsible for an animal is also liable if it bites someone or damages something. You’ll want to make sure you’re well covered in this area.
- Identify where you’re going to walk the dogs and how you’re going to collect them: If you’re walking dogs in an area where most people live in high-rise buildings then there’s a good chance you’re going to need to take them somewhere in a vehicle. Do the parks in your area allow dogs? Look at where you’re going to market your business and how you’ll get the dogs from point A to point B.
- Write a basic business plan, once you’ve been through steps 2-4 you’re going to have a much better idea of how much capital you’re going to need to get going as well as your ongoing expenses. This is extremely important to have a fully grasp on because it is what you’re going to use to set your dog walking rates when you get started properly later on.
Now that you’ve got the basic information together we’re going to go into some of the above tips in a bit more detail as well as look at some of the other aspects of starting your dog related business.
Where you are is going to have a huge bearing on how successful you are. You need to really ask yourself some tough questions about how viable your enterprise is going to be. Market research is going to be tremendously useful when you’re planning walking routes and finding new customers. Here are three quick questions you’ll need to ask about each location as you identify it:
- How many other similar businesses are advertising in the area?
- How many people own dogs in the area?
- Are you going to need to transport dogs away from the area before you take them walking?
The first question is a bit of a no-brainer. If you’re in an area with low population density and a lot of competition you could be in some trouble unless you’re already well connected or there are a lot of dogs around. No one says you have to run your entire business around the corner from your house but it is extremely handy if the dogs that you are walking each day are close to each other – you’ll make more money that way.
The next question is a little harder to answer easily. If it’s a suburban area then take a walk for a few blocks and look for things like dogs in the yard and evidence of doggy doors on the homes around the area. Also try to take this walk at a time of day when people regularly walk their dogs – this is usually early in the morning or early in the evening. If you happen to come across someone who is walking their dog then have a chat to them about the local environment, competition and if there is an interest in your services.
The last question is potentially the most expensive. If you’re going to have to transfer dogs you’re going to need a pretty heavily customized vehicle to move them around in safely. Not all dogs are comfortable in a car and strange dogs traveling together can be a bit of a no-no if they haven’t met before. This is going to be the biggest expense in your business plan and if there is any way to avoid it then do so. Perhaps there is an area within a few miles that is more suited that you can commute to?
Set yourself apart
Once you’ve chosen the perfect area to kick off your new business you need to drill a bit deeper on the competition research. That may mean cold calling other similar businesses and asking them about their rates, reading the Yellowpages and browsing the Internet. Here is what you’re looking for when you’re researching your competition:
- What do they charge? It is important in any business venture to focus on the value of money and not on their volume. That being said if you price yourself too high or too low you’re going to get less business. Put together an excel spreadsheet of all the local businesses in your area and what they charge then look at the average, that said you still need to understand everything they offer for that rate.
- Are there certain days that they don’t service an area? Smaller operators will often serve different suburbs on different days. If you’ve got a lot of people who are servicing an area on Tuesdays then Thursday would be a great day to put your offering on the table for that location. Make sure you know exactly what is available to your market and when it is available.
- What qualifications do their walkers hold? This is an important part of building trust with new clients. Qualifications and experience are going to be questions that all of your clients are going to throw at you when you’re getting started. Throw these at your competition, that way you can start to come up with your own unique selling proposition.
- How long have they been in business? If you’re new to an area, with very few connections and there is one company that has been in business for 20 years that has pretty much every dog owner on their books you’re in for an uphill fight. If you’re in an area that’s more of a level playing field then things could be a bit easier. It’s important to understand how established your competition is.
- Are there any value adds that they offer to dog owners? Do they offer to give the dog a bath each week for regular customers? Do they offer dog sitting, kenneling or other associated services? Do they have a service where they will take a dog to the Vet on the owner’s behalf? These are all things you can look at doing to really separate yourself from a crowded marketplace.
Dog walking qualifications
I’m sure you’re not surprised to discover that there are no formal qualifications that you require to walk dogs for people. That said, if you want to really show your customers that you’re the best person for the job it can be handy to get a couple of bits of paper behind you. There are education providers in most places that offer certificate courses in dog minding, pet sitting and other associated tasks but if you really want to shine here are three areas that you might want to do something a bit more substantial in:
- Animal behavior science: You can do a short course or a full bachelor’s degree in this area but having a firm understanding of dog behavior will show that you’re a professional and probably also help out a lot in your day to day work.
- Animal first aid: Dog owners will be much happier if they know that you can treat their pet if it gets injured while it is in your care. Getting a certificate in animal first aid is an extremely good idea.
- Human first aid: Accidents happen and if a dog under your care does bite someone, trip someone over or otherwise hurt them then being in a position to offer immediate first aid (and carrying a first aid kit) is a very good idea.
The more credence you can lend to your abilities as a professional dog walker the easier it will be for you to get clients quickly. What qualifications you go for is going to depend a lot on the competition research you’ve already done. When selecting qualifications it’s important that you don’t just try and match your competition, but set yourself apart from them. Research what papers are available around you and make sure you go for useful papers that are not over-represented in your competitor set.
Another extremely important part of the puzzle, especially when you’re starting out, is going to be proving that you are trustworthy. Get a clearance from your local police station and update your resume. Even if you don’t have any directly related experience if you can show that you’ve held responsible jobs in the past it will help a lot.
Joining a dog walking agency
The quickest way to get moving is to see if there is an agency that markets local dog walking services that you could work with. There are downsides to this approach, such as the fact that they will take a percentage of your earnings, but it’s a good way to get a reputation.
Agencies usually have pretty stringent criteria about who they will accept as well so having a successful record with one of them can help you later in your career.
There are agencies of this kind in most major cities and they also usually offer things like pet sitting. They are a great way to gain experience and also to get some testimonials from satisfied customers. If and when you do break from the agency and go out on your own later on these testimonials are pure gold. You’ll need to check a few things with the agency before you get started:
- Chances are that there are going to be certain restraints of trade imposed upon you, no agency is going to let you take their clients with you when you leave but make sure that if you do move on that you’re allowed to keep working in the area. Also be sure to check if the agency has an exclusivity clause in their contract if you want to work with them at the same time as looking for your own clients.
- What insurance requirements does the agency put on the dog walkers that it works with? Do they provide insurance or are you responsible for providing it yourself?
- How many hours do they expect you to be available and at what notice and and how many jobs can you expect to get from them?
- What fees do they charge to dog walkers? Different agencies have different fee structures so be sure to shop around if you’re in a larger area with multiple choices.
- How long have they been in business and what marketing activities do they undertake on behalf of their roster of walkers?
Remember that it’s really important that you interview the agency (it will happen the other way around as well, of course). Making the wrong choice of partner here could easily put your career as a dog walker on ice very quickly.
Selecting your insurance
As we mentioned early on it’s really important that you have the right types of insurance. Also you don’t just want to select your insurance on price, but look instead at the entire offering. There are a number of areas you’re going to need to make sure that you’re covered in when it comes to your insurer. It’s also probably a good idea to do some research and take some advice on what you are actually liable for in your area.
Here are some of the questions to ask your prospective insurer:
- What is the deductible on your policy?
- What is the annual premium (and can you pay it monthly?)
- To what level are you covered for liability if a dog under your care bites someone?
- To what level are you covered for damage to property caused by a dog under your care?
- What happens if a dog gets lost or stolen while under your care?
- What if a dog gets injured? Are you covered for veterinary care?
- Do they require you to belong to any organizations?
- Are there any specific qualifications that you could have that would lower your premium?
In addition to all of this, especially if you’re setting up on your own on a full time basis, it is probably a good idea to get some sort of income protection. That means that if something does happen to you a percentage of your income can be covered by your insurer while you’re recovering – this can make a huge difference to paying the bills in the event of a sudden, serious emergency.
If you’re going to need to use a vehicle to transport the dogs don’t forget to get this insured as well. You’ll need to let the car insurer know what the vehicle will be used for as this may have an impact on your premiums.
Adding value to your business
In a competitive business environment there is often a feeling that lowering your rates will help you win more business. Undercutting is bad for everyone, it reduces margins and profits. Whatever you do when you’re setting up your pricing it’s important that you don’t get dragged into a pricing war with someone else, they don’t work. What you should instead focus on is the concept of adding value to your business offering.
Adding value can mean many things and it can be used in many ways. It can extend the life of your relationship with a client or increase the number of clients on your books. It can also enable you to compete in a much tighter niche than keeping things general would which will certainly help you win more business.
Value Adding for customer retention
No matter who you ask in business they will tell you that the most expensive part of any client was their acquisition. That means that once you’ve got a relationship it is a lot cheaper to keep it than it is to try and replace it down the line. A couple of ideas for value adds that may help with customer retention for a professional dog walker are:
- Offering a loyalty card like many coffee shops do – every 10th walk is free (or comes with a free bath).
- Offering a discount if someone commits to you for the long term (1 walk for $20 or 10 for $180 for instance).
- Make sure you are always on time and always take the dog for a full walk.
- Present yourself nicely, consider getting a shirt or two made with your company name on it (put your number and website on the back this will also help with getting business).
- Be sure to let your clients know that you’re available to drive their dog to the veterinarian or come around regularly and give it a bath.
As we mentioned, the most important thing about customers is keeping them so be sure to go above and beyond at every opportunity to keep them happy and engaged.
Value adding for customer acquisition
Let’s be honest, there are plenty of people around offering dog walking services and if someone is choosing a company to take Fido out once a week for a stroll the more you can offer them the better.
People prefer to have one good relationship with an all round provider and if someone is too busy to walk their dog then chances are they also don’t have time to do other things, like bathing it. Here are a few ideas for things to put into the market:
- Offer a full service package. A one hour walk followed by a bath for instance.
- Market a service that collects dogs for their annual check ups and vaccinations.
- Offer to dogsit dogs in their own homes – a lot of owners don’t like using kennels.
All of these ideas won’t work in all areas and the list is not designed to be comprehensive. The point is to get thinking outside of the box on what you’re offering to your customers. Make sure that they know that a relationship with you is going to be comprehensive, that way they will keep you on file and you’ll make more money from each customer.
Marketing your new business
Marketing is the single most important thing that you’re going to do when you’re starting out and it will remain so throughout the life of your venture. A lot of people underestimate the costs and the importance of marketing. It doesn’t have to be expensive if you get creative though. Here are a few solid, actionable marketing tips that you can use to get your business started:
- You are your best billboard, especially if you’re walking dogs around the neighborhood you want to get clients from. Make sure that you have a shirt made with your business name and slogan and contact details on it. Identifying yourself as a professional dog walker will also encourage “walk ups” while you’re out and about.
- Ask existing clients for referrals, any marketer knows that referrals convert better than any other lead and if you’ve got happy customers then they won’t mind putting you onto their friends and family.
- Ask local shelters if they have a directory or a notice board that you can advertise your services in.
- Talk to local vets, don’t be afraid to offer them some sort of incentive to recommend you to their customers.
- Advertise in the local classifieds – this is the cheapest type of print advertising you’ll ever do and it’s perfect for this type of business.
- Be sure to optimize your internet presence for Google Local results and make sure that your business profiles on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus all include your full contact details.
- If you’re going to do letter box drops then be sure to check the local rules on unsolicited mail.
Start your dog walking business
Now that you’ve got all the information and some good, solid ideas to get going it’s time to get started. Dog walking is an amazing career and if you love animals and the outdoors then there is no better way to make your living.
Put yourself out there, get networking and start your market research. A lot of the initial set up research can be done for free on the Internet. Talk to community advice centers in your area. Pay a visit to the Humane Society and ask if you can put up a sign or pay to advertise in their newsletters.
As with all things, walking a dog starts with the first step so there’s no time like the present to start your new career in dog walking.