The Bones of the Business (Alphabitch, Day 8)

When I showed up to my interview last October, my boss was seated in the window of a coffee shop wearing Bean boots and a sweater emblazoned with a black lab.  She couldn’t have looked more MAINE if she tried.  We talked for an hour; she told me about the job and I told her about myself, and by the end of the interview I knew I wanted to work for her.

My boss lives and breathes dogs.  She started as a walker herself many moons ago, and when her former boss decided to sell the business, she bought it.  Now she runs the entire operation.  She has a few part-time employees (like me) to take care of daily walks, overnight stays and house calls, but she does everything else.  To put it plainly, my boss knows her shit.  Inside and out, backwards and forwards, she can do this job singlehandedly in her sleep.  And probably has at some point because DOG WALKING.

My boss vets each and every client we have, not just the canines, but the humans too.  Before accepting any new dog, she meets with his or her family first to assess personality and fit.  Because we have an established client base, it’s important to determine the temperament of a new dog before committing to his or her care.  Equally important is deciding whether this dog can join one of our packs, or will have to remain a solo client and be walked alone.

It’s a balancing act.  New clients must be absorbed into the already busy schedules of the walkers (and there are only a few of us) but the needs of long-standing clients always take precedence.  A new dog can join an established pack only if he or she meets certain criteria.

Number One: TEMPERAMENT.  The new dog must have the right sort of personality.  If the pack is mostly young and playful, an older or sedate dog won’t enjoy the walks very much.  The same goes for a young dog joining an older, slower pack.  As in music, tempo matters.

Number Two: GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION.  Walks are based on proximity to the rest of the pack.  If a new dog lives too far from an established pack, he or she would automatically disqualify.  We are paid not by mile, but by dog.  And we work set mid-day hours, so we don’t have time to be driving all over.  Dogs must be grouped together to make walking them financially feasible.

Number Three: AVAILABILITY.  Walkers can only take five dogs at a time.  If a pack has an opening and a new client meets the criteria above, wonderful!  WELCOME.  Otherwise, no.

My boss does her best to group packs so that travel is as quick and convenient as possible.  Ideally, dogs live in close proximity to each other and an attractive place (or places!) to walk.  Most workdays I handle an average of seven or eight dogs, divided into one or two multi-pack walks, and a couple solo walks.  Today I had only six dogs; one pack of four and two solo walks.  Tomorrow (Friday) I have nine dogs; one 4-pack, one three-pack, and two solos.  Sometimes, especially if there’s an emergency need, I will have five separate walks.  But that’s pushing it.  My busiest workday to date was a Tuesday.  I had Adventure Time for three hours in the morning and then four or five walks in the afternoon; with driving it took me almost eight hours.

For convenience I often walk solo dogs right in their neighborhood.  Which might sound boring if you live in suburbia, but being on the southern coast of Maine, these “neighborhood” walks are right on the ocean!  Or in the woods!  Or along a promenade of mansions!  It’s incredibly lovely.  Pack walks are almost always off-leash in the woods or at the beach, except during peak summer months when the beaches are closed to dogs (but not tourists).

The question I am asked most while working is ARE THOSE ALL YOUR DOGS?  Usually by someone with a fairly horrified look on his or her face.  I’m not sure how many folks actually own five dogs, but I’ve never been one of them.  “No, I’m a dog walker.  These are my clients.”  Nine times out of ten, the person standing before me then relaxes.  It’s like they can loosen up because they’ve verified I’m not insane.  This has happened so many times, it’s uncanny.

Dog walking requires dedication.  Not a little bit of discipline, but an awful lot.  Taking care of people’s pets isn’t a bazillion dollar business for nothing.  PEOPLE LOVE THEIR PETS.  Often more than their own family.  You’re taking on responsibility for perhaps the most important thing in another person’s life, and that’s nothing to shake a stick at (pun intended).  Dog walking’s not for flakes.  If you call out sick or stand somebody up, a dog is pooping inside.  NO ONE WANTS THAT.  Especially someone paying good money to make certain their beloved best friend is happy and healthy.  My boss takes her business seriously, and because I respect her and our clients, I do too.

The challenges of this job really are things you can’t control.  The weather most of all.  But also, working with DOGS… there’s no telling what they’re going to do.  Sometimes they pose a challenge with each other.  We walk in public places where dogs are often off-leash, not just our clients but others.  You may encounter another person’s dog and have an altercation, or there could be a problem within a pack.  If at any time one of our client’s dogs displays aggression or untoward behavior toward another dog or person, the dog/s in question are immediately separated.  Then there’s an assessment.  My boss may recommend some type of training or professional intervention, or insist upon a period of separation.  In the most severe cases a problem dog will be excluded from future pack walks and become a solo client.  Thankfully this rarely happens.

Working with dogs is like being a camp counselor for a bunch of nonverbal grade schoolers who can pee and poop outside.  They fight, they play, they run oft.  This Tuesday one of my Adventure Time dogs just disappeared.  One minute she was standing at the top of a ridge, the next GONE.  She leapt over the ledge and… ran off after a deer?  I’m still not sure, but she didn’t come back for 25 minutes.  After the first fifteen I called my boss, simply to let her know what was happening.  After another ten she just trotted up like she’d never left.  That’s a dog for you.  Twenty-five straight minutes of me calling her name, and she returns, tail wagging, happy as can be.  I just praised her and gave her a treat (I was very grateful).  You can’t get mad, it’s useless.

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