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Calgary dog walkers say new bylaw puts a leash on growing business

Calgary dog walkers said the city took a bite out of their business with the updated Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw.

The bylaw, which hadn’t been updated in 12 years, was approved by Calgary city council earlier this week.  

The update includes a new restriction for individuals to be limited to six dogs off-leash in designated off-leash areas at one time. There are no limits on the number of dogs that can be walked on-leash, the City of Calgary said in a statement.

The city wants safety for both pets and Calgarians, but it creates obstacles for how those in the dog walking industry run their businesses, owners said.

Professional dog walkers largely agree with the need for restrictions, but also see various problems the new wording of the bylaw could have on their ability to maintain their livelihoods and their clientele, Hailey Seidel, owner and founder of Calgary Dog Walkers, said.

“Some people see this as just [a] fun career … [it] might be something that they can just get into with there not being any barriers to entry in terms of business license or any type of restrictions on operations,” Seidel said.

“It really can create an unsafe environment if it’s not done well, if people don’t have the proper training, if they don’t have the right experience.”

Kim O’Mahony, co-owner and co-founder of Dawg Tired Inc., said there are leash-reactive dogs – another obstacle dog walkers face in light of the updates.

“Meaning that when they’re off leash and playing with dogs, they’re fine, they have no issue. But if they’re on a leash, they become reactive – snapping, snarling, jumping, biting, pulling, screaming … the likelihood of a dangerous incident increases,” O’Mahony said.

“Off-leash parks are called off-leash for a reason.”

Effects of the bylaw

The majority of the bylaw is directed towards managing general members of the public, but professional dog walking businesses will be most directly impacted, Seidel said.

Dog walkers have seen a spike in demand for their services since the puppy adoption boom Calgary experienced from the beginning of COVID-19.

Despite this increase, the updated off-leash limitations will force dog walking business owners to rework the way they conduct their services – including raising the cost of care.

“The price will go up and now the access to this service for a lot of people is going to become cost prohibitive,” Seidel said.

“So we may see a higher increase of animals returned to shelters or if people can’t get support with their pet care. We may see an influx of animals needing to be re-homed as people return to work because it just becomes cost-prohibitive.”

Lyndsay Bellemore, operations manager of Calgary Dog Walkers, on a walk with four of the companies regulars, Oliver, Rundle, Franklin and Bruce. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

By costing people out, only the really wealthy would be able to afford dog walks for their dogs and those who are unable to physically walk their dogs, such as seniors, will cause further problems, O’Mahony said.

To abide by the updates, business owners would be forced to make more hard decisions.

“It’s sad. Our company employs a total of 10 people, so what do those people do with their mortgages? What are those people to do with their rents? What do we do?” O’Mahony said.

There are only so many hours in a day to work with the dogs, she said. For many, it’s not just about the job, it’s about being a part of a client’s – and their dog’s – life.

“We are important to them. We help their lives function so that everybody can live their best lives. And the bylaw is going to affect that,” O’Mahony said.

Steps towards resolving the issues

There are conflicting recollections of whether or not the dog walking industry was contacted during the engagement period.

“The bylaw update was guided by input from comprehensive public engagement; including feedback provided by Calgarians, industry stakeholders, Councillors’ offices, City of Calgary staff, internal animal statistics, best practice information, a municipal scan of 33 communities and extensive industry research,” the City of Calgary said in a statement.

However, both Seidel and O’Mahony said the City didn’t speak with businesses about these changes.

“I’m glad that they attempted to communicate with people and get people’s opinions, But unfortunately the opinions that they were listening to, were not those of people who are actually going to be affected,” O’Mahony said.

“So, they didn’t acknowledge that businesses were even being run. The manager of the city … didn’t even know that this was even on the radar – that small businesses, were going to be affected.”

Yesterday afternoon, Rundle, Bruce and Oliver swam in the Elbow River to cool off partway through their walk with Bellemore. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Consulting dog walking industry

Coun. Evan Woolley asked if the city consulted the dog walking industry when making this change. He said from what he’s heard, it would be quite disruptive. The city said they didn’t engage specifically on that question.

“Instead, we took feedback that we heard, concern around dogs, and wanting to ensure the overall safety in off-leash parks,” responded Jennifer Lawlor, with the City.

When Woolley asked about whether the viability of that business model was considered, city admin said no.

“That change was contemplated, not specifically for any one business, but for overall access of off-leash parks,” Lawlor said.

Despite the different recollections of that time, those in the dog walking industry are hopeful that there will be some sort of action taken to resolve these issues. They are now discussing ways to address the issues with the City.

Future changes, consultation with industry

Woolley attempted to advocated for dog walkers at City Council, to amend the bylaw to allow for more, but was unsuccessful.

“What we would end up with is a bunch of people not having dogs walked at home, a bunch of dogs stay in the houses for too long and poorly behaved dogs,” Woolley said.

As of now, the rule still includes restricting dog walkers to the six dog off-leash limit – with the bylaw updates set to take effect January 1, 2022.

“Right now Council has asked us to do some further investigation in consultation with dog walkers this year and we’ll be reporting back by the end of 2021. As to whether or not any adjustments need to be made to accommodate that industry,” Lawlor said.

Various professional dog walkers are currently in the process of finalizing an advocacy group to protect their businesses. It would be the Association of Calgary Pet Care Professionals (ACPP).

The hope of forming the ACCP is to make dog walking a licensed business and have an authenticated voice for the industry. This has been supported by Sonya Sharp, the City’s Business and Local Economy Leader, O’Mahony said.