An act of kindness – walking someone else's dog – could turn into more than you bargained for, unless you are prepared, advises Jackie Drakeford, Kennel Club Accredited Instructor...
Many of us know that heart-stopping moment when the dog we are walking is suddenly not there. For most of us it is a momentary panic, and the dog is back within minutes – but what if the missing dog is not your own? There are many reasons why we might need a helping hand with dog walking occasionally, but this is not just a matter to arrange between humans; the dog has a big influence on how this works out too. Even when a dog knows somebody well, as a friend of the owner or someone they often meet out on walks, having someone who is not family holding the other end of the lead can be worrying. The dog has not bonded with this other person, there is no trust between them, and he may feel vulnerable without his owner close by.
Certainly there are dogs who trot trustingly away no matter who is on the other end of the lead, but there are just as many for whom this is a very big deal indeed. And while they may go along with the idea when they have no choice, once that lead comes off, some will make a dash for home. Even if home is a long way away, most dogs will set their compass and head across country in the home direction, rather than going back to the car park or their temporary quarters. Knowing your breed type is essential when walking other people's dogs. It is easy to think a dog is a dog and they are all broadly the same, but different breeds have different motivators. If you have never walked a terrier, you may not realise how quickly they can drop down a hole in the ground, and if something lives down that hole, apart from breaking the law, you may have a long wait (think hours) before the terrier comes out.
If you are used to dogs who stay close, you might have a shock when walking a dog who hasn't the slightest desire to keep you in sight. While if your own dog loves everyone and every dog he meets, the dog who wants to be left alone and grouches if others get into his space might cause embarrassment. Insecure dogs sometimes cover their fears by attacking: one of the worst attacks made on one of my dogs was by another who was being walked by a stranger, who thought the dog wanted to say hello.
If it is your own dog being walked, there is a lot more to consider. Are you going to use a professional or a friend? Does your dog have specific training that you want upheld rather than undermined? Most mistraining is fairly easily undone, but if you have been working very hard at something that really matters to you, it is helpful to advise the temporary walker about what you have been doing and how you would like it continued.
Are other dogs going to be walked at the same time as yours and, if so, how do they get on with yours? How are the dogs going to travel together? Loose in the back of the car is not a great idea with strange dogs, and sometimes dogs can still bite at or threaten each other when caged close by. Do they have compatible exercise needs, or might one be getting too much while another gets too little? Walking several dogs together on-lead is an art, and assumes that all the dogs already walk without pulling. Walking several on extending leads is more like an Olympic sport – dog macramé.
Considering matters such as insurance might seem over the top if a friend is doing you a favour, but be careful and check with your insurance company how your cover stands with third parties. And if the walker is a minor, it is likely that you will be responsible for anything that happens even if you aren't there. While your own dog might be a paragon, others may not, and if a young person is more interested in checking their social media than in what is going on around them, then an incident could occur and you would be responsible.
Will you be at home when the walker calls? If not, will your dog let them in? If crated, would he let someone else take him out of his crate and put a lead on him? All of these are things you might not think about, but to the dog they are serious considerations. If you are employing a professional, you might have to dedicate some preliminary time towards guiding the dog into accepting them, and this time has to be paid for. Even if the person is a friend the dog knows well, the fact that you are not present might make the dog wary.
LOOKING AFTER A FRIEND'S DOG
And what if you are the friend? If the dog is staying in your home with you, you will need to make sure that your address and telephone number are on his collar. You also need to be sure that your fencing arrangements will contain the dog safely.
If, despite all your care, the dog does a runner (had the owner warned you he could slip his collar like that? Jump a 6ft fence? Barge out of the car before you put his lead on?) do you know what to do, which authorities to contact, and which organisations are there to help? Have you got a photo of the dog you could use to put on posters? Is the owner contactable if away? Hopefully you will never need to do any of these things, but it is as well to be prepared. In the short term, nothing finds a dog better than another dog, so alert all the dog walkers you meet, and put up posters in car parks popular with them.
Other things you need to consider include:
- Do you know the commands with which the dog you are walking is familiar?
- Do you know what the dog finds rewarding and which treats he might not be allowed?
- If the owner is away, can you recognise the signs of a bitch coming on heat, or a male dog scenting one?
- Is this dog afraid of loud bangs, thunder, traffic?
- Is the dog safe near livestock or horse riders?
- Does he mug people for treats or jump up at them?
- How does he interact with other dogs and is there a particular breed he dislikes?
- If the dog is walked off a headcollar or harness, or wears a muzzle, will he let you put these on?
- Are you aware of any specific coat care needs, for instance if a thorough brush through every day is needed?
- Could you manage the dog at the veterinary surgery, and has the owner provided a letter authorising you to do so?
For many of us, the kindness of someone offering to walk our dog when we can't is immeasurable. Equally, for a friend in need of help, we can lift a real burden of worry simply by exercising their pet until circumstances return to normal. It is one of those gestures that can make such a difference, and we shouldn't be afraid to offer, nor to accept, it. There is nothing better than knowing our dog is in good hands or that a friend has been helped by us. And by giving due thought to what might go wrong, we can ensure that nothing does.