As I envisioned my dog-walking service, I found myself dressed in a cute white sweater and 501 Levis with a red label, and walked along the Pacific coast with six attentive, well-behaved Golden Retrievers and Labradors. Be my own boss, make my own lessons, and be with dogs all day. What would be better?
Reality hit on my second day of professional dog walking when I twisted my ankle and fell face first in the sand after chasing after a ball-obsessed, overweight yellow Labrador named Willard and a German shepherd named Bear who chased each other acted like she was on an acid excursion. Sand was everywhere – up my nose; down my pants; in my mouth, my shoes, my hair. It was an exceptionally bad start to my new career.
What did I do after this extraordinarily bad start? I wiped myself off, showered, and continued to build my new business, which over time grew to a customer list of 80 dogs, eight employees, and a fleet of five dog-friendly vehicles. I love dogs and my passion outweighs the dangers of the job.
Perhaps you secretly have the same passion, the same dream. If so, here are some tips to get you started.
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Find out about dog walks in your area. When I first started there was no off-leash adventure service that gave a Labrador Retriever time to swim, play chases, and destroy picnics. (Just kidding about picnics.) Once you’ve figured out what type of service your area needs, you’re ready to start developing your business.
Create a business plan.
How many dogs can you safely accommodate in a group? How many shifts a day? How long is each walk? How much do you charge? Which districts will you serve? Don’t spread too thin. Pick an area close to where you live, or better yet, as my father, a Wall Street financial analyst, told me, “Choose a recession-proof area. If they lose a million in the market it doesn’t matter and they will keep you busy so you can pay the rent. “
Set up your business structure.
Most dog walks are set up either as a sole proprietorship or as an LLC. A sole proprietorship means that the owner’s personal and business assets are in the same pot, so to speak, and he or she is responsible for all debts. An LLC separates personal and business assets. Formation is also an option. In this structure, the owner is not personally liable for the corporate debts. I started out as a sole proprietorship, but switched to an LLC when I hired people and then married a fiscally responsible man who was concerned about protecting our wealth and home.
Set your prices.
Find out about your competitors’ prices and services. When I started in 1995, the average walking rate for dogs in San Francisco was $ 8 per walk. I charged $ 5 to build a clientele, but found out afterwards that I had devalued my services, which included longer walks and more time away from home than the others were providing. If you have the skills, you may also want to offer obedience training and animal care.
Create a contract.
Have the customers sign a contract that covers at least the basics: information about the dog, any training or behavior problems, contact persons in case of emergency and contact information for the family vet. Also include a release from liability as well as permission to see a veterinarian if necessary (and reimbursement for that care if so).
Create a website and social media presence.
Right now, WordPress, Squarespace, and Shopify are three highly rated website and ecommerce platforms. Building a social media presence through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is also fundamental to business growth. Ultimately, you will likely do most of your business through word of mouth, but in the beginning you will need to get in touch through the internet.
Get appropriate licenses, insurance, and permits.
While the process can test your patience, obtaining proper government business licenses and permits is important.
• Business license: Issued by your city administration.
• Liability insurance: Pet Sitters Associates offers affordable plans and has all of your needs covered.
• Permits: Some public parks, dog parks, and other outdoor areas require a permit for walking multiple dogs.
Consider getting certified.
Both online and (post-pandemic) face-to-face courses provide their students with basic instruction on a range of related topics, including canine behavior, safety and first aid skills, and business and customer management. Upon successful completion, you will receive certification, which can be a good selling point.
Market your services. Networking, flyer distribution and handing out cards are all part of good marketing. Volume is the key; I distributed 500 flyers and received two clients, then three more clients via word of mouth. If you’re like me and shy away from self-promotion, get someone to help you. An unemployed friend helped me in exchange for a burger and a beer.
• Mailboxes and cars. Hand out flyers in the area you want to draw your customers from.
• Dog park. The early evening is the ideal time to distribute cards.
• Local bars, restaurants, cafes. Most of these have an area where you can post a flyer. (Be sure to ask before posting.)
• Snow groomers and veterinarians. Introduce yourself to a local groomer and veterinary clinic, preferably near your service area, and occasionally give the front desk a treat. A referral incentive also works. In my first month of business, I made friends with a local groomer who sent me 10 clients over a three month period. I also offered the front desk staff at a veterinary clinic $ 25 for each successful referral, which resulted in four new customers.
Invest in equipment.
Basics include six foot leashes, 20 foot leashes (great for new dogs until they get to know you), poop bags (I use earth-rated dog poop bags – lavender scented!), Dog biscuits (I get a great answer to Whole Jerky’s grain-free grilled bison strips) and most importantly, a reliable, dog-friendly vehicle. In my first year, I drove a four-door Mazda. As we walked down the street we looked like a canine version of Norman Rockwell’s Road Trip painting, but the dogs found their places. Ideally, something bigger – like a minivan or a truck with a camper hull – is a better option.
Keep your sense of humor and be patient.
Patience is your superpower: be patient in building your business, with the dogs (because there is no perfect dog) and with customers. Add a love for dogs and a sense of humor and you will be on your way.