Starting a dog walking business has its own set of legal considerations. These include choosing the proper business entity, dealing with licenses and zoning, complying with relevant health and safety rules, advertising, creating policy statements and contracts, and getting 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. Mackenzie's giant poodle Freckles is injured or killed while in your care or injures someone else's person or property, 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 considerations, keep in mind that business entities that provide more protection from liability also require more time and effort to maintain. For example, they generally involve more complicated tax returns and frequently involve preparing annual filings with the state. You will need to weigh the added time against the risk to you personally if a dog is hurt or hurts someone else while in your care.
Learn more about choosing a business structure.
Licenses, Permits, and Zoning
Even if you operate as a sole proprietor, you should consider obtaining a federal tax ID number, known formally as an Employer Identification Number (EIN). The process is easy and can be completed online at the IRS website. While you should check with your local government to see if you need to obtain a general business permit, most 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.
Health and Safety
Walking Rex generally involves Rex stopping to relieve himself. Many cities have specific rules requiring that people clean up after their dogs. Similarly, many cities have ordinances requiring all dogs in public places be leashed. Because your business will be based on dog walking, you should learn the details of any dog sanitation ordinances and leash laws, and make sure that you comply with them: You don't want fines reducing 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.
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 or someone else could be injured as well. 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.
Additional general information on insurance is available in Nolo's article on Obtaining Business Insurance. Specific information on pet sitter insurance is available at petsits.com.