Starting a dog walking business in the State of New York can give you an opportunity to work outdoors with some lively companions. You'll be more likely to succeed if you bear in mind certain legal considerations. These include choosing an appropriate legal form for your business, investigating licenses and zoning, complying with health and safety laws, advertising, preparing policy statements and contracts, and obtaining insurance.
Choosing the Business Entity
For a dog walking business, it may be possible to operate as a sole proprietor or, if more than one person is involved, as a partnership. However, like just about any business, large or small, walking dogs is not risk-free. If Ms. Tottenham's blonde Labrador Charlie is injured or killed while in your care or injures someone else, you would want the business, not you personally, to be responsible for any liability.
Therefore, you should consider using a legal form for your business that provides you with some protection — such as a limited liability company or corporation. As part of your consideration, keep in mind that business entities that provide more protection from liability also require more time and expense to create and maintain. For example, if you want to set up your business as a New York limited liability company ("LLC"), you will need to file Articles of Organization with, and pay a fee to, the New York Secretary of State's Office; you will also need to work with special LLC tax forms each year. In short, you will need to weigh the added time and expense against the risk to you personally if a dog is hurt or damages someone's property while in your care.
Licenses, Permits, and Zoning
Obtaining a federal tax ID number, known formally as an Employer Identification Number (EIN), is often a good idea even if you are a sole proprietor. The process is easy and can be completed online at the IRS website at www.irs.gov. While you should check with your local government to see if you need to obtain a general business permit, most New York cities do not require any special license or permit to walk dogs.
If you plan not only to walk your clients' dogs but also to keep them at your home, you should also check your local zoning laws—and, if you rent, your lease. While it's usually permissible for homeowners to have dogs as pets, there may be issues if you are keeping large numbers of dogs in conjunction with a business. Similarly, while rental agreements often specifically allow or prohibit pets, you should consider whether your landlord or management company is likely to allow you to keep other people's dogs in your rented space. Also keep in mind that keeping other people's dogs for an extended period in exchange for payment constitutes a different type of business than dog walking, and likely will require additional licenses or permits.
Health and Safety
Walking Fifi generally involves Fifi stopping to relieve herself. Many local governments have specific rules requiring that people clean up after their dogs. As examples, Syracuse's municipal code states that a dog is not allowed to defecate on property other than that of the dog's owner, and the municipal code for White Plains states that a person caring for a dog must remove any feces from sidewalks and other public areas. New York City has various rules related to this issue, including one requiring that people clean up after dogs they are caring for while in City parks.
Similarly, many local governments have ordinances requiring all dogs in public places be leashed. Note, however, that New York City has approximately 40 city parks where dogs can be off-leash before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.
Because your business will be based on dog walking, you should learn the details of the pet laws in your area and make sure that you comply with them: You don't want city or county fines cutting into your profits.
While word-of-mouth is often the best way to get new customers, with a new dog walking business you will probably need to do at least some advertising. Regardless of how you choose to advertise (your own website, posting flyers in public spaces, Craigslist, the phone book), the best brief pieces of advice are (a) be accurate and (b) be very careful about describing special discounts or saying that something is "free." If you offer the first walk for free, but there are conditions—perhaps that the customer must commit in advance to a minimum of five walks—you must state what those conditions are. If you offer a ten-walk discount, the discounted price must really be cheaper than your normal per-walk price.
Policy Statements and Contracts
Different customers may have different ideas about exactly what services you will provide. It is in your own interest to make clear in advance—in writing—what you will and won't do. If you have a website, post your policies there. Regardless of whether you have a website, you should provide a printed document containing the policy information to your clients before you reach an agreement and begin walking their dogs.
For example, you should indicate such things as:
Keep in mind that in order for a contract for services to be legally binding, (a) you and your client must agree on what the contract is for (there must be a "meeting of the minds") and (b) there must be an exchange of value (also known as "consideration"—in the case of a cleaning business, usually the exchange of cleaning services for money). If the services involved will be completed in less than a year the contract need not be in writing; however, a written contract is always safer. You should consider drafting—or having a lawyer draft—a standard contract that you can modify for individual clients.
To learn more about policy statements, business contracts, and related matters, see Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred Steingold (Nolo)
A dog walking business presents special risks because you are dealing with live animals and engaged in physical activity. Dogs may be injured or even killed, and you, too, or someone else could be injured. Insurance does exist specifically for businesses that deal with caring for pets. One way or another, you will want to obtain coverage in case of injury to your customers' dogs or damage to other people or their property. Depending on the size and other details of your business, you may also need to investigate coverage for business property. And, if you will be using a car in conjunction with the business, make sure you have proper vehicle insurance, as well.