Do You Know Your Dog Walker? - Part I

I was really tired this morning and although it is very rare for me, going for a hike wasn't at the top of my list of things I felt like doing today.  It's my job though (and I do love my job!), so I had a good breakfast, got my van ready, loaded up Stevie and Stanley and headed off to pick up the rest of my group for today. I pulled up to the trail head mid-morning and as I was unloading the dogs from their crates in the van, four off-leash dogs came running up with their dog walker in tow.  I asked her if she could call her dogs off as my four dogs were all on leash and I was not prepared to allow a play session in the parking area for obvious reasons. She was able to call two of the dogs back to her and got them in her car. The second two dogs would not return to her so she looked over at me and asked if I had any advice. I suggested she run in the opposite direction and give them lots of praise and treats when they chased and caught up to her. She had no treats so I gave her a few of mine to use. The dogs chased her and she was able to secure one of them in her car, but the fourth dog was having way too much fun being chased by the dog walker to come back. The dog walker became frustrated with the dog and began verbally attacking the dog, which I knew would make it even more difficult to get the dog back. She then began to cry. I quickly crated my dogs so they were safe and walked over to help the dog walker get the dog secured in her car.  She was able to grab the dog's collar and put him in the car just as I reached her and she quickly opened the driver's side door and told me she didn't have time to talk, she was sick and she didn't normally act like that with the dogs. I suggested I might be able to help and I encouraged her to take a moment to talk, not only so she had a chance to calm down before driving off with the dogs, but also to give her a few pointers on how to improve the dogs' recall. She told me that she has difficulty controlling that group of dogs on leash so she has to let them off. She seemed interested in, and thankful for, the advice I gave her before she left. She also seemed calmer and in a better space to get those dogs home safe. What strikes me about this story is how ill-equipped that dog walker was to handle the dogs in her care. That may seem harsh, and perhaps she was having a really bad day and I can sympathize with that, but no matter how bad a day gets it is never acceptable to yell at a dog in the manner she did today. In my very first blog post I wrote of a dog walker on her cell phone (see /static/51685611e4b0af9d19dec807/51696fffe4b0296bdc94d409/51697000e4b0296bdc94d4a4/1306339096000/), paying absolutely no attention to the dogs she is paid to care for. My experience today reminded me of my concern that people who send their dogs off with caregivers every day while they are at work don't really know what their dogs are doing, how well or badly they are being cared for and what risks they face.

Hiring a dog walker, pet sitter or doggie daycare is an important decision. Here are a few tips, primarily for a dog walker but also for a doggie daycare or sitter, that may help you make it a good decision:
  • Ask for at least three references and call them. If the prospective pet care professional (PPCP) is reluctant to provide references, don't hire them.
  • Inquire about the level of dog training experience the  PPCP has had. One basic obedience class with their own dog is not enough experience to handle a group of dogs. 
  • Is he or she bonded and insured?
  • Is it important to you that the PPCP have breed-specific experience? Or experience with a certain type of breed?  I hike with sporting breeds and mixes thereof daily. I strongly believe that the dog walker I ran into today would not be able to safely manage a German Shorthaired Pointer or any of the dogs regularly in my care.
  • How many dogs does the PPCP manage at one time?  Depending on the group of dogs that I hike with, I may limit the number to three on one day, but be able to safely manage six on another and six is my absolute maximum. Each dog adds a different dynamic to the group so it is important to carefully assess how many dogs can safely be managed at one time.  How does the PPCP determine this?
  • Is the PPCP trained in canine emergency first aid?
  • Throw a few scenarios at the PPCP and ask how they would handle them. Look for their comfort level answering these questions, how thoughtful they are with their answers but also how quickly they can answer. Every PPCP should have an emergency protocol in place to manage dangerous situations and therefore should have thought about most scenarios you would bring up. When I meet with a prospective client, I leave my Safety Measures sheet behind with them so they know the safety of their pet is my highest priority. A few scenarios to consider:
    • If one dog bolts and is lost, how will the PPCP handle this when she has a group of dogs to manage?
    • If a dog is injured, what is the PPCP's plan to manage that situation?
    • What does the PPCP do on extreme weather days?
  • If your dog will be off-leash, how will the PPCP manage the group of dogs safely? Witnessing the four dogs in the parking lot this morning made me wonder if the owners of those dogs would be comfortable with that.  My guess is they would not be. Before a dog is accepted into one of my hiking groups, he must have a solid recall.  If he does not have a good recall, I work with him and his owner until he does. I then take that dog on a hike or two by himself on a long lead so that I can assess and work with him one-on-one. Once I am confident that the new dog has a good recall and is a good fit for one of my groups, he joins a group off-leash. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure you understand the risks you and your dog face when you hire a dog walker, doggie daycare or other pet care giver. Do your research, conduct a thorough interview and you will have peace of mind with your decision.

It turns out the dogs and I had an amazing hike today, despite my lack of enthusiasm first thing this morning. We did some really fun focus games to start with, then we all went exploring. At the end of the hike we spent 30 minutes practicing loose leash walking as a group. Three hours later we were back at the van, all of us feeling happy, relaxed and satisfied. I do love my job!