Dogs are innately social and spending long hours alone isn’t natural for them. A growing number of owners are recognising this and using dog walkers or dog daycares to provide company to their dog while they're at work. As a behaviour consultant, I believe the relationship between owner, trainer and walker/daycare is an important one. When these things come together it can work wonders for the dog.
Not all walkers are created equal, however, and choosing the right one isn't always easy. I’ve dealt with a number of behaviour cases that unfortunately have been made worse by the dog’s experiences with their walker or at daycare.
So what are my tips when it comes to choosing and working with the person you are entrusting your canine pal with?
1. Healthy exercise is one thing…exhaustion is quite another
Excessive exercise and intense stimulation (often as a result of hours upon hours of fetch and free running) can leave dogs feeling wired. Be wary of claims that your dog will ‘come home exhausted’ or ‘play all day long’. Lameness, lethargy, vomiting, an upset stomach, excessive barking and drinking lots of water are all signs that your dog may have overdone it. The idea that dogs need to be ‘worn out’ in order to behave well is a myth and can lead to a lot of dysfunction. This is due to the impact of repeated and sustained adrenaline rushes on the body (for more information, watch this video). Varying walks, having ‘on lead days’ and giving them time to just sniff and mooch is key.
2. Follow my lead
Find someone who can follow instructions. It could be that your dog sometimes bolts so needs to be on lead, or has a habit of chasing small fluffy dogs. Perhaps your dog is elderly and struggles when it’s slippery, or has a sensitive stomach. If a walker is a little too gung-ho about these things, this isn’t ideal. You want someone who is going to pay attention and remember the things unique to your dog, rather than flinging a lead on and marching them around the block, or letting them off in a large group of dogs and hoping for the best.
3. Be extra careful with puppies!
So, I’ll be honest – this is one of my bug bears! Too many times I have heard descriptions of walks or daycare for young dogs that are totally unsuitable. Puppies as young as four months are going for hour long walks, playing all day (often with much older and larger dogs) and being encouraged to engage in fetch, tug and chase games constantly.
Puppies need sleep – around 18 to 20 hours of it each day. When and where are these puppies getting it? The potential for puppies to do lifelong damage while they are growing is significant. Their bones are soft and their growth plates have not fully formed. Exercise should be slow, gentle and short. A bit of self-directed play is fine but when it’s being forced on them by other dogs or goading humans, it quickly becomes unhealthy. I am much more in favour of ‘puppy visits’ – people coming to your home a few times a day to check on the puppy, spend some quality time with them and maybe go for a short walk. These visits can then be gently built up as the puppy grows and eventually morph into a nice cruisy walk to break up the day.
4. Safety and credentials matter
What will your dog walker do in an emergency? How will they react if they are looking after a group of dogs and one is injured? What happens to your dog when they are dropping off or picking up another dog? How are the dogs transported? How many dogs are they responsible for at one time? Does the same person walk your dog each day? What happens if your walker is unwell or can't make it?
Some walkers have canine first aid training, which is always a good sign. Make sure your walker has the details of your vet and it’s a good idea to let your vet know that someone different walks your dog during the week. I’m wary of walkers who take out large groups of dogs, especially on their own and in busy parks. Any more than three dogs takes a lot of concentration and experience to ensure they are all coping and their body language is being observed and understood. ‘Pack walks’ can mean more money for the walker, however it also means the potential for accidents and bullying behaviour (often mistaken for play) is much higher. Dogs are social creatures but it doesn’t mean everyday should be the equivalent of a doggie rave. They’ll be much happier with a few familiar buddies they like and know.
5. A dog walker isn’t the same as a dog trainer
There are some accredited dog trainers who also work as walkers, and if that’s the case (and you like their methods), great! Many dog walkers have been working with dogs for a long time, and may start using certain training methods on the dogs they walk or give training advice to owners. It’s absolutely true that lots of hands on experience with dogs is an important component of a behaviourist’s expertise. However, there is a long list of other important elements as well – a good behaviourist should be qualified, well versed in the current (and ever growing) science surrounding animal behaviour and have numerous successful behaviour cases under their belt. Any dog trainer worth their salt should be committed to ongoing professional development, which means attending regular seminars, workshops and conferences. They also need to understand behaviour change in people. If owners aren’t motivated or able to understand the training methods and the dog is getting mixed messages, very little will be achieved. Growing up with dogs, having your own dogs or walking dogs for a long time doesn’t make you a behaviourist.
By the same token, owners shouldn’t expect dog walkers to miraculously cure their dog of bad behaviour. If your walker raises concerns, listen to them. I’d prefer my dog walker be honest about what’s going on so everyone can try to improve the situation together. I’ve been out with owners and walkers for training sessions on a number of occasions, and it’s often a lot of fun, plus the walker usually knows the dog well and can provide great insight.
6. Trust your gut
I’ve worked with people concerned about their dog’s walking or daycare experience, but who feel uncomfortable addressing it. Their dog might come home and behave in a way that is unusual or destructive, or have regular scratches from rough play with other dogs. Some dogs may hide when the walker arrives, or become completely hysterical. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore it. Either have a chat with the person looking after your dog, or try something new. You know your dog best, and our biggest responsibility as owners is to be their advocates.
7. Have a practice run
Once you’ve selected your walker, take them out for a test drive! It can be useful and reassuring to see how they interact with your dog, and it gives you a chance to specify anything you’d like them to be aware of. Most walkers and daycares will be happy to accommodate this, and transparency about what they get up to each day is a good sign.