Professional dog walkers in London sound alarm over curbs on numbers of pets


When drizzle engulfs the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, the only people to be seen are dog walkers.

Alex Marchant prefers it this way. On sunny weekends, he and most of the other members of the Hampstead Professional Dog Walkers Association (HPDWA) avoid the heath.

“It gets quite busy,” he says. “You don’t want to disturb people who are sunbathing.”

On hot weekdays, he arrives early to avoid the dogs getting too hot. In the afternoons, he helps dogs with behavioural problems by going dog running: a 5km jog to give them a proper workout.

Maybe not for much longer though. The City of London Corporation is introducing a licensing scheme for professional dog walkers. The proposals will limit walkers to four dogs and cap the number of licences at 40 per year.

That means Marchant could be one of about 100 professional dog-walkers who the HPDWA believes will be barred from Hampstead Heath, Queen’s Park and Highgate Wood, part of the 11,000 acres of green space that the corporation looks after.

“We’re worried about what will happen to the dogs,” Marchant says. “Our calculation is that it will leave 700 dogs a day without walking services. They could be rehomed or even abandoned.”

If dog owners without a walker leave their pets at home during the day, that can lead to behavioural problems, Marchant says. Not all owners would be prepared to stick by their pet if it begins to cause problems, and one in five people who bought a puppy during the pandemic are already considering rehoming them, according to a Kennel Club survey.

“We’re also worried that the cost will go up and make dog-walking something for only rich people,” Marchant says. His firm, Forest and Fur, charges £25 for a two-hour walk. “That’s the higher end of the spectrum,” he says. “With the cap, some people could end up charging upwards of £40, even £50.”

In discussions with the HPDWA, the City of London has cited safety concerns, suggesting that some walkers have more than 10 dogs with them, an uncontrollable amount.

“We don’t object to the idea of having a maximum of four dogs,” Marchant says. He is walking with five: Marcel, Vegas, Margot, Maude and Mochi, but insurers already limit their policies for professionals to cover a maximum of six dogs, he says. “All we’re asking for is for the same rights as walkers in other parks, like the Royal Parks – they have no cap.”

Margot’s owner, Tracy Short, a self-employed career coach, told the Observer she was “really concerned” about the proposed rules.

“Socialisation with other dogs is key, and she’s a much happier dog as a result of her regular twice-weekly walks,” Short said. “But my husband and I are both self-employed, and if the price goes up we won’t be able to afford it any more. This is going to hit a lot of people where it hurts.”

More than 4,400 people have signed a petition against the restrictions, and when walking around the heath’s northern extension with Marchant, it’s clear that many private dog owners are equally concerned by the changes.

“I’m a barrister and I ordinarily work outside London,” says Kerrie Croxford, who is with her two dogs, Orlando and Hardy. “At the moment we’re doing remote hearings but it looks like I’ll be back in court from November. I’m worried about how I’m going to get my dogs looked after.”

Rachel Morris, who is out with Dodger, says the professionals are a vital part of the dog-walking community, helping to find lost dogs and spot potential dog thieves. “It’s a family,” she says. “We look out for other people’s dogs, we make play dates, we educate each other. Dogs are pack animals, so meeting other dogs is really important to get them socialised.”

The Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest animal welfare charity, is also concerned about the limit of 40 licences and urged the corporation to reconsider. Hannah Evans, senior public affairs officer, said restrictions would have “a detrimental effect on dog welfare, for example with dogs being left home alone for long periods of time,” she said. “Where owners do not have other sources of support, we are concerned that limiting options for professional walkers could result in some owners having to give up their dogs.”

But the rise in dog ownership has brought other problems. In March, the Royal Parks asked dog owners to stick to paths and keep their pets on leads to protect skylarks, which nest on the ground. The RSPCA said it backed the idea of licensing professional dog walkers.

Dr Sam Gaines, the RSPCA’s dog welfare expert, said: “Currently, only a small number of local authorities have anything that resembles regulations for dog walkers, which means there are no checks on who these people are and how they ensure the needs of the dogs in their care are being met.”

He said it was “a positive step that some councils are choosing to license professional dog walking” and said schemes needed to require professionals to have up-to-date knowledge about their responsibilities.

A City of London Corporation spokesperson said it would keep licence numbers “under review”, and “if additional licences can be issued without the commercial activity impacting on wildlife, the amenity of the heath, and without causing disruption to recreational users, this will be considered.”

A review would come too late for the dog walkers, Marchant said. “Who can afford to keep their business on hold for a year?”