New leash on life: How to be top dog in your own pet-care business

Charlotte Reed, careers for pet loversAs Charlotte Reed delved into the details of her seminar, Career Opportunities for Pet Lovers, Midnight Angel Drouet blurted out from the audience, "You're scaring me." Reed responded, "It's all about being enlightened."

Starting a pet-care business such as walking, sitting or grooming can be the cat's pajamas, But it's a dog-eat-dog world right now. The recession has encouraged newly unemployed animal lovers to try pursuits that allow them to work around furry and feathery friends, Reed said. Outlasting the growing competition requires more than just showing up at clients with a leash and a plastic bag.

You'll need "knowledge and a small amount of money for a potentially lucrative career," said Reed, an ex-Wall Street attorney turned founder and owner of Two Dogs & A Goat Incorporated, a 25-employee pet-care service.

Reed's audience in midtown Manhattan included a laid-off pharmaceutical company worker, a former copy editor at Playboy, and a college student. All were looking for the keys to unlocking a market that Reed estimated could gross them around $35,000 the first year with full commitment.

Reed reminded attendees that the opportunities don't end at cats and dogs. Bird-sitters earn a premium ($35 a visit) because so few are qualified. And don't forget the other end of pet-care -- waste removal. Reed knows someone with a poop-scooping business in New York and Connecticut who has seven trucks making a total of 1,400 stops a week at $15 a visit. On the sweeter-smelling side, Reed said groomers can earn certification from a well-known school such as the New York School of Dog Grooming or the Nash Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. Full tuition for the latter is $3,000.

The following are some of Reed's tips for dog-walking and sitting, which require less overhead. The startup tab runs around $500, including business cards, extra leash, first-aid kit for dogs, and bonding.

Research: Read training manuals, visit the pet store to learn about the different leashes and collars, and at least Google the breed you'll be taking care of. Dog owners can sniff out the ignorant.
Visit the vet: Advertising at first is a low-tech affair: Drop off business cards and flyers at the local vet and at the doormen in apartments near you. Ask friends to put out feelers as well. You can try community sites such as Craigslist, but you might attract more weirdos.
Join in: Sign up for a dog-walking organizations such as the National Association of Professional Pet-Sitters. You can kibbitz with the like-minded, seek out new clientele, and perhaps explore another marketing avenue.
Cover your tracks: Beginners should at least invest in a $50 bond for $5,000 of coverage. Insurance for $25,000 worth of liability for a year costs around $275, Reed said.
Know the going rates: In New York City, for instance, dog walkers charge an average of $16 per half-hour and $27 per hour, Reed said. Overnight pet-sitting, which includes three walks and a sleepover, can earn around $100 a day. Even though pack-walking could multiply your earnings, Reed does not recommend it. The same applies to letting dogs loose in a dog run. Both practices increase the odds of the unpredictable happening -- and you could be liable.
Dress like a human being: You will be entering someone's home, so be presentable.
Like dogs: We hate to state the obvious, but mercenaries will get chewed up alive in this racket. Lack of enthusiasm will earn you the paws-down from Fido and Fido's owner.
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