It’s often said that Britain is a nation of animal lovers, but with credit a-crunching and belts a-tightening, animal care is, err, going to the dogs, as owners put longer and longer hours in at the office in an attempt to pay off their debts.
There’s no doubt, then, that Britain’s dogs are crying out – pining, even – for attention, and if you’re an animal lover with an entrepreneurial streak who empathises with these oft-overlooked victims of the economic downturn, then starting a dog walking business could be right up your alley.
Despite reports that dog walkers have suffered from the effects of the credit crunch, a report by insurance company Insurantz.com, found that with 6.5 million dogs in the UK, dog walkers can earn up to £8 per hour per dog from time-strapped workers.
William Taylor, from industry body the National Association of Registered Petsitters (it also goes by the rather rude-sounding acronym ‘NARP’), agrees. “Although people might not have so much disposable income to spend on a pet sitter, they will have to work longer hours so they will need one in that instance,” he says.
There’s good money to be made in the business, he says. According to a recent survey by the organisation, demand risen by almost 60% in 2008. In Philadelphia, one dog-walking business grossed $650,000 (£377,800) last year.
Dog walking is a very flexible business to go into. Although a background working with animals is preferable, it’s not essential, and as long as you are confident around dogs, it shouldn’t be a problem.
But William Taylor, from the National Association of Registered Petsitters (NARP), says it’s important to have had some kind of experience with dogs, even if it’s just as an owner.
“If you’ve had a background looking after animals then that’s great, but having owned and cared for animals for as long as possible is very important.”
He says although there is good money to be made in the industry, looking after other people’s pets carries a high level of responsibility.
“The responsibility is somewhat larger than a lot of people think. I suppose some people see it as earning a bit of extra cash but it is a professional job. You have to look after people’s houses as much as you do their pets. You hold their keys and there are obvious responsibilities that come with that.”
The Kennel Club’s guidelines for people working with dogs advise ‘strong interpersonal and communication skills’, as well as ‘a high level of fitness’ and, naturally, ‘an affinity with, and understanding of dogs’.
You will also need all the usual entrepreneurial skills – from a being able to balance your books and fill in your self-assessment tax return to a basic knowledge of marketing and an ability to network and negotiate with people in your local animal industry.
Although there are relatively few regulations specifically targeted at dog walkers, businesses providing a service must get public liability insurance. In fact, according to a recent report from insurance company Insurantz.com, many professional dog-walkers are putting themselves at risk by not being adequately covered.
“We insist all of our members have public liability cover, but there’s still some work to be done to educate the industry that setting up a business requires more than a sturdy pair of shoes and a few flyers,” warns Phil Taylor, of NARP.
“We see a fair number of claims for dogs injured in fights with other dogs, and a number of our members have had to make a claim because a dog has injured another person while in their charge. Without adequate cover, these people have faced legal bills rising into the thousands of pounds.”
Many dog walkers also opt to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks, as a way to reassure their clients and bolster their reputation. NARP recommends all its members are checked. “We also get references for every member, and we go to visit them as well,” says William Taylor.
NARP also recommends its members take a number of precautions, including:
The Kennel Club’s dog law site also lists a number of rules and regulations people working with dogs must abide by, including:
Start-up costs are relatively low for dog walking businesses. Your major expenditures at the beginning will be:
Membership of the National Association of Registered Petsitters (NARP), which includes insurance and all the forms and paperwork you’ll need to get the business going, costs around £450 a year. Members are advised to charge around £10 an hour per dog. “That does vary somewhat, though,” advises William Taylor – so make sure you do some research into how much competitors in your area are charging before you decide on your fees.
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Photograph courtesy of Christine592