We get loads of messages from people who are thinking of a career change or about to leave school and considering starting a Dog Walking business. We in no way claim to be experts in the field, we're still very much learning as we go, but it is always really nice that someone would think of us as capable of helping them out, or who has maybe been following our socials and likes what we do. We're always more than happy to share what has (and hasn’t) worked for us and to be of constant help to those who are dedicated and passionate with a similar ethos to us - it's been a huge pleasure to be able to give advice to people who have then gone and jumped in and are doing fantastically well.
If we could share any advice, tips, stories or just provide reassurance that helps at all in the initial, scary and sometimes stressful start up period, we're all for it. We get asked enough that we thought we'd write a bit about it, mainly to stop having to type out essays and essays everytime it happens!
The first thing to be aware of is starting up any small business takes time, effort and patience... The deal is you get to do something you're hopefully passionate about and love, you get to control it, do everything your way and get the rewards that follow BUT you're accountable for everything, it can feel isolated, risky and you'll probably take every slip up or misstep extremely personally. So think hard and make sure you're committed - the highlights on the 'Gram look great, and they are... but they are just that, highs with the ever accompanying lows! Hopefully with some good advice there'll be plenty more highs than lows!
1. Don't stress about being busy - there are more than enough potential clients out there for everyone so it is important to not panic early on and trust that your reputation will eventually spread via word of mouth and gradually build to a full client base. Good old fashioned leaflets go a long way around the areas you want to service - We, and lots of other walkers, made the mistake of taking clients all over NI in an attempt to fill up the week, ultimately you'll spend all your profits on fuel and all your time on the road, which ultimately won't help you or your clients.
2. Authenticity - It's simple, but worth noting - put your personality into your ‘brand’. Stand out by having a good clear logo and name that suits you so that it will be easily remembered and passed on. We're mad for the mountains and adventure and we wanted to reflect that - it appeals to certain owners and their dogs, but not to all! That's fine, it's our style and it will always be obvious on our walks or socials. It's your show so you may as well sell whatever it is that makes you unique! You may think a dog walker is a dog walker is a dog walker... but it's not the case at all.
3. Legal - You need insurance! For your vehicle first off, for your business and the dogs in your care and if like us you're trying to flog some clobber, for that too! Shop around for what you actually need and where's best to get it. You might also wanna complete a course or two to make sure you're educated and equipped for the job. Pet First Aid is an absolute must and initial canine behaviour/animal management courses are highly recommended - people are entrusting you with their beloved pet and that's not something to be taken lightly. Most dog walkers now will have new clients sign a contract form, this is a very helpful document to have if you can’t get ahold of the owner in an emergency. We ask for an emergency contact, vet details, medical history and also a disclaimer for vet bills etc. as well as permission for use of photographs. If you're offering boarding or being entrusted with house keys you might consider police/security vetting.
4. Tools for the job - Consider your start up costs and if you are super organised, create a budget list and plan ahead. A lot of people start off using their car and upgrade to a van or converted car once they gain clients. We jumped straight in and vanned' up. For us a van is essential - you can fit it out with large, medium and small secure crates, dogs can be as messy as they like, it is very easily disinfected and cleaned whilst keeping the dogs as safe as possible in transit. We have micro-fibre mats to help absorb water off mucky paws on their way home and for comfort, stacks of towels, storage for your equipment, a hose and tank fitted, all our first aid gear and racks for leads, harnesses and toys! Obviously it's a big step and many manage with cars but it's definitely a goal to work toward and think about early.
On that note the Hiker Hounds leads have been on the go from the very start of the business and I quickly started only using my own leads on the walks. I had a few ‘sturdy’ purchased leads break after frequent use but my own leads being used and tested three times a day always hold up, so pick sturdy leads, they'll be getting plenty of use! Another plus to finding a few leads you like is you won’t lose or dirty your clients very nice printed fabric lead. We keep a few spare harnesses, slip leads, figure of 8 leads and muzzles in the van which have all come in handy for loads of reasons - it's always good to be prepared and have the right gear for any eventuality.
5. Socials - Social media is a huge part of professional dog walking, it's your main place for advertising, it's where the majority of your clients will find and contact you and it's the place to share your business. We use Instagram stories for real time videos and photos, unless my hands are full, then the updates are delayed.. I try to put a few good photos on Facebook everyday for those not on Instagram and it is brilliant for the owners to check in and see the fun their dogs are having whilst at work. On the rare occasion we are away the first thing we look for is photos and updates of what the dogs are doing to put our minds at ease, so we completely understand the benefits of good updates!
6. Safety & Honesty - This is huge - Really understand that people are trusting you with their furry family members. Our three rescue dogs have taught us over the years what their limits are and how to keep them happy and comfortable but are still capable of surprises - Dogs can change or have off day's just like us, we have to constantly learn from them and our experiences to make sure our walks are a safe environment. It's so important to really think about risks when walking and not become complacent where safety is concerned, we are more than happy to turn down custom if the dog just doesn't fit in with ours or won't be comfortable with the kind of service we provide - being honest and open about these things is the only way to operate and will always be appreciated - you will have to manage different breeds, different temperaments, different ages and all sorts, you will more often than not be in public areas with numerous dogs and you can't always control other owners, the weather or any number of risks. It's so important to be vigilant in mitigating or avoiding these risks altogether but also honest and open about any issues that may arise with any of the dogs you're walking - it can sometimes be a difficult conversation and you may even have a share of the blame but the owner has a right to transparency!
Unless you are incredibly lucky, or perhaps far more business savvy than us, you will have difficult patches and setbacks. It’s much better to be aware and prepared for such things rather than something go wrong and it knock you off your feet. I threw everything into HH at the very start, while working two other part time jobs to keep me afloat. Sometimes working for yourself and starting your own business can mean you work every free hour the day gives you, but if you really, really want to make it work then sometimes that is what it takes. Four years later, now fully self employed, I can say that every extremely tired night and mental breakdown was worth it. I am doing what I love everyday and it was created entirely by myself and Colm. Check out our Trek NI article for more blabbing on how it all began.
Thank you for reading and I hope you found some helpful information!
Gem and the Hounds