Updated: Aug 2, 2020
So you have taken the decision to leave that dreary job that makes Mondays a dread and trade them for happy puppies instead, then look no further, here is a proven step by step guide of how to build and grow a successful dog walking business. Taylor and Pooch started in 2016 and since gone on to win a national business commendation award, has also been voted in the Top 3 Dog Walkers within Hull for the last 3 years running. (18,19,20)
A little about me......
I'm Nick a former Royal Marines commando turned pirate hunter turned dog walker 😎 my life was turned upside down in 2015 and luckily put me on the path to starting this business.
If you would like to see my story and why Taylor and Pooch came to be, please watch here :)
Creating a brand
Back in 2016 when my business was only a dream the first process I went through was to create a brand, the name and logo was the first port of call. When it comes to a business name, it needs to be catchy, relevant, rememberable and ideally unique as possible especially in such a competitive industry. When you put that business name into google, you want to be the only business that fills that front page, if there are others in my personal opinion the name has to go. I feel very lucky remembering a childhood film of Turner and Hooch and being able to make clever spin off to create my business name 'Taylor and Pooch'. Having a location within your name can help people identify you as a local dog walker to them, this will also help with google ranking too but may have an impact on future business if you want to grow big and potentially franchise out.
Logo next - There are plenty of companies out there that will happily design your logo, as long as have you a few ideas, they will knock something up and tweak to your requirements but do your due diligence with these companies, read reviews or use someone you know (if possible) as there are some rip offs unfortunately (speaking from personal experience) I personally believe that creating a good brand, even before you have walked a dog is huge. It gives the base platform to grow from, looks professional and helps put potential clients at ease when all aspects of the business show that you care. I knew from the first moment what my logo would be and clear vision to put this in place, tying together my previous career within the Royal Marines and also my love of dogs (specifically bulldogs) plus a boxing bulldog wearing a green beret has always been an old school symbol of the Royal Marines add logo.
Here in lies the first very difficult decision when it comes to setting up a dog walking business which predominantly relies on budget. The vehicle needs to have capability for a good quality cage fit and needs to be as reliable as possible, nothing worse than having your van off the road last minute when you have the day fully booked up. Letting down the clients is never a good look and losing a days money is a pain plus the garage fees on top just rubs salt into the wounds.
As a base level entry you could always use your personal car and use crates etc to start with small numbers of dogs and look towards buying a van in the future once business has grown, however this isn’t without its own drawbacks. First of all it is not the safest method of transporting dogs in a professional manor on a daily basis, secondly a personal car doesn’t look particularly professional when you turn up to a clients house to collect their beloved dog in just a car and thirdly if a request to walk a Newfoundland, Pyrenees Mountain dog, or a St Bernard is received (i have walked all 3) where would they fit.
The next option up would be to buy a small van, Ford Transit Connect, Citroen Berlingo, Vw caddy, Peugeot Partner, Citroen Dispatch etc. These vans are fairly cheap to buy and run but you are then limited to how many cages can be fit, also their size. A small van would be able to fit 4 medium - large sized cages (2 rear, 2 side) with a double side rear door or 2 smaller with a single sliding door. The rear cages could be split providing 4 in the rear but could throw up a future size problem for a giant breed.
My personal choice was to initially go for a Ford Transit and then as business grew and a newer vehicle became affordable a Ford Transit Custom was the next choice. Other vans within the same size range are Mercedes Vito, Vw Transporter, Citroen Dispatch, Peugeot Expert etc. All these vans have very similar load capability and will all allow 4 good sized cages in the back and 2/3 good sized cages in the side with a multitude of sizing options throughout. Add pictures>>
All vehicles have their Pros and Cons which predominantly comes down to how big the budget is to buy one, allowing for a cage fit on top (which I will cover in more detail next) Looking at your business long term, a good purchase here will help, not only will a decent van provide a safe, professional looking vehicle but also less trips to the garage will always help (i have experienced the wrong side of this) I think the future for dog walking vehicles is electric, for cheaper running costs and a charge would cover a daily drive, whilst also being much more environmentally safe. Electric would also be more helpful with regards to the constant stop starting while picking up and dropping off dogs before and after walks.
Once the size and type of vehicle has been selected it’s time to select a suitable cage fit. There are two main options when it comes to fitting a vehicle out with cages.
Firstly the easiest way (but not always the best) is to find a vehicle that has already been fitted out as a dog walking van, either ex military / police or a lunatic dog walker that has decided to stop dog walking for some bizarre reason and re(purpose/use) those vehicles. This was the way that I regrettably went about starting my dog walking vehicle journey. My first van was an ex military dog van, a ford transit with a complete cage fit out already installed. These vehicles are usually high mileage and probably not the best priced due to having already been fitted out, saving the new owner the hassle (the hassle is most definitely worth it) moving me nicely onto the second and more viable option.
3 years into my business and my other business venture, (shares in the garage) I was finally in a position to upgrade the van. Which I personally wish I could have done straight off the bat. This time around was going to be better, and personally the way I would recommend if possible. Find the exact vehicle which you would like to use for the job and then take the van to a cage specialist to have them make a custom build to your own specifications for you and the van, GO BIG and definitely don’t go home. These are the guys that I used https://madaboutpetsuk.co.uk and I would highly recommend. With a big setup you can then accommodate any situation going forward and with a more reliable van hopefully less trips to the garage and more trips to the beach.
This is where the brand and the vehicle get tied together and is one of the best advertising tools out there (especially for the cost per view) when it comes to graphics the cost is entirely based on budget, starting off with basic magnetic signs for around £20-£30, or a full van wrap with medium detail for around £200 (the middle van) My latest vans I changed the design slightly and spent a little more, around £400 but that also includes a custom bonnet wrap (vans either side)
The sky is the limit but not always the budget. My latest vehicle wraps were done by https://www.mattvg.com they are amazing from start to finish.
Logo and name are prepped and ready to be placed onto a nice looking polo shirt, hoody and jacket. I personally feel that looking professional always gives off a good vibe to a potential client, a polo shirt with your details and logo plus some walking trousers and shoes / boots (I'm still rocking my afghan boots 😎) is a really professional look plus it’s also very appropriate clothing for the ever changing weather within the uk.
Having the correct paperwork not only helps cover your backside but it’s another element that helps the client know that you are serious about your new career. The main paperwork required is a contract Ts & Cs and also a checklist for the dog.
Contract - This gives both client and dog walker a good starting point and base from which the relationship is to be built from. A form that can set out basic rules and restrictions and also where liability ultimately lies while their dog is under the dog walkers control. You can set out minimum bookings and notice / charges for cancellations etc. This will also confirm whether the owner is happy for you to walk their dog off the lead - legal requirement for insurance. Owners best contact details, mobile and work plus their vets details are a must too.
Ts & Cs - This is predominantly where you set out the owners responsibilities throughout their engagement with the business, including but not excluded too - Vaccinations up to date, regular flea / worming, owner to ensure dog walker is aware of any behavioural traits (dog checklist form) emergency contact details, dog to wear a tag, access to their property plus a good place to lay out all booking / cancellation requirements.
Checklist for dog - When you first meet with the customer and their dog, this is a really handy tool that gives you a way to evaluate a dog before even walking them on their own, let alone with others. Rather than just going to meet both owner and dog, having a structured form with you can help you attain all the information required before starting dog walking. Which can include, their behavioural traits, how good the recall is, are they socialised, if they prefer big or small dogs, if there has ever been incidents with a specific breed, are they frightened off anything or will lunge towards a specific vehicle (buses / bicycles) handy to know before hand trust me, can you take things from them. This is also a good way to annotate where the dog will be located within the house and where the owner would like the dog putting back when dropping off in varying weather conditions and where towels are located for down pours.
I may include mine for download if anyone is interested? Let me know 🤓
Insurance and CRB check
Both insurance and a CRB (A basic criminal record background check) help cover your bottom and also give potential clients a positive outlook towards your business when making their selection of a dog walker.
Insurance options - I started with Cliverton and have recently changed to Pet Plan sanctuary
A few possible options for services that can be provided. If I had known about all demands on starting then I would have attempted to add them in earlier.
Dog walking - I personally wanted to build the business around dog walking and find ways to grow when time went by, not long after starting the walking is when requests for different services started to come in, that being said I think dog walking is the place to start and concentrate on, as these customers long term will potentially use the other services down the line. Average price is £10 per dog per hour.
Home boarding - If you are in a position where you own a house or have a lenient landlord then home boarding is a very viable option, home boarding has become very popular over the last few years as we don’t like to use boarding kennels as much anymore, home boarding is only slightly more expensive than boarding kennels and it’s a much more personal experience. If you are in a position to operate this as part of the business, approach the local authority with a request for a licence and then methodically run through the licence procedure. Print of a checklist and make sure every part is checked off, this has been updated recently and is around 35 pages of requirements, plus a floor plan, safety / fire plan and a risk assessment on top too.
I may help with the application process for a fee, if you need help :)
Day Care - A very similar business opportunity to home boarding but throughout the working day instead, this will also need a licence application and numbers will be limited to space / room in the property. £15-£20 per day per dog achievable.
Pet taxi - This is not the most lucrative business opportunity, but is a really good opportunity to meet dog owners within the local area who may use other services that you offer. I would always try and fit a taxi job in around dog walking within that area, to ensure as big a profit as possible.
Home visits - I would always consider long term goals when it comes to offering home visits, as you could potentially give up a prime spot during the day to a home visit, in which you could be walking numerous dogs instead. However if there is an opportunity where a home visit for say a puppy is going to turn into a walking customer then I think these are worth pursuing. These are my personal preferences and has worked for me long term.
In this day and age an online digital presence is huge and is where a very large amount of the work is going to come from especially in the beginning, once set up word of mouth plays a huge part too but initially having your brand in as many places as possible will massively increase your potential for people to see that you exist.
A website is a good way to collate all basic (initially) business information in one place and tell your personal story. The website content itself can be improved and change over time as the business builds and more content is created. This then becomes one of your landing pages for you, once the website link is placed in different locations online. A good website will cost a good wedge of money plus maintenance fees on top to maintain, another area that needs due diligence, I personally came a cropper in this area and ended up £500 lighter with a dreadful website which my dog could have probably done a better job at creating. I have now created my own website through wix.com which is super user friendly and also very easy to alter and edit, making life much easier to update when needed. If possible find someone you know to help or learn to create one if possible. For initial pictures to set up, you can get stock pictures quite easily or borrow friends dogs to give the business a starting point. Once up and running add in your own pictures and videos.
Facebook - Setting up a business page on Facebook is the needs must of having a digital presence, a great place to showcase your business, an easy way to share your page among friends, add reviews from happy customers and set up extremely powerful target marketing (will cover in more detail further along) Pictures are easy to upload and a local reach is easy to achieve. Feel free to have a look, or give me a cheeky like 😉www.facebook.com/taylorandpooch
Instagram - Instagram is a really easy way to showcase your daily routine and build your brand, it has never been massive attaining work but I still think it’s a powerful tool in building brand and showing your customers / potential customers plenty of happy dogs under your care.
(Both Facebook and instagram can be used to schedule posts which is a really handy way to post throughout the day / week and constantly show your brand while not having to worry about it day by day)
Twitter - In all honesty Twitter is not a platform I have personally got along with however I will be re attempting to try Twitter again to increase brand awareness throughout another platform.
Tik Tok - Tik Tok has recently become a very popular online platform and with some creativity, could be an extremely powerful digital tool to assist with building brand.
So we are all set up and good to go, now we need to get the brand out there. These activities should be done concurrently to increase exposure as much as possible.
Flyers - This is where I started which I wish I had done concurrently with other tricks, however delivering flyers did help as this was a way to try and choose the areas that I was hoping to cover. Picked an area went in a morning and spent day after day delivering 1000’s of flyers, moving to a new area once one was complete. This is also a useful technique due to being able to speak with potential customers while out and about. I casted my net fairly far in a radius around my location and then built on where the customers started from. Not only can these flyers be posted directly to houses, also look at putting flyers up in local businesses where there is foot fall.
Facebook - You know when you talk about something or search for an item and the next minute you start to see adverts, we can utilise that. Facebook is a very powerful tool for marketing, within the business page is an advertising section which can target a very specific area for dog walking. You can choose a specific area In which Facebook will place your advert onto newsfeeds within that area, on top you can choose specific demographics (age, sex interests) to really make sure that you are hitting the audience that will have the most impact. A really simple technique to attain brand awareness is to create a like, tag and share competition, you can then also spend a small amount of money to increase the reach of this. As for a prize, there is few simple solutions - either offer a service to a winner or maybe even a selection of dog treats etc or an alternative would be too approach another business and ask them for a discount on an item to give away as a prize, this way you can get a really good prize at a discounted rate and the company get some free advertising on their brand. Offer a free week to your first 5 customers who book a months walks, minimum 2 walks a week etc.
Online Directories - yell.com, https://dogwalkerdirectory.co.uk, https://pet-pages.co.uk, are a couple of examples, try and find as many of these possible, they provide an ongoing advert that may bring in work long term but also some back links which are positive for your website.
Third party lead providers - bark.com, https://www.starofservice.co.uk, tailster.com, dogwalkingnow.co.uk - These sites are basically a lead collection site, where they heavily advertise dog walking services and then approach dog walking businesses and sell them the leads, I’m not a huge fan of these companies as they steal leads from businesses and then sell them to the business that they stole the lead from, however as a starting point a good place to generate some enquiries for little effort.
Don’t be afraid to turn down work that doesn’t fit your long term plan for work, I felt like taking work on that I would potentially have to let go once work built up where I wanted, would be a negative move and potentially build bad press towards the business.
The First customer
WooHoo you have received your first enquiry from a potential customer, lets do this. Arrange a time that is suitable for the customer and turn up ready to win them over (the dog) don’t be late!!!!!
Paperwork (in a nice folder) ✓
Turning up at your first potential customers house with all of the above will put you in a really good starting position. These appointments get easier over time that’s for sure. My previous careers within the Royal Marines and private security on the ships certainly helped me with these meet and greets however I was still nervous as this was me trying to convince a dog owner that they could trust me with their pup and also a completely new venture of starting my own business and this was the start (hopefully)
Take treats with you, take your time, if needs be sit on the floor with the dog, you are there to win the dog over and make sure the owner is happy with you, in that order! Go through your structured paper work, to make sure that you have all the information required. Answer any questions that the owner may have for you, arrange a schedule for walks or maybe even just a trial. I personally wouldn’t offer exact times for walks as you can be potentially be setting up for a fail long term, break your day down into sections and offer early, late morning and same for the afternoon, with a rough estimate for the time of collection / drop off. Make sure a key is ready for you if the owner will be out on collection.
The first walk
Arrive at the customers house within the time bracket that was given, take treats with you just incase the dog is unsure of you etc, take your time, reward the dog for coming with you and also upon entering the cage (this might be the first time) Take this walk as a time to get to know your first dog and walk them somewhere quiet with little or no distractions.
When it comes to introducing new dogs to the pack, this is where finding out as much information before walking them is so important and after a while you will learn so much about all of the dogs and have a good idea as to which dogs will get along before you even try. But up until that point a slow introduction is always important, if things don’t work out try and create different packs until eventually you have a few different groups which all get along (this takes time but will eventually happen)
Day to Day running
Keep organised!!! Keep a diary (or two), use an app or online spreadsheet but make sure that each day you know which dogs are booked in where and when. Find a booking system which you are happy with, whether it be weekly / monthly. Be flexible if possible as you may get last minute bookings in a morning or late at night etc.
Try and have a long term goal for where you want the business to go and book walks accordingly, do you want x amount of solo walks throughout the day or a couple of pack walks and bare this in mind when taking on new clients to make sure it's a fit with your long term plans
Try to keep active with enquiry responses, whether it be by email or phone and Facebook etc.
Keeping Customers Happy
Keeping customers can be just as difficult as gaining new ones. I believe it’s very important to be honest and own any mistake that you may make, we are human at the end of the day and mistakes do happen, especially working with dogs, they usually react in the way you really don’t want at exactly the same time as when you really don’t want them too. As long as the mistakes are kept to a minimum.
I think there’s a fairly simple ethos when it comes to keeping customers happy, provide a really good service, do what you promise to do, turn up within time frame, allow the customers to see visual proof of their dog happy and be honest, if you forget to book them in, or even forget to pick them up.
I personally think this is the most difficult part of the business, once you are up and running walking dogs on a regular basis, to bring in more dogs you need to get creative with capturing content of the dogs playing and having fun. Having a decent camera on your phone is a good place to start. My first pictures in comparison to now were pretty rubbish but I took them every day and uploaded pictures daily to social platforms, as time went by my skill and equipment improved, the better the content that can be created will very much please the owners, as they can see how much fun their dog is having and will also interest potential clients too. My current equipment for content creation
Nikon D750 - DSLR
Mavic Mini - Drone
Go Pro action camera (yes there is a dog harness this attaches too)
Adobe Lightroom for picture editing
The more effort that is put into your brand the better, the first 2/3 years were a hard slog with little time off but definitely paid off, the work in the background is very important too.
Networking with Local Dog Walkers
This is a really good way to learn valuable information, meet like minded folk who have similar interests and as mad as it may sound, sharing work with your competition is a really good long them investment especially when it comes to home boarding work (big demand, small decent supply) if you receive an enquiry for dog walking / home boarding and you can’t cover the job, then throwing to over to someone who can, is a really good way to build professional relationships and also this work will come back around.
This section is very important to improve the survivability rate of the business.
How long can you survive without receiving a full wage for?
Do you have savings to cover a few months?
Do you have a partner to cover the mortgage / bills etc?
Could you get another job to assist the initial period?
I personally had savings that allowed me to set up and cover me until I was earning enough to cover my expenses / living costs and eventually earning a wage. My budget was very strict for each individual set up element, hence why I didn’t get the best van on the planet but was enough to start me off.
There is government help available which is a nice top up to assist in getting you off the ground, I firstly applied for a New Enterprise Allowance which was around £50 per week for 3 months and then around £40 a week for 3 months. They also offer a start up loan too if you need assistance with bigger lay outs at the beginning.
Once up and running you may be able to apply for working tax credits, this is worked out initially on your projected earnings for your first years profits. With vehicle purchases and other set up expenses this “profit’ will likely be £0 which equates to the full tax credits amount, which for me personally was around £60 per week, I would advise waiting until the business is established a little before applying as they can refuse an application based on a business that’s not performing greatly.
Stay with me..... Nearly finished :)
Expenses are what will decide how much your profit is throughout the tax year (April - March) and ultimately how much tax you will pay. Your profit = Turnover (The total amount paid to you) - Expenses (All allowable expenses paid out by you)
Allowable Expenses that I use;
Website (creation, upkeep)
Clothing (purchasing, printing)
How you declare vehicle day to day expenses can be done in two different ways;
Actual Costs - Actual costs is exactly that, you can claim every penny that you spend on your vehicle as long as you only use the vehicle for work and not pleasure, if you use the vehicle for both then only a % of fuel can be claimed (the time used for work) these costs are;
Mileage - The other way to claim vehicle expenses is to claim for the mileage, you can claim 45p per mile upto 10,000 business miles and 25p per mile over. It’s worth figuring out which way works out best for each personal situation. You are unable to claim any other vehicle expenses if claiming the mileage way.
Everyones favourite subject, finding a system that works for you will save a lot of time when it comes to submitting your books. Whether you employ an accountant to submit them for you or submit them yourself, having a good record will always help.
Keep a diary for clients
Keep your receipts
Have an expenses book / excel spreadsheet
Keep up to date with turnover / expenses either monthly or quarterly
Knowing your projection earnings will help with tax credits, to get the correct payment
An accountant will cost around £200 to submit yours books for you, but personally submitting them yourself online is a fairly easy process and the gov.uk website works most out for you.
Submission example - April 19 - March 20 will need to be submitted before 31st January 2021
Current Tax allowance (June 2020) is £12,500 - This means that you are allowed to earn £12,500 profit!! Before you have to pay any tax, any profit that is over this threshold requires a payment of 20%
If your profit is over £50,000, first of all well done, second of all you will need to pay 40% of your “very” hard earned pennies in tax. 40% of anything above £50,000.
National Insurance for me works out around 9% of profit above £9,500