Increasingly, companies like Wag!, Rover and others have developed apps that make it possible for dog owners to be connected to dog walkers and schedule walks directly from their phone. These apps (commonly referred to as “Uber for dog walkers”) are easy and convenient for dog parents, but are they good for dogs? How can dog owners be sure about the quality of care their dogs are receiving in their absence?
I first became familiar with these apps through their lost dog signs and postings, which I see frequently in Brooklyn, New York. In a one month period this year, Wag! walkers lost three dogs, and there have been others lost since. In my old neighborhood, a walker from the app lost a skittish rescue dog by dropping the leash; the dog was lost for over a week and was eventually hit by a car and died.
I have three dogs ranging in size from 10 pounds to 100 pounds, and the middle dog is a spooky and reactive former street dog. I am extremely picky about who gets access to my dogs and the dog professionals who I hire to care for them – with good reason. A traumatic experience with a bad dog walker could potentially undo years of behavioral training and confidence building.
Are Dog Walking Apps Safe?
The way that dog walking apps work is that the company hires walkers, and then matches that walker with you/your dog, meaning that the walker showing up to give your dog a mid-day walk is likely someone your dog has never met before. “When you use a dog walking app service, you are inviting a stranger into your home who you have not vetted. You are handing your four-legged family member, with all his or her unique quirks, to a well-intentioned dog lover who most likely does not have the requisite education and training to keep your dog safe by understanding body language, recognizing early warning signs, knowing how to avoid incident, and what to do should something go wrong. This puts your dog at greater risk, and also your own liability,” explains Veronica Boutelle of Dog Biz Dog Walking Academy, which trains and supports positive reinforcement-based dog professionals in running ethical dog care businesses. She strongly discourages the use of dog walking companies that utilize this practice of hiring unprofessional dog walkers.
Should You Avoid Hiring Dog Care From an App?
Ultimately the choice is yours for who you hire to watch your dog. Megan Stanley, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, owner of Dogma Training & Pet Services, Inc., and chair for the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, encourages dog parents to avoid them.
“I do not recommend this at all, especially where they have not met the dog. There is not time for an adequate introduction to ensure that your dog is comfortable with this person or the time to ensure the person handles and interacts with your dog appropriately. Just as you would never hire someone to be in your house without knowing them or even dream of doing this for someone who would work with your children, you should not do this for your dog. Many of these companies say they have a strict screening process, but these are still lacking. There is very minimal training, if any at all, and most just do a basic background check which does not ensure they will handle your dog safely. The risks to your dog are too high,” Stanley says.
Pack Walks: Avoid These Above All
Many apps and other dog walking companies, especially in large cities, utilize “pack walks”, where multiple dogs from different homes are walked together. “It may look impressive to see a dog walker with 10, 15, or 20 dogs. But the reality is that such practices are unsafe for you and your dog, and most likely stressful for your dog as well. Responsible professional dog walkers keep groups small to ensure individual attention and safety for all dogs in their care,” explains Veronica Boutelle.
How To Properly Screen Dog Walkers
Unfortunately, dog walking is an unregulated profession and is seen by some dog owners and would-be walkers as “unskilled labor”, when in fact walking someone’s dog(s) well and safely requires a lot of training and experience working with dogs that must extend beyond simply liking dogs, or having grown up with dogs. These are “qualifications” I’ve heard acquaintances give when saying that they were thinking of being dog walkers because it is an easy way to make money on the side.
Working with dogs is not easy work – it requires training and experience with dogs of varieties of sizes and temperaments. Things can go wrong on a walk in an instant for any number of reasons: your dog is approached by an off-leash dog, your dog is triggered by environmental factors, your dog is child-reactive, etc.
Stanley suggests, “It is important that you ask any dog care professional about their qualifications and experience. They should have formal training. Many people work with dogs with no experience and just consider themselves dog lovers. This is not adequate, especially for dog walkers, as they need to understand canine communication and basic training. These are critical to keep a dog safe and ensure they are not doing anything that would cause the dog’s behavior to worsen.”
First and foremost, if you need to hire a dog walker, keep in mind that the dog walker you hire will be responsible for the care of your dog out in the world when you aren’t there to monitor them.
Boutelle brings up the important reminder that, “The law holds all of us accountable for the actions of our dogs, even when we’re not present— just as the law holds us all accountable for the actions of our underaged children. In other words, you take on a liability risk sending your dog out into the world with a dog walker. Mitigating that risk is as simple as hiring a professional dog walker, one who has taken the initiative to seek out a high level of education and training about dog behavior, training, and management. One who does this as their dedicated professional career. One who forms long-term and accountable relationships to a small group of clients and their dogs.”
Interview Questions for Dog Walkers
Megan Stanley suggests the following questions are good to ask a potential walker or dog walking company you are considering to care for your dog:
– What training tools do you use for walking? Leashes, etc?
– How do you teach a dog to walk on a loose leash?
– How do reward good behavior?
– How do you respond to any inappropriate behavior from the dog?
– Are you bonded and insured?
– Do you perform background checks on all your dog walkers?
– Do you have a plan for emergencies?
– How do you communicate with us?
– Where will you walk my dog?
– How many dogs do you walk at once?
– How do you assess/introduce the dogs?
– What if a dog is unfriendly with other dogs or people?
– Will my dog be on or off-leash?
– What are the pick-up/drop-off procedures?
– Do you offer trial walks?
– Will anyone else walk my dog except the originally assigned walker?
Find more questions to ask and factors to consider right here.
Are There Any Safe Dog Walking Options?
Needing a walker is a fact of life for many working professionals with dogs. It is too unreasonable to expect our dogs to sit alone in the house all day, with no potty or social breaks. If your situation requires hired pet care, the most important thing you can do is put in the time to find a trained, professional walker that you and your dogs can build an ongoing trust and relationship with.
As Boutelle explains, “On the positive side, the emergence of these apps demonstrates the growth in demand for dog walkers. As more and more dogs are considered central members of their families, more dog lovers are seeking to provide a higher daily quality of life for their dogs, including physical exercise, mental stimulation, and companionship. That’s a wonderful thing to see. The next step is to provide dedicated dog lovers with the knowledge they need to make the best, most informed and safest choices about their dogs’ care providers, including their dog walkers.”
Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author and Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix, Newfoundland puppy, two bossy cats, and a semi-feral kitten.