The practical skills to be a dog walker are to have experience with animals and to use mind and body. Meaning you need to be smart and fit. And you will also need management skills to run a business.
Most of the skills that you need for dog walking are also skills that a person needs to look for when hiring a dog walker.
I list dog walker skills for those who are dog walkers and for people needing a dog walker. You want to read both lists of skills as they related to each other.
Dog Walking Skills: Requirements to Become a Dog Walker
There is no substitute for experience with animals. Any experience helps, though owning a dog is ideal. I was fortunate enough to get my first two clients while only owning a cat, though I did have dogs as a child.
But there are many other skills that you need. I separated them into mental, physical and managerial.
#1 Recognizing Behavior Changes
I consider recognizing changes to a dog’s behavior as the most important skill when walking dogs. But this is only possible after you know the dog’s behavior in the first place.
If you are walking a new dog pay attention to odd behavior and let the owner know. It could just be a quirky characteristic of the dog (I love goofy dogs).
Go slow and pay attention to everything the dog does during the first week of walks. Most dogs are happy and there is not much to worry about.
Other dogs can be fearful until they trust you. For these dogs, try your best to control them on a walk but give them some freedom as well. They should start to trust you after a few walks.
It is easy to notice changes in a dog you walk multiple times per week. Text the owner if you think there is a problem, otherwise, leave a note. Responsible clients should let you know what is going on beforehand. But there will be times when you bring an issue to their attention.
Get to know the dog and pay attention. You are getting paid for your skills and experience, not just for walking a dog.
#2 Recognizing Physical Changes, Health Issues or Medical Emergencies
This is similar to the skill above in that you need to recognize when something is wrong, whether it is a new dog you are walking or a regular.
Things that I have noticed over the years are limping, lethargy, vomiting, or blood in urine or stool.
You get to know how the dog reacts every day when you walk through the door, which is usually excitement. If the dog seems different, then something has changed. It may be nothing major, but consider leaving a note anyway. And obviously, let them know immediately if it is a serious problem.
A common problem is if the dog eats something they shouldn’t. Once I had a dog eat some food that was wrapped in tin foil. He ate the foil along with the food. I let the owner know and the dog ended up being fine.
Another time a dog ate and swallowed an owners sock (yes, you read that correctly). I hadn’t seen the dog in over a year and she was overly excited.
After that walk, I did a quick Google search on how to make a dog vomit. A little bit of hydrogen peroxide will do the trick. The owner eventually went home and made an emergency vet appointment. But she tried the peroxide and that got her goofy dog to “release” the sock. That saved her a lot of money and possibly her dog.
I won’t give details for the vomit or blood stories, but it’s common to see a dog limping. Once again, leave a note and send an email that night to see how the dog is doing.
#3 Noticing Faulty or Inadequate Equipment
When you first meet the client and dog, make sure the harness or collar is easy to put on and fits correctly. Not only does that indicate that you know what you are doing but it also vital. If the dog can slip out of the collar or harness, it may do so the first time you walk them.
Another thing is to notice if a strap or buckle is broken or worn. I didn’t know that I could hear the proper sound of a quick-release buckle until I attached one that was broken. It just didn’t sound right. When I took a look at it I noticed that there was a large crack in it.
I was able to walk the dog because I attached the leash to the collar and the harness. That is a great feature of the Easy-Walk harness. The owner was unaware of the problem, and they bought a new harness when I let them know.
#4 Thinking Outside the Box
So there was a time when I had a pet sitting visit for a dog and I could not find the leash. I looked everywhere for it. What are you going to do? I was already there and the owner was gone for the entire weekend.
So I used my belt as a choke collar. I had to partly hold my pants up but it worked. I used one of my dog’s leashes for the remaining walks. The leash ended up being in the owner’s car. Quite often when I can’t find the leash, the owner has it in their car.
There is really no way to give you more examples nor would that even help. You will most likely experience things that I have not. You have to figure it out while making sure the dog’s safety is the priority.
Use your wits to figure out a solution to any, and all, problems you encounter.
#5 Reading Dogs’ Body Language & Communicating Yours
Let me describe a perfect day of dog walking. You have perfect weather and NOTHING goes wrong. You can’t do anything about the weather, but you do have control over how your walks go.
Your goal is to never have to call the owner with bad news. If you are an owner reading this, it sounds worse than it is. It is very rare that a major problem occurs.
But one of the biggest concerns is if another dog attacks the dog you are walking. I am intimately aware of this problem from many angles. Some of the dogs I walk are aggressive, I’ve encountered aggressive dogs, and have had my dog attacked by another dog.
Learn to spot a problem dog and avoid that dog. Cross the street if you have to. Don’t take a chance with someone else’s dog. Also, communicate with your body language if you are walking an aggressive dog.
#6 Have Quick Reflexes
There are times you need to react quickly.
Once in a while, I drop a leash. This happens with dogs who do not heal and tend to walk around me. Sometimes I drop the leash while changing hands to make the walking easier. I immediately step on the leash when that happens.
Owners with difficult dogs: relax! I take the precautions with those type of dogs and change hands very carefully.
There are also times you need to react quickly and pull the dog away from danger. This includes rounding corners, irresponsible bikers, trash day and others. Take a look at my article 5 Dog Walking Safety Tips for situations requiring quick reactions.
#7 Pet Ownership
I am very fortunate that I got my first dog walking client when I only owned a cat. My first client was a reference for my second client, my second for my third, and so on. And I believe I would have still gotten my first client, but having a cat did help. That and the fact that I grew up with dogs.
So you may be able to get clients without owning a pet, but owning a pet makes it a lot easier. It shows that you have what it takes to care for an animal.
I suggest adopting a dog if you don’t already have one. You can meet potential clients while walking your dog and maybe use your vet or groomer as your first reference. Pets are a great source of happiness and fun.
#8 Have Patience & a Love of Animals
I forgot to include in the perfect day of dog walking to only walk “perfect” dogs. Unfortunately, there are dogs that will test your patience. This is mostly the result of dogs that are not trained.
Remember that you are getting paid to walk dogs. There are a lot of jobs worse than having to walk a difficult dog. I believe that I must be the go-to person if you own a difficult dog because I’ve had had difficult dogs.
Find the positives in the dog, and they all have positives, and deal with the difficulties. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be a dog walker.
#9 Physical Stamina
I estimate that I walk 3-4 miles on an average weekday. That is 15-20 miles per week and that does not include walks on the weekend or walking my own dog.
Throw into the mix walking in extreme weather conditions. Walking in snow is very tiring and extreme heat sucks the energy out of you.
You can not be a dog walker if you have ill health unless you only walk small or well-trained dogs.
#10 Behind the Back Leash Hand-off
I hesitate to include this dog walker “skill”, but it has helped me.
Some of the dogs you walk will walk behind you and then go to the opposite side of you. The problem is you could get tripped up by the leash and fall. That could result in your injury, injury to the dog, dropping the leash, or all of those things.
You either have to spin in a circle or hand off the leash to your opposite hand behind your back. Let’s look at the different scenarios.
Situation #1: Single dog circling you. A dog that does not stay on one side of you is difficult to walk. If you have the leash in your right hand and the dog walks behind you and goes to your left side, then you either have to do a 360 turn or transfer the leash behind your back.
Changing hands behind your back is acceptable if it is a small dog that doesn’t pull. Otherwise, you should do the spin. A better option is to grab the leash lower and allow only about 3 feet of leash. Now the dog can’t walk behind you.
Situation #2a: Walking two dogs and one dog circles you. No matter which hands are holding the leashes, you will at times have both leashes in the same hand or in opposite hands. Doing a 360-degree spin is not an option because of the second dog and leash, so you will have to hand off the leash behind your back.
Situation #2b: Walking two dogs and both dogs circle you. This is bad. You need to reconsider having this client. You need to choke up on the leash so that they are both right next to your legs.
You either have to practice this or get yourself a belt connection for both leashes. That is an added cost. Consider asking the owner to train the dog(s), or at least buy an Easy-Walk harness.
#11 Never Stop Learning
I’m amazed at the fact that when I think I’ve seen it all, I experience something new. Always make mental notes about how you handle difficult situations.
Try to eliminate mistakes, but learn from any mistakes you do make. Just make sure they are not major mistakes.
Also, talk to dog owners whenever you get. Become active in pet groups or forums. And consider starting a blog about your dog walking and pet sitting. Researching articles will introduce you to every aspect of pet services and pet care.
#12 Management Skills
The final skill is the boring managerial skill of running a business. If you want to be a dog walker then you need to have scheduling software (Excel or Google Sheets is fine), calculate fees, collect and record payments, email all clients about holidays and rate changes, and the list goes on.
Then you may also want to hire dog walkers and sitters which means you need to create job postings, learn to interview people, and deal with your employees.
Here is another subject area where it would be wise to find dog walker and pet sitter groups and post a question anytime you need help with something. Here are some groups and forums I use:
- Pet Sitters Network (Facebook)
- Pet Sitters and Pet Owners (Facebook)
- Dog Walker to Dog Walker (Facebook)
- Reddit for cats
- Reddit for dogs
- Reddit for pets
- Reddit for pet sitting
Hire a Dog Walker: Skills & Qualities to Look For
There is only one time that I have needed someone to walk my dog. I had sprained my ankle on a Friday so bad that I could barely walk. I turned to my dog walking clients and two volunteered to help over the weekend until I could walk.
So for me, the people walking my dog were people I knew and were also dog owners. Moreover, their dogs were friendly with my dog. If only everyone could be that lucky.
#13 Experience and References
I believe the best things to look for when hiring a dog walker is experience, references, and reviews. If you have those three things in a prospective walker, I don’t think you need anything else.
When I meet a new client, I keep the questions to the basics. I ask about health and behavior issues. If there are no major issues, then the walking is easy. The only other thing I need is to know the type of harness and leash.
You are able to tell when you meet the walker if they know what they are doing or not. I’ve been doing this so long that I know what to ask and can give input on most any dog walking subject.
What is also very helpful is online reviews and references from clients. It’s similar to buying something online. I usually go with the highest and best reviews. Which stinks for new walkers, because they need clients before they can get reviews.
Referrals from other dog owners are one of the best ways to find a great dog walker.
If you are a new walker, definitely ask your first clients to act as references. This is a must if you don’t have any online reviews yet.
#14 insurance, Strength & Stamina
You also want to to go with a walking company that is bonded & insured. Personally, I have not needed to ever involve my insurance company, but it’s good to know that you are covered.
Some of the claims I remember seeing in newsletters are for things like a broken lamp or similar damages that a walker caused.
Depending on your dog, you want to make sure your walker can handle the walks. Little dogs are easy. If you have a dog that is 60 pounds or larger, then you want to go with a walker who is strong enough to handle him.
Skills Not Important for Dog Walking: Detailed Knowledge of Breeds, Training, etc.
You do not need to be an expert in dog breeds, dog training or other professional fields to gain dog walking skills. Although, some basic knowledge in all functional areas will help you be a better dog walker.
For example, knowing specifics of different dog breeds will influence how you walk dogs. Brachycephalic dogs should only be walked in short spurts during hot weather. You should avoid interacting with other dogs if you are walking aggressive breeds like a Jack Russell.
As for training, that is not what you advertise but knowing some basics will help. Specifically, you want to know how to prevent dogs from pulling on the leash while you are walking them. That is way easier said than done.
Experience with dogs is invaluable. If you always are thinking of the dog’s safety first, are responsible and in shape, then you have the skills to be a dog walker.
Owners, remember the 3 R’s when you are looking to hire a dog walker: Referrals, references, and reviews.
I hope this article helped you in identifying the necessary skills to be a dog walker, or to look for when hiring a walker. Please leave a comment below if you have anything to add.