Starting a dog walking business can give you a chance to earn money while working outside with some interesting companions. To be successful, you'll need to bear in mind some legal considerations, including:
Let's walk through each step so you can become a professional dog walker.
As a dog walker, it might 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 isn't risk-free. If Mr. Henderson's Chihuahua Lancelot is injured or killed while in your care, you'd 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:
As part of your considerations, keep in mind that business entities that provide more protection from liability also require more time and expense to create and maintain. If you choose to be anything other than a sole proprietor or general partnership, you'll need to register your business with your state.
In short, you'll need to weigh the added time and expense against the risk to you personally if a dog or someone else is hurt or property damaged while a dog is in your care.
If you want to use a name for your business that's different from your legal name—called a "DBA" (short for "doing business as"), a "trade name," or a "fictitious business name"—you might need to register that name with your city, county, or state. Sole proprietors use DBAs when their business name is different from their personal legal name; LLCs and corporations use DBAs when their business name is different from the name they registered with the state when they formed their business.
For example, suppose Scott Turner is a sole proprietor with a dog walking business that he advertises under the name "Walks and Wags." He might need to register his business name because it's different from his legal name, Scott Turner. You should check with your state and local governments for specific rules.
For more information on the pros and cons of the different types of business entities, read about choosing a business structure.
Like any other business, you need to make sure you're complying with all federal, state, and local laws. You could need to obtain:
Obtaining an EIN. If your business has more than one owner or you have employees, your business is required to have an EIN. If you're a sole proprietor or single-member LLC without employees, then you only need an EIN if you elect to be taxed as a corporation. Even if it's not required, you should consider getting an EIN. Some banks require you to have one to open a business account. The process is easy and can be completed online for free at the IRS website.
Applying for a general business license. You should check with your state and local government to see if you need to obtain a general business license. Sometimes, you'll need to apply for a general business license at the state level, and other times, you'll need to get one from your city or county. For example, most California cities don't require any special license or permit to walk dogs.
Registering with the local tax authority. Depending on your business entity and where your business is located, you might need to register with the tax authority in your state, city, or county. The relevant authority could be your department of revenue or a similar taxing agency. As a dog walker providing services, you probably don't need to worry about reporting or paying sales tax.
Complying with local zoning. Running a dog walking business likely doesn't require you to abide by any zoning laws because your business probably doesn't have a set location you operate from. But if you do have a headquarters, you should check the zoning ordinances for your city or town.
For more information, read our article on the legal requirements for starting your small business.
Walking Fido generally involves Fido stopping to relieve himself. You should be aware of your town or city's rules about cleaning up after dogs. Dogs might only be allowed in specific areas, and you'll probably be required to pick up after the dog you're walking. Similarly, most local governments have laws requiring that all dogs in public places be leashed.
For example, in New York City, if you're in a public place, you must clean up after your dog (or a dog in your care), and your dog must be leashed. Sometimes, you'll see signs with rules regarding dogs. But don't just rely on these signs for guidance.
Because your business will be based on dog walking, you should learn the details of your local government's pet laws 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'll probably need to do at least some advertising. To advertise your services, you could:
Regardless of how you choose to advertise, the best brief pieces of advice are:
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 10-walk discount, the discounted price must really be cheaper than your normal per-walk price.
Different customers can have different ideas about exactly what services you'll provide. It's in your own interest to make clear in advance—in writing—what you will and won't do in a service agreement.
Before your client signs an agreement, it's a good idea to provide your policies up front to minimize any misunderstandings and curb expectations. If you have a website, post your policies there. Regardless of whether you have a website, you should provide a printed document with 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 for a contract for services to be legally binding:
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.
For contract tips, read our article about making a solid business agreement.
A dog walking business presents special risks because you're dealing with live animals and engaged in physical activity. Dogs can be injured or even killed, and you, too, or someone else could be injured.
To protect you and your business, consider the following kinds of insurance coverage:
Insurance does exist specifically for businesses that deal with caring for pets. Probably the most relevant insurance, you can get coverage if a dog in your care gets hurt or sick—for example, if they eat something poisonous or are bit by a stray dog on their walk.
Some pet business insurance providers include:
For further guidance, read about what types of insurance your small business needs.
Starting a dog walking business involves less setup time than the average business. After investigating the steps you need to take and getting your name out there—a must for every business—you're more or less ready to go. You generally don't have to worry about getting a business loan or signing a commercial lease. In addition to the topics we've already covered, you might want to use client management software and payment processors like Square or Stripe.
Many dog walkers can launch their businesses on their own. They can register their business with the state, purchase prepared contracts online, and obtain liability insurance themselves. But if you have legal questions, are unsure whether you need specific licenses and permits, or want someone to review your business contracts, you should talk to a business lawyer. Meeting with an attorney just once might be enough to put you on the right track. You should also consider contracting out your bookkeeping to an accountant. They can make sure you're ready in time for taxes and that you have a good idea of your profit margin.
If you want to start your business on your own but need some extra help, check out Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold (Nolo).