How do you know the difference between a good dog walker, a bad dog walker and a downright damaging walker?
This tale is a combined effort from myself, a 'professional' dog walker since 2014 and Katie Scott Dyer, a dog owner, then walker and now trainer and behaviourist at katiescottdyer.com.
I have learned so much over the last six years, it wasn't until I started as a dog walker that I began to have my eyes opened on so, so much. I have been a lifelong dog lover and was over the moon to begin my journey as a dog walker. I finally was starting my dream job, spending my days with dogs and in the great outdoors, what could be more perfect?
I adore my job, absolutely adore it. But it was not what I envisaged and I had no idea how little I knew. Both about my own knowledge and experience but also what other dog walkers get up to. I have seen so much over the years, dogs locked in vans whilst others with the same walker are taken out, large groups of dogs running wild with some among them stressed to high heaven, dogs being zapped with electric shock collars, pinned, muzzled with mesh muzzles in the high heat which don't allow them to drink, pant or breathe very easily and dogs all piled in together in the back of the vehicle with no separation between them.
I have also seen incredibly happy pups with dog walkers who adore them, get them safely out on their walks, have a beautiful bond with them and manage the group dynamics well. I've seen the most wonderful 1-2-1 walkers doing incredible, loving and nurturing work with dogs who struggle with a variety of things.
And I myself have made a fair few mistakes along the way and continue to learn more about my craft eternally, always looking to better my practice, knowledge and care.
So, what's the difference between a good walker, a bad walker and what's a damaging walker anyway?
Now this is of course an opinion piece; in my opinion a good dog walker is one who is honest, open and has up to date knowledge of dogs and behaviour to at least a basic level. Does that mean they won't have days where things go wrong? Nope!
But they should tell you about it and have a plan to ensure it's better managed in future. Did your dog get spooked and bark or charge at someone or something? Did they chase a jogger? Slip their collar or harness? Eat something they shouldn't have? Were they stressed out in the vehicle, by traffic, bicycles, children? Did they gatecrash a picnic? Were they scared when the walker came to pick them up? Did your dog run off and get lost? Were they involved in a dog fight or attacked?
All of the above have happened to me and dogs in my care over the years. And each and every owner knows about the incident, however big or small. And a plan was put in place to address the issue, whether that required help of a trainer or behaviourist or was something we could manage between us.
So what's a 'bad' dog walker?
This one's a bit more tricky. It could be a walker who is focused first on the money they can earn, putting the welfare of the dogs second. It could be a walker with outdated knowledge who uses aversive methods. It could be a novice dog walker who with the best on intentions is learning on the job, and on your dog! I was one of the latter when I started. And I didn't know it.
I never intended to be so, but I didn't know what I didn't know and didn't appreciate the education, skills and experience that is required to be a good dog walker. I was lucky to meet some wonderful, experienced dog professionals who helped me learn and develop.
And what on earth is a 'damaging' dog walker?
Your dog walker has the capacity to have a profound impact on your dog's behaviour, happiness and safety. A damaging dog walker could result in a stressed dog, an injured dog or worse.
Katie, as a behaviourist, sometimes sees the impact of this. She told me about a young border collie who came to her as he would bark and try to chase moving vehicles, scooters and bicycles to the point the owner and walker were sometimes pulled into the road!
The dog walker told the owner that they needed a choke chain to control the dog and to rattle a plastic bottle filled with pebbles at the dog to solve the problem. In the end the dog became so worried and anxious due to these aversive methods and his daily experience that he became incredibly scared, nervous and barking whenever the dog walker arrived. He would lie flat and tremble whenever he saw traffic.
Using the methods this dog walker introduced simply added to the conflicting emotions that this young border collie was already feeling around traffic and instead of solving the problem, it made it much, much worse.
The owners then turned to Katie and they began to build up his confidence in walks by avoiding traffic, giving him an alternative outlet for frustration and slowly building positive associations with walking in general.
Dog Walkers are not trainers or behaviourists. If your dog is struggling then you need to get in touch with a registered, force free behaviourist to help you. And with a good behaviourist and a good walker by your side you can tackle the issue together, with the right support and advice.
Katie told me about her experience with a wonderful dog walker who worked alongside her and a family she was helping. This family had adopted two mixed 'street' dogs and they hired Katie to help with the pups fears and anxiety including their reluctance to walk far. At this point they also needed to hire a dog walker as their circumstances had changed.
Katie and the family interviewed several walkers and found one who was willing to do everything they asked of them; including scent work and leash management, locations and times (to avoid overloading the dogs by changing routine more than necessary). The dog walker followed the plan to the letter and spent a month going out with Katie and the family, taking time to get to know the dogs and what was expected. This combination and commitment from everyone involved led to two much happier dogs who were getting their needs met and living a far better life.
I could wax lyrical and tell an abundance of dog tales about dog walking, and I'm sure I will share more. Ultimately there are some fabulous, truly committed and experienced professional dog walkers out there. But don't take the job of finding a walker for your dog lightly, it has the possibility of being a truly wonderful and beneficial experience for your dog when you find the right one.
For help finding a great dog behaviourist who uses kind, fair and effective methods you can start your search at The Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
To find yourself a wonderful dog walker, research as many as you can in your area, interview as many as you can and have a look at this blog of questions to ask a dog walker for more helpful things to consider!