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If you’re a busy dog owner who works outside the home, making plans to take care of your pet’s daily needs is a continuing concern. Leaving for the office at 7:30 a.m. and getting home 11 or 12 hours later means that unless you’ve taught your dog how to use the toilet, you’re going to need some extra help during the day.

Dogs owners facing the “home alone” challenge have two main choices: hire a dog walker to come to their home and take their pooch for a midday outing, or send their pet off to dog daycare, to spend the day romping and playing with other canine friends.

Today, we’ll examine the pros and cons of dog walkers, suggest questions you should ask of your dog service provider, and most importantly, show you how to tell which option is the best one for your dog.

We’ll look at dog daycare next week.

The role of a dog walker

Your dog walker is the person who will treat your pooch to a midday bathroom break, give him a chance to get out in the fresh air and take in the sights and smells – and hopefully enrich your dog’s life. (A dog walker is not a substitute for your work as an owner, namely twice-daily walks, with some play and training mixed in.)

Dog walkers can offer an array of services, from private or semi-private on-leash walks to group outings where your dog is picked up, along with several other pets, and driven to a local park for an off-leash romp. Some even offer training services, helping your mutt to learn some manners along the way.

Most often, dogs are walked near midday, but some walkers provide services at other times, which can be helpful when, say, you’re trying to get the kids off to school in the morning. Some offer an “on-call” service at short notice if you’ve been kept late at the office or get stuck in traffic.

Who benefits most from dog walking?

Hiring a dog walker offers a lot of perks for both you and your pet, and can be a better choice than a dog daycare. Here’s why:

A one-hour walk is usually less expensive than a full day of play.

Dog walkers, especially those who offer private or semi-private walks, are ideal for young puppies and senior dogs, who may not be able to keep up with a room full of high-energy beasts.

Some dogs with aggression or fear issues can only be walked privately, as a group trip to the park or daycare is beyond their ability to cope.

There are dogs without any age or behaviour-related problems who are happy to bypass the excitement and energy level of a big runabout with a lot of other pets. These introverted pooches simply prefer the company of a walk on their own or with a few close doggy friends.

Dog walker Will Brown from Tails of Two Cities Pet Care in Toronto takes an elevator to return Sir Henry, a six-month-old Maltipoo puppy, after walking him alongside his own dog Ripley. Brown specializes in on-leash walks for dogs that don't do well in large group settings. (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Where dog walking falls short

For all its benefits, there are situations where a dog walker is simply not the best solution for your pet. Consider this:

Some dogs, especially young or high-energy ones, need far more exercise than they’ll get on a simple one-hour outing.

Others suffer from separation anxiety and become destructive when left alone, and so require longer periods of supervision and interaction.

Occasionally, dogs get amped up by the midday walk, and find it impossible to calm down upon returning home, leading to misbehaviour caused by boredom or lack of stimulation.

Stories you don’t want to hear, but need to know about

Essentially, a dog walker will get a key to your home, come by when you’re not there, and take out one of your family members who has no way of telling you if everything’s okay.

A quick Google search for “dog walker arrested” reveals transgressions ranging from jewellery theft to animal abuse and worse. One website, SexOffenderJobs.com, suggests dog walking and petsitting as an ideal business for sex offender registrants with an entrepreneurial streak.

Naturally, those horror stories are few and far between. But they should be enough to get you thinking more carefully about whom you trust with your pet and your home. Do your research, ask hard questions of both yourself and your potential dog walker, and you’ll find a safe, suitable solution for you and your pet.

A great place to start is by word of mouth – ask local dog owners, your veterinarian or dog trainer which walkers they recommend.

There are many experienced, caring, and highly-reputable professional dog walkers who would love to enrich your dog’s life on a daily basis. Find the right one, and both you and your dog will reap the benefits.

(Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Four more tips on how to find a great dog walker

1. They are a legitimate professional business. This means they are bonded, insured and carry the appropriate business licences and permits for the area in which they operate (ask to see hard copies). Most cities have limits on the number of dogs allowed under one person’s control at a time (usually six), as well as how many of those dogs are allowed to be off-leash. While ads on Kijiji and Craigslist can be a place to search for a dog walking service, avoid ones that say, “I’m a student looking to earn some extra cash …” Your dog and your home deserve a professional who is completely committed to what they do.

2. Ask questions – lots of questions. Meet your actual dog walker – not just the owner of the company – and confirm that he or she will be the same person entering your home each day. Other questions include:

– Where will you walk my dog? What time? Is it the same every day?

– How many dogs do you have in your care at one time? Will the dogs be the same each week?

– Do you evaluate dogs for temperament, energy level and size, and group them accordingly?

– What is your policy regarding illness or injury to dogs in your care? What emergency vet do you use? Are you certified in pet first aid?

– Will you provide a postwalk report to notify me of anything unusual (such as loose stool, altercations, change in appetite, ingesting foreign objects)?

– Have you ever had a dog get lost or injured in your care? What did you do? (This is not a deal-breaker – accidents sometimes happen. However, it’s important to know if they have a plan and appropriate response for an unfortunate situation.)

– What are your references? Do any veterinarians or dog trainers recommend you? (This question is only helpful if you actually call, not e-mail, the references provided. Anybody can be on the other end of electronic communication, but talking live to another dog owner or expert will give you a much better sense of whom you’re considering hiring.)

– What steps do you take when you drop my dog off? Will muddy paws be cleaned and wiped? (One dog owner tells the story of firing his dog walking service after finding his entire condo covered in dirt at the end of a particularly wet spring day.)

3. Answer questions. Pay attention to what the walker asks you. Pros will want to know everything about your dog: vaccinations, behaviour triggers, training you’ve done, allergies or physical restrictions, and especially how your dog behaves around other dogs. Expect them not to take your word for the last one – they’ll almost certainly bring a “demo dog” to your meeting to help evaluate your pet’s behaviour. If they do not ask questions, require proof of vaccinations (or a veterinary reference letter), and get you to sign a contract, then they’re not a professional. Keep looking.

4. Once you’ve decided on a walking service, stay in close touch. Start with a two-week trial period, and carefully notice any changes in your dog’s behaviour. Arrange to be home sometimes when your dog walker comes by – pay attention to how your dog reacts (hint: your dog should be happy and excited, and your walker should be calm and help to control and contain that excitement – not encourage it). You may even want to consider joining or observing your pet’s walk as it unfolds – whether planned or unplanned. It’s worth your dog’s safety and your peace of mind. A professional dog walker won’t mind – because they don’t have anything to hide.

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