You love dogs. Given the choice between dogs or humans, it’s dogs every time. You find joy walking them, spending time with them and caring for them.
If this is an accurate description of you, you may be considering becoming a dog walker so you can do what you love most all of the time. It may seem like a simple transition, but ask anyone who does this for a living and they’ll tell you dog walking isn’t easy, and it comes with a set of challenges just like any other small business, especially as you grow.
“Don’t get discouraged because it is hard. Just hang in there, believe in it and hustle,” says Heather Doll, who started dog walking in 2007 as an individual and now co-owns a business that grosses more than six figures a year and has 50 employees.
Read on as Doll, of RuffCity dog walking in New York City, as well as other experts, share their tips for how to find success in dog walking.
1. Build a website, logo and social media presence
All these things are essential to attract customers initially. Doll built her website via WordPress.com, but Squarespace.com and Weebly.com are also options. If you’d like to consult with a developer/freelancer to create your site, Doll suggests Upwork.com.
“It is worth it to spend a little extra money and have a sharp, intuitive and informative website that proves that you are organized and professional,” she says. “A good logo can help you stand out from the competition. Establishing your brand is definitely the first [step]. I actually worked at an advertising agency before I left to start this [business], so I had the luxury of having designers make my logo and also build our website and kind of get us going in the right direction from the get go.”
When she left that office job to start a dog walking service with her roommate, she says she “knew we wanted to grow [our business] into something larger, which is why we did a website and a logo.”
Jacob Hensley, founder/owner of District Dogs in Washington, D.C., which offers dog walking, daycare and boarding, also stresses the importance of a strong brand.
“For me, my brand and my brand image is what separates myself from my competitors,” he says. “I’m not just Jacob’s Pet Care or Jacob’s Dog Walking Service. I really wanted to brand myself.”
Setting up an online profile for your business on Yelp, Instagram and Facebook is highly recommended.
“Upload as many pictures as possible and provide as much information as possible,” Doll says, adding that good, old-fashioned networking is still important. “Make business cards and flyers and visit pet stores, vet offices, dog cafes, etc., and ask to post your flyers on their message boards. Visit dog parks and network with owners. In a world that is so reliant on the internet, people appreciate a personalized, grass-roots introduction to such a personal service.”
2. Acquire an LLC or, at the very least, a DBA filing
Setting up an LLC for your business can be done via websites like LegalZoom.com, which Doll used, but a lawyer can also do this for you.
Why is it important? LegalZoom’s website says becoming an LLC limits your personal liability and there are tax advantages. For Doll, that protection was key.
“The LLC basically protects you from if someone tries to sue based on something that happened within [your business], they can’t come after me personally; they can only come after anything that the business has,” she says.
“As an LLC you have a little bit more coverage with your independent contractors,” says Liza Angerami, who purchased Walks of Nature dog walking/pet sitting business in November and switched the business to an LLC. “It’s just a safer way to run your business, rather than a DBA.”
The benefits of a DBA, a.k.a. “Doing Business As” filing, aren’t as wide ranging. According to LegalZoom, you’ll need one in most states to open a business bank account.
“A DBA is super easy to get,” Doll says. “You have to acquire it from your city or your state. It just gives you an employer ID number and kind of sets you up. But it doesn’t protect you in any way like an LLC.”
Hensley built his website and formed his business seven months before he quit his day job so he could hit the ground dog walking.
“I actually did an S [corporation], which is taxed similarly to an LLC, but in hindsight I would have done an LLC,” he says. “I did an S corp because I thought I would get investors for my doggie daycare business, but the LLC would have given me more flexibility on a couple of items.”
3. Obtain dog walker insurance
For an individual walking dogs, dog walking/pet sitting insurance can be very affordable, and like an LLC, it offers protection for your business. General liability insurance, which protects against third party claims, is a good idea, also, say experts. For a full breakdown of what to consider when selecting insurance, click here.
“You need insurance if you want to do pet sitting in someone else’s home, or if you want to have grooming as a part of your company, that’s a different kind of insurance,” says Angerami, who got her insurance with Business Insurers of the Carolinas through Pet Sitters International, an association that provides education and other resources.
She adds that it’s important to “figure out what you want to include in your business and what insurance you’ll need for that.”
Doll recommends bonding your business, as well.
“Bonding protects any of the client’s property,” she says. “So whether the walker accidentally breaks a vase or they actually steal something, the bonding insurance — which is separate from the pet insurance but usually obtained with the same carrier — it’s definitely something you want to look into also and that’s even cheaper than the pet sitting insurance.”
4. Find a suitable scheduling and invoicing software
You may not think you need something like this to keep you organized at first. (How hard can it be to keep four clients straight?) But, says Doll, you’ll be glad to have it up and running as you grow. It also leaves a good impression with your clients.
“When we started we were using Google calendar, Google maps, Google sheets, all things Google and eventually it just became smart to move to a one stop kind of shop,” she says. “We use Time to Pet right now, which is amazing. There’s an app for the walkers to use, that has their schedule, and that’s where they can see their pay stubs and all the dog information. It automatically generates invoices and automatically charges invoices.”
Hensley also uses Time to Pet, which charges $35 a month for solo dog walkers.
“I had the wrong invoicing software and wrong scheduling software on day one and I got too big and I had to merge everything,” he says. “If you just start with the right software immediately, even if it’s a little more expensive, it just helps with the migration, client data and confusion.”
5. Crunch the numbers to determine how much you need to make
In 2014, Hensley left his career in finance to build his business. But before you consider doing that, he recommends taking a hard look at the numbers to determine what you need to make a living at it.
“Really get familiar with the numbers, like realistically how many dogs you can see in a day,” he says. “If you’re leaving your job or you’re quitting, for me, I had to know that if I filled my day up with dogs, I could survive while doing business. For me, that was really important, making sure that I was getting into a field that could support my lifestyle.”
In the beginning of your business, you may have to work two jobs or find other sources of income.
“I live in a two-bedroom home, and I Airbnb’d my guest bedroom to help supplement my income while I was growing the business,” he says. “That was helpful, but I still ran the numbers to make sure I could survive off dog walking.”
6. Get familiar with employment laws in your state
Employment laws are tricky, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the laws in your state, because there may come a time when you need more hands to help juggle all the dog walking jobs.
“When it is time to hire your first employee, you’ll want to be fully aware of the costs associated with staffing, the rights of the employee and your rights, as well,” Doll says. “If there’s one thing I would tell someone who wants to build a dog walking company, it’s do everything right from the beginning. Because we didn’t. One, because we didn’t know, and two, because we were just young and carefree. Nothing that we’ve learned has been easy.”
Adds Hensley, who employs 12 dog walkers, “It’s really easy for employees to file different types of claims, and you want to be protected and make sure you’re doing everything right.”
7. Research other companies in your area
What does the top dog walking service in your area offer? What do they charge? Do they sell packages? Any information you can gather is helpful, even if it’s not in line with your own business plan or goals, Doll says.
“I would even say put together a spreadsheet, the company name, what they charge for what length of walks, what kind of business method they kind of have,” she says. “Just kind of see what your competition is going to look like, and, obviously, to gauge what you should be charging. You want to be a little under the average but getting paid what you’re worth.”
8. Hustle, but work smart
Doll believes hard work is the foundation of her company’s growth. In the beginning she was “just making it work and hustling and doing 12 walks a day, hitting the ground running and making sure that I was setting myself up for every opportunity that came my way,” she says, trekking up and down New York City blocks.
Saying yes to everything may not be possible all the time, notes Angerami, whose contractors drive to their dog walking jobs.
“You’ll probably have to say no to clients sometimes, which I found really difficult,” she says. “I want to help everybody. I don’t want to say no to anyone. But sometimes it’s just not going to be a good match, or you’re just going to be too busy and you just don’t want to overextend yourself.”
Hensley says he didn’t just want to be a dog walker, he wanted to be a business owner, so he was careful to structure his business because he didn’t want to be “all over the place,” he says.
“I kept the territory very tight, and I wanted to grow smart,” he says. “I still was very selective. If someone wanted a regular Monday through Friday evening walk, I said ‘no’ because I was primarily a midday dog walking company. I would do the occasional evening walk, but I wouldn’t ruin my evenings as a sole dog walker for this one dog. I wanted to make sure my lifestyle wasn’t negatively affected.”
9. Don’t get discouraged
With dog walking becoming a more popular profession (and service) in recent years, there will be competition, but don’t let it get you down.
“I still have to remind myself of [this]!” Doll says. “When we first set out, we spent a lot of time sulking about how we had no clients and worrying that we made a huge mistake leaving our advertising and interior design jobs. But our hard work and hustle slowly started to pay off, and we are now consistently in shock of what we’ve built.”
Hensley agrees that this profession has its share of ups and downs.
“It took me a lot longer to get my first client then I expected,” he says. “And it took a lot longer to get my second and third client than expected. But at some point, it’s like a snowball effect.”
Doll recommends putting all your effort into making your dog walking business succeed by making happy customers out of each and every client.
“If you’re going to do this, if you’re going to make the decision, put your all into it,” she says. “Just give it everything you have. Focus on the owners — taking care of the owners and obviously taking care of the dogs — because those are the ones that are really going to help get you to the next level.”