I wrote this post a while back, but was reminded today at the dog park how important it is to really know your dog walker or dog sitter. Here are some thoughts on what goes wrong with dog walkers, what makes a good dog walker, & how to find a good one for your dog.
Seattle is pretty forward thinking when it comes to dogs. Lots of people hire dog walkers to take care of their dog during the day. A good dog walker is a great thing for your dog and you. But, just as you’re very careful in hiring anyone who takes care of your kids, you should also be careful about who you hire to care for your dog. And I think a lot of people aren’t careful enough.
Saffron & I go to the dog park once or twice a week, usually during the day, and this is when the dog walkers and dog sitters bring their charges for a romp. This park is a popular destination with them and there are usually 7-12 dog walkers there when we go. I’ve seen a lot of dog walkers over the years and I see many of the same ones every time we go. So I’ve had a lot of time to see how they work. I’ve seen good dog walkers and they’re consistently great. They clearly love what they’re doing, their dogs like them, come when called, and are generally happy. Unfortunately, many are mediocre to appallingly bad. I have to wonder if the owners of these dogs have any idea how their dog is being treated by the people entrusted with their care.
Many of the problems stem from the dog walkers taking on too many clients. More clients = more money. One person cannot properly supervise 7-10 dogs at an off-leash park, which leads to safety & behavior issues and sadly, so many of these dog walkers use coercive methods (intimidation, fear, & pain) to try to cope.
It starts in the parking lot. Many dog walkers fail to leash their dogs when they get out of the car. The dogs are all excited and coming boiling out running all around. In a parking lot. For cars. That can run over them. I once saw a dog walker relentlessly spray dogs in the face with citronella because the gang of unleashed dogs wouldn’t exit her truck in an orderly fashion. Punishing them for chaos she created.
Next they enter the park. Gates are always tricky places where a lot of reactive behavior takes place. Dogs are entering and exiting territory. They’re passing through cramped spaces. Leashed dogs are nervous about unleashed dogs approaching them. Gates are Anxiety Central at the dog park. Now imagine a horde of wound up dogs going through this angst-ridden space with almost no control. There is often lots of defensive & offensive lashing out.
After all that ruckus, lots of the dogs have to poop. So many at once, that dog walkers often miss where their dogs went. The problem with this is that your dog’s poop can indicate if they’re sick or if they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t. When the dog walkers miss a poop, they may miss a red flag concerning your dog’s health.
I’ve seen dog walkers use two techniques to try to limit the mayhem. The most common is to leave boisterous dogs & reactive dogs on leash while in the dog park. This creates three problems:
- The leashed dog knows it can’t get away from any unleashed dog that approaches, creating a bad situation. An already reactive dog has their anxiety reinforced and a dog that was just rambunctious or doesn’t come when called can turn into a dog with leash aggression.
- There are dogs that like to taunt leashed dogs. This situation gives them the perfect opportunity to taunt and reinforces their bad behavior.
- Bullies and even friendly dogs that approach the leashed dog may make it feel so vulnerable that it lashes out defensively causing a fight.
The second technique to limit the mayhem is to leave the troublesome dog behind in the van while everyone else gets to play, often within sight of the dog left behind. You can tell when this happens because of the howling, barking, or crying coming from the frustrated, unhappy dog in the van. To cope with heat, the dog walkers leave the car open. Good for the dog, unless the dog gets stolen. Do the owners know this is how their dog is being treated and is what they’re paying for?
Because dog walkers can’t keep track of everyone in a large group, some dogs pay the price:
- Shy dogs are overwhelmed. I’ve had trembling dogs that don’t even know me stuck to me like velcro because they can’t cope with the dog walker’s chaos. Your dog may regress in their socializing as a result.
- Submissive dogs are harassed endlessly by more assertive dogs, because no one is looking out for them. Your dog could become reactive because they don’t feel safe.
- Boisterous dogs are punished rather than kept out of trouble or redirected because the dog walker has too much going on. Your dog may learn bad habits or become reactive from being punished in harsh ways.
- Problem dogs aren’t supervised, which can lead to all sorts of very bad things. Your dog could injure another dog, your dog could be deemed dangerous and be destroyed, and you could be sued.
The lack of training or education in the science of animal behavior and animal training is perhaps the most distressing. These dog walkers are ineffective because they have too many dogs, but also because they don’t have the tools to deal with problems. They don’t know how to avoid problems and they don’t know how to respond. They get angry & frustrated and unfortunately, it gets taken out on the dogs. This is done in plain view of anyone paying attention. I’ve seen:
- endless yelling and threatening
- alpha rolling and pinning them down in the middle of a pack of dogs causing the pinned dog intense & sometimes overwhelming stress
- pinching and hitting
- shaking or lifting dogs by their collar
- and today I saw a Doberman’s ears twisted until she shrieked (How hard to you have to twist to do that?)
Finding a good dog walker
Unfortunately, this isn’t really a situation where you can set up a nanny-cam to see what happens to your dog during the day. So how do you avoid exposing your dog to someone who is incompetent or abusive? The best way is go to the dog park when the dog walkers are there and see them for yourself. But, people who need dog walkers are the least likely to be able to do that. So, no matter how you got their name (friend, veterinarian, shelter) I would interview any potential dog walker and I would ask them to meet your dog before you ever agree to hire them. I think any good dog walker would be willing to do this.
Here are questions I would ask:
- What is the maximum number of dogs they take?
- What kind of training & experience do they have? Look for education in animal behavior & training with non-coercive means like clicker training and experience with dogs like volunteering at a shelter.
- What are their requirements for vaccinations and the health of the dogs? You don’t want your dog exposed to diseases.
- How do they transport the dogs? Look for someone who belts them in or at the very least crates them.
- Do they use a leash when not in an enclosed area?
- How do they train? Look for someone who uses non-coercive methods.
- How do they handle behavior problems? Look for someone who tries to avoid opportunities for bad behavior in the first place.
- Do they punish? Look for someone who responds creatively like time-out or withdrawing things of value (ball, attention, getting in the water) for a short time to get the dog’s attention rather than using fear or pain.
- Will your dog’s personality and energy level fit in with the group? Look for someone who is sensitive to this issue.
On the flip-side, you also have the responsibility to be honest and forthright with anyone you might hire. Be clear about any behavior issues your dog has. You want the dog walker prepared to handle anything that might come up. Be honest about health problems. Communicate regularly with your dog walker once you hire them. Find out how your dog was that week. They should being willing to answer your questions. And let them know if your dog has been out of sorts. They might have some insight.
Lastly, trust your instinct. If you get a weird feeling about someone, find a different dog walker. If your dog’s personality changes for the worst, something is probably wrong. Just because your dog is tired out after a day with the dog sitter, don’t assume it’s from having fun. It could be your dog was so stressed, it’s exhausted. When you find a good dog walker, hold onto them! Create a good, trusting relationship with them. They can be yours & your dog’s best friend!