- Britain’s latest exercise in job creation is the professional dog-walker
- Survey: Walking 13 dogs a day can exceed national average annual salary
- Carers prepared to look after pets overnight can make up to £64,000
- Internet is playing increasingly important role in professional dog-walking
You see them in parks on a weekday lunchtime, being dragged along helplessly in the wake of a disparate pack of dogs such as pugs, dachshunds and terriers.
This is Britain’s latest exercise in job creation: the professional dog-walker. And it’s booming.
A popular walker might have eight or nine dogs, a heaving mass of canine frustration, bottled up since early morning in the homes of affluent office-bound owners and now bursting to run, play . . . and poo.
Try pooper-scooping the product of one animal when the others are intent on exploring all points of the compass at once and you will understand the downside of being a dog-walker.
But where there’s dog muck, there’s brass — and quite a lot of it for the enterprising and mildly unscrupulous.
‘I’ve seen people with nine dogs but they spend more time untangling them than walking them,’ says professional dog-walker Lisa Carroll-Goles. ‘For them, it’s all about money. They want to earn a lot in one hour and not have any more walking to do that day. It’s outrageous.’
Direct Line Pet Insurance published a survey this week suggesting that a fairly successful dog-walker, typically walking 13 dogs a day, solo or in groups, can easily exceed the national average annual salary of £22,000, making £26,000 or more.
In London, the hourly rate is commonly £14 or more per dog. Put the walking hours in, or look after dogs for a whole day — so-called ‘doggy day care’ — and you can do a lot better than £26,000.
Carers prepared to look after pets overnight — sometimes for weeks and months when owners are away — can make up to £64,000.
Luke Winchester has been walking dogs as a full-time career for six years and runs a business in Chiswick, West London, called A Bit Of Ruff.
The public school-educated former estate agent charges £18 an hour to walk clients’ dogs in Richmond Park, Hyde Park and other canine heavens, usually in groups of four to six.
Explaining how he tired of selling houses, Luke explains: ‘I realised that dog-walking would give me greater freedom with a similar salary, no need for a suit and more appreciative clients.’
As dog-walking evolves into an industry, websites are being created listing dog-walkers who are insured, have been trained in best practice and checked for criminal convictions (your walker will usually need a key to your home).
Demand is particularly great in London, where professional singles or couples can’t invest enough time in their animals.
‘Typical clients are bankers,’ says Lisa, ‘people in high-powered jobs who work extremely long hours, who want animals but can’t look after them except at the weekend. I visit some dogs three times a day — first thing in the morning, at lunchtime and finally at nine in the evening because the owners are still not back from work.
‘Most of my clients don’t have kids, just pets. They are aged 30 and upwards, and the dog is their family. They put a lot of trust in the dog-walker to look after their “baby”, as many call them.’
One of Lisa’s clients, Emilie Autissier-Laglace, 35, has travelled the world with her nine-year-old pug, Elvis.
‘Elvis is my best friend and my love,’ she says. ‘I work in the hedge fund world where the hours are long and I can spend a lot of time travelling. I need Lisa because I know Elvis needs love and attention every day. It is her job and I know she will be responsible.’
Lisa is 33 and from North Yorkshire. She moved to London to work in the office of an engineering company, but animals and the outdoors were more her thing, and after running a set of kennels she set up her own dog-walking company in Kilburn, northwest London, called Woofing Manners.
Sitting in Queen’s Park with two of the dogs in her care, Willow, a collie, and Elvis the pug, she describes her job.
‘Some people charge between £15 and £20 an hour but I wouldn’t pay that for my own dog,’ she says. ‘I like to stay reasonable so I charge £10, but even at that rate I can bring in £500 to £600 a week.
‘I work 20 to 30 dogs in a day and don’t do more than three at a time because otherwise you’re not paying enough attention to each dog.’
Do clients of more unscrupulous dog-walkers know their dogs are merely one among many in a big money-spinning pack?
‘I’m not too sure they do know,’ says Lisa. ‘I tell customers that, unless they request otherwise, I’ll walk their dog solo. But most are happy for their dog to go with a couple of others to socialise them.’
Many parks insist that dogs are kept on a leash. Even in those where they are allowed to run free, Lisa insists on keeping new dogs on a lead for a few months until she can trust them not to abscond. ‘Watching a dog disappear into the distance at the end of a long day is no fun,’ she says.
Dog-walking is not quite the simple business it appears. There are costs — a car can be necessary and parking charges around parks, particularly in London, can be hefty. Insurance covering animal injuries and lost sets of clients’ house keys is another expense.
Days can be long: dogs must be picked up and dropped back at home, and the time this takes is not usually covered by the hourly rate.
In London, the Royal Parks charge dog-walkers £300 a year for a permit and set a limit of four dogs per professional walker, while most insurance companies insist that no more than six animals are taken out at one time.
In Queen’s Park, all dogs must be kept on leads at all times. Around the country restrictions vary.
Medway Council in Kent brought in a rule last year requiring dog-walkers to keep their animals on leads when next to a road. Council officers can order walkers in parks to put their dogs on leads if it is felt necessary.
Meanwhile, dog walkers are being banned from whole stretches of coastline. Those operating in Swansea, for instance, must acquaint themselves with a list of beaches from which dogs are barred. Stray onto the wrong stretch of sand and you can face a £500 fine.
While dog-walkers navigate the rules, office-bound owners can obtain a degree of vicarious pleasure by looking at photographs taken by their walkers. Lisa provides a steady stream of updates via her mobile phone. ‘I make sure they know we are out here having loads of fun and that their dogs are getting lots of fuss.’
But what about the Big P?
‘Poo? How do you clean up after nine dogs? You just couldn’t do it and that’s where you get problems that tarnish everyone,’ says Lisa.
‘It’s not glamorous but it’s your responsibility to clean up after your dogs.’
The internet is playing an increasingly important role in professional dog-walking. Lisa is listed on Tailster.com, which was created in 2014 and has 2,500 dog-carers on its books.
‘Anyone can apply to be a dog-carer, but we rigorously vet these profiles before making them live,’ says Indy Sangha, founder of the website. ‘Only one in six is approved.’
Meanwhile, Direct Line has created Walkies3, a dog-walking app which allows over-protective owners to track their dogs from the office. Using GPS, it can tell users how far their pet has walked, how fast and even how many calories it is burning.
On Wandsworth Common in south London, the sun is out. Clarissa Dent is walking her affenpinscher, Archie, by the pond along with a host of clients’ dogs — dachshunds Tito and Otto, Irish terrier Ruby and a diamante-collared Westie called Steve. In addition to walking dogs, Clarissa houses them, for months on end if required.
Her clients, many of them wealthy foreigners with homes in Knightsbridge and Kensington, disappear abroad for extended periods and want their animals looked after in a homely environment rather than kennels. Clarissa charges £25 per dog per night.
‘You sit on the sofa at night surrounded by dogs and feel your blood pressure going down,’ she says. ‘I love it.’
Does she earn a decent income? Her smile suggests that she does.
Dog-walkers seem a contented lot. ‘A good day for me is going out and having fun with my dogs,’ says Lisa Carroll-Goles. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s rain or shine. It’s my hobby and passion.
‘I am definitely somebody who can wake up in the morning and say: “I love my job.”’