A Walk in the Park

11th March 2016

Heather Harris looks at the world of professional dog care and asks if it’s indeed a walk in the park...

Dog walkers are cleaning up – both literally and metaphorically. A recent survey by Direct Line Pet Insurance suggested that this profession is taking the lead when it comes to earnings per hours worked. “Dog walkers earn a fifth more than the average UK salary and only have to work two weeks a month to do so,” the report states. The figures are based on an average charge of £11.50 per hour per dog, walking 192 dogs per month.

Doing the maths, this adds up to a staggering (and they must be after all those walks) £26,496 – around 20 percent higher than the national average annual salary of £22,044. Clearly when my parents suggested I became an accountant or teacher they were barking up the wrong tree.

Or were they? The local dog walkers I spoke to were unanimous in their dismissal of these figures.

“This must be based on people in London walking a lot of dogs at a time,” says Clare, a South African now living in Chesham and running the very successful MustLoveDogs company. She charges £10 per hour, the standard price outside the capital.

According to the report, the average dog-walking salary is based on taking 13 dogs per day, which means that192 is reached in just 15 days. Clare admits that she never walks less than 15 in one day and it can go up to 24. “But I never walk in large groups – four is an absolute maximum and this is when I have at least two who I know I have to keep on the lead, “ she explains, adding that she collects dogs from people’s homes and drops them back, usually at no extra cost, unless they live a significant distance away.

Karen of DoggyDayTrips operates the same prices and again she prefers to walk in smaller groups. “But this is why I am giving up the business,” she explains, “as the only way to make money is for me to buy a van and take a lot of dogs at a time – and then it becomes all about the finances and less about the animals.”

When it comes to exercising our four legged friends, it really is about all about the numbers. And this has recently become a bone of contention between the walkers and the general public.

“The whole issue of mass dog walkers is why we originally set up the Association of Professional Dog Walkers,” vice chair Paula Wilson tells me. “Always in every profession there are cowboys. Dog walking is no different so there were unqualified people who were doing the job purely for the money… taking loads of dogs and having no control and also not clearing up after them. It is these people that were turning the public against the rest of us.”

The Association has worked with London local councils to put together a 14 point Code of Conduct to which their members adhere. This includes an absolute maximum of six dogs to be walked at any one time (four in the Royal Parks), an agreement to respect and promote all animal control by-laws, to attach identity tags to all dogs, to ensure dogs are never left unattended and, of course, the all-important subject of pooper scooping and placing the bags in bins (not leaving them hanging in trees like pungent Christmas baubles).

There is also the requirement to have the correct insurance. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the Animals Act 1971 and even the Dog Fouling Laws – it is the person who is in charge of the animal that can be charged (or fined £80 on the spot per poo) – not the owner.

“I have only ever lost a dog once. It ran off for eight hours, despite the owner assuring me it had perfect recall, and I was straight on the phone to my insurers who even cover the cost of making posters. Luckily it didn’t come to that, but I would never take on this job without cover,” says Clare, explaining that her policy even includes the replacement of an owner’s house key, as well as injury to the dog or other dogs or property.

Not surprisingly there are a whole host of specialised insurers only too happy to sit up and beg for your business. Because when it comes to pets and money, the UK is top dog. In 2015 we spent £4.6 billion on our animal companions according to data from Euromonitor International, a growth of 25 percent since 2010. Around a fifth of that goes on non-food items including toys, grooming, dog walking and sitting.

“I don’t think our business is growing just because people work longer hours, I also find that owners are just closer to their dogs so hate to leave them on their own for long periods as was the norm in the past,” says Felicity, who runs Dotty Dog Days (named after her Dalmatian).

Felicity not only walks dogs but has successfully tapped into the ‘day-care’ business. “I wanted to go back to work when my children started school, and loved the outdoors, so one day whilst sitting in the cinema during a particularly boring kids’ film, I came up with the idea of Dotty Dog Days and now can’t keep up with demand.”

Just like your standard children’s nursery, ‘parents’ drop their charges in Felicity’s spacious (and surprisingly spotless) kitchen around 8am and collect them at the end of their working day. “I charge £20 for a day’s care including at least an hour’s walk,” Felicity tells me as she sits cuddling a ten-week old puppy whom she admitted to carrying in a back pack during the morning as he was tired.

“I will only look after four at a time. My insurance covers me for more but I really do this job because I love the dogs and most are now regulars who are part of the family. They all come with me on the school run and my children love it!”

For all the individual walkers I spoke to, a love of dogs was what took the biscuit – not the potential earnings.

“It is a huge responsibility. You can’t be ill or not turn up because its minus 5 degrees outside. This business is built on reputation and you have to earn it!” says Clare, admitting, though, that she would never leave her own dog with a walker or a sitter.

Obviously there are some horror stories. One owner who had been employing a dog walker for a year was at home, ill in bed upstairs, when she heard the walker arrive, let the dog into the garden and sit down in front of the TV with a cup of tea. An hour later the dog was called back in the house – so that it had the obligatory muddy paws – and the ‘walker’ left. She was sent firmly to the dog house in a very angry phone call.

Another friend of mine, who was under the impression that her Labrador had been given a good walk three days a week, happened to drive by the park one day. The Lab was running round in circles on its own. The ‘walker’ was sitting in her car, reading the newspaper.

But these are the exceptions. The vast majority of the ‘employers’ I spoke to had taken up references before choosing their walker, or had gone through one of the many agencies that are now collaring the market.

The UK leader is DogBuddy. Founded in London in 2013 by self-confessed passionate dog lover Richard Setterwall, this pan-European dog walking and sitting online platform (‘a peer-to-peer online marketplace for home dog boarding and other dog services’) now has 20,000 registered sitters on its site and 6,000 in the UK. “Each potential sitter or walker has to show their passion for dogs,” Richard tells me. “We do have a strict vetting procedure and, just like a driving theory test, they have to complete an assessment to prove they have the right experience and are aware of the health and safety implications of their role.”

And if they pass (only around 15% do) – it’s then simply a matter of matching them with an owner and dog. This involves the successful sitters/walkers posting their profile on the DogBuddy’s impressive website and waiting for someone to bite. Basically, it’s online dating but with fewer hearts and flowers and more bones and treats.

“Our business is now split equally between people wanting daily walks and home dog boarding. We have been amazed by the demand and I really believe this is because the British ‘humanise’ their dogs so want to make sure their day is as fun and varied as their own is. With our service they are given photo updates of their dog’s day, and we also offer public liability and vet insurance plus a 24/7 emergency vet care line.”

Each of the 6,000 UK dog walkers and sitters sets their own prices, but give 15% to DogBuddy.

Clearly when it comes to those potential earnings figures, it is Richard and his team that are ahead by a nose – a wet and shiny one, of course.

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