We all love our dogs, but demands on our time, from work and social commitments to unexpected ill-health, can sometimes call for a little extra help in looking after them, writes Mark Briggs - an expert in the field of animal-related business insurance.
Research by the RSPCA has revealed that 22 per cent of dogs spend four or more hours alone during the average weekday.
(Tips on how to help dogs with separation anxiety)
Enter stage left, professional dog walkers – a solution to ensuring they are not left alone for too long and receive the regular exercise they need to keep them fit and healthy.
Entrusting the care of our beloved pup, and the invariably the security of our home, to a stranger however can be a big leap of faith.
Our animals are an extension of the family, and, as with any loved family member, we expect nothing less than the best from those who care for them. How can we be sure that our dog walker is reliable, trustworthy, experienced and knowledgeable?
The importance of making the right choice was recently reinforced by a BBC report, which revealed that some dog walkers, trainers and groomers were harming the animals in their care.
Do professional dog walkers have to have a licence?
Commercial dog walkers in England don’t currently have to be licenced and the RSPCA is calling for greater regulation to improve standards of welfare.
While the campaign for licencing to become mandatory gathers pace, the following key steps and considerations when choosing a dog walker will help set you on the right path to peace of mind.
Where, when and how?
Transparency is a key ingredient to building trust and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or awkward asking walkers questions about their background and how they operate. It’s the mark of a responsible owner.
Professionals will expect to be vetted and most will regard the process as an opportunity to verify their services.
Questions to ask before you hire a professional dog walker
Clarity on where, and for how long, your dog will be walked offers a good starting point. Do the walking locations, including the proximity to traffic and strangers, suit your dog?
Is your dog more comfortable walking on its own? Some can feel scared and threatened in a group. What’s more, different breeds of dog require different amounts of exercise and in some cases working dogs, such as springer spaniels and collies, can find themselves being walked with smaller dogs that tire more easily.
Walkers should be expected to have a lead for every dog, but should abide by your instructions, as the owner, as to whether you would like your dog kept on its lead, or allowed off it for all or part of their walk. This decision should be based on your dog’s propensity to return on command and the threat it poses to the safety of others.
How many dogs is too many for a professional dog walker to handle?
The number of dogs that are being walked together at any one time is a particularly important consideration.
Pack walking can result in increased exposure to infections and disease. At the same time, it can create an unruly, stressful and dangerous environment for both the dogs and the general public. This has led to many local authorities restricting the number of dogs that can be walked together in public spaces.
Guidelines issued by the Dogs Trust, in association with the Pet Industry Federation and RSPCA, recommends walking no more than four dogs at any one time.
"Expert guidelines say walking no more than 4 dogs at any one time is optimal"
Walkers should also be checking that all dogs are vaccinated, wormed and regularly treated for fleas, unless they have been deemed exempt by a veterinary surgeon.
A safe journey
If transporting your dog to and from your home, commercial dog walkers have a duty to abide by the Welfare of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006.
This will ensure that any vehicle they use offers a safe environment. In other words, it will house harnesses or securely fitted dog crates – but be sure to check.
Rule 57 of the Highway Code also states: “When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly.
“A seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars.”
What insurance do professional dog walkers need?
DBS and insurance validation
Working with animals doesn’t automatically require a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check, but as dog walkers are likely to have access to your home and belongings, it can provide reassurance that you’re handing your house keys over to someone you can trust.
A DBS certificate will detail previous convictions or conditional cautions and many dog walkers will hold one as a matter of course to help demonstrate they have a clean criminal record.
You should also ask for proof of insurance. Your own medical policy may not cover your dog when in the care of a “third party”.
Comprehensive insurance for a dog walker will not only cover third-party liability, but will also cover any accidents or injuries that your dog may suffer while in their care, including the cost of emergency vet fees. Having such cover in place is a good indication of a responsible business and suggests that risk has been deemed an important consideration.
Insurance policies will be subject to conditions, such as how many dogs can be walked at any one time, and businesses will have to abide by these stipulations in order for their policies to be valid.
Do professional dog walkers need qualifications?
Although formal qualifications are not obligatory, dog handling and behaviour training along with canine first aid certification, can help you to distinguish the more credible, ‘professional’ dog walkers from the have-a-go opportunists.
Walkers should also carry first aid kits with them to help them deal effectively with medical situations that may arise, whether this is a twig lodged in a dog’s throat or a thorn stuck in its paw.
In an emergency
Beyond first aid expertise, check what procedures your walker has in place to deal with emergencies.
Should your dog become sick or injured what level of autonomy will your dog walker have when making decisions on the most appropriate course of action? Do they hold all relevant contact information for you and other close family members? What veterinary attention might your dog receive and how will associated costs be dealt with?
Reputation speaks for itself
Last, but not least, before putting pen to paper on a contract that outlines all of the above and the service standards you can expect, do your own homework.
Does your preferred dog walker have a website? Does it appear professional, while outlining their experience, expertise and code of conduct?
Search for online and social media reviews and ask for contact details of previous or existing clients. Speak to these referees in detail about their experiences, both good and bad.
By following these important steps, you should feel reassured that your dog is in safe hands.
Mark Briggs is director at animal-related business insurance specialist Cliverton.