[Originally appeared in the Washington City Paper on October 23, 2015]
Laurie Spector typically wakes around 9 a.m. By 10, she’s out of her parents’ house in Bethesda and off to meet her clients. There’s Charlie and Sophie, Bella and Gabby—a collection of diminutive friends who rarely need to venture beyond their respective fences. There’s a rowdy group who gets so excited to see her, one of them pees on the floor every time she arrives. They burst with energy, this bunch: Maddie and Cisco, Carmella and Csilla. In their inexplicable excitement, they often pull her down the street. They have loved her from the very beginning. She finds such unearned attention—love for a stranger—baffling.
A month or so ago, Spector hadn’t yet met these new friends—toy poodles and springer spaniels and vizslas and, in one case, a jack-a-bee. Back then, Spector was struggling with the tedium of a desk job at a nonprofit in Foggy Bottom. She has a college degree, and the office-worker path felt predetermined, she says. Spector would burn her eight hours and then go home, drink a beer, watch a movie, and fall asleep.
“I need to live on money, so I started working there,” Spector says. “After a while, I was completely miserable.”
Passionless evenings drained Spector, a musician who has spent years playing in bands Foul Swoops, Dudes, and, most recently, Gauche. She requires time and energy to make music. The desk job sapped both from her life.
So last month, Spector quit and took a job with Dogcentric, one of dozens of pet care companies in the D.C. region that are a draw for those hoping to focus on whatever creative thing they’re passionate about. Spector’s one of a number of D.C.-based artists and musicians who have swapped desk jobs, or the other standard paycheck sources for working artists (serving food and bartending), for walking the city’s canine contingent while their humans are at work or out of town. As independent contractors, they’re free to set their schedules as they like, play late-night gigs without sweating the next day’s alarm clock, or spend days or weeks inside the rank confines of a tour van.
D.C. has the lowest rate of pet ownership in the country by a wide margin, according to a 2012 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Yet the city has seen a proliferation of pet care professionals. Federal data shows the D.C. region has the fourth-largest number of animal care workers of any metro area in the country. More than 3,600 people in D.C. care for animals as their primary profession—a group that includes dog walkers, cat sitters, and those who care for animals in kennels and zoos.
The pet care professionals City Paper spoke with report a growing need for pet care in the city. Anecdotally, they chalk it up to demographics. Between 2012, when AVMA released its most recent study, and now, the demographics of the city have continued to change along a consistent trajectory—the District’s population has grown by nearly ten percent since 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates. As young workers move to D.C., they require care for their pets during the long working hours many D.C. jobs demand. And that presents the perfect opportunity for the District’s creative class.
“Dog walking is a great job if you’re a touring musician,” says Chris Moore, the owner of Peticular Charm Pet Care and the drummer for a number of local punk and hardcore bands, including Sick Fix, the Rememberables, and Coke Bust.
Moore traded working an office gig in a dismal basement for pet care more than seven years ago, and he hasn’t looked back. He can play shows and tour, of course, but he also finds catharsis in his new career: It’s just him, the outdoors, and the dogs.
“I think it’s attractive to someone with a wandering mind,” he says.
Meg Levine started her pet care company, Just Walk, in 2011, after she moved to D.C. from New Orleans. She sees the District as a vibrant city for pet ownership. It has been as long as she’s been here, as millennials continue to move to the District and bring their dogs with them.
She knows the havoc gentrification can wreak on poorer residents in rapidly changing tracts of D.C. But these forces are also helping to provide clientele—her dog-walking route includes the rapidly changing length of H Street NE and its environs.
“[Gentrification is] directly benefiting me,” Levine says. “I recognize that I am creating a boutique service that people who can afford it are able to use, or people who are willing to sacrifice that amount of money out of their budget are willing to use.”
As Moore points out, people often spend outside of their budgets on pet care because, much like health care, they simply must.
“Most people who hire dog walkers are making more than your average Joe, but that’s not saying much in a city that’s so expensive to live in,” Moore says. “Those people are also working so much that they need some help taking care of their dogs.”
But can one really eke out a living walking dogs in one of the most expensive cities in the country? The answer depends on how one wants to live. Jordan Oeste co-owns the cooperatively run Brighter Days Collective, a ten-person pet care operation that pools its revenue and offers workers 30 days of paid time off each year. Long enough, Oeste says, for any of the co-owners to pursue other ventures. “Six weeks of vacation is great if you’re going on tour,” she says. There’s also a health care plan to buy into—a nice perk for a self-employed worker.
Those communal perks come with what Oeste describes as a typical annual salary for one of the co-owners: $35,000 before taxes. (Dog-walking wages in D.C. vary depending on the company a person works for, with hourly wages ranging from around $13 to $18 before taxes.) While nowhere near poverty level, it’s well below the District’s median income. And the same tide of gentrification that brought those affluent clients to D.C. threatens to wash the service industry workers who cater to them out of the city altogether.
“I don’t know what the answer is, sadly,” Levine says. She says she tries to meet all of the neighbors along her route and foster a sense of community as best she can. But she recognizes that she’s on the losing end of the financial spectrum in a changing D.C. “At what point will it tip the scales in D.C., where I’ll be kicked out and I’ll have to move to Maryland or wherever?”
And if the question becomes “Can one walk dogs while focusing on their music or art in D.C.?” the answer is murkier.
Levine says yes, people can, and do, balance pet care with outside artistic interests. Her company aims to provide ample time off, as well as pay its employees a living wage, along with providing health care and mobile phone reimbursements.
Spector sees a different reality, at least among the dog-walking artists she knows. Is it possible to make dog walking work as a way to achieve a kind of work/art balance? Maybe, she says.
The musicians Spector knows typically make it work by pairing dog walking with another gig or two—serving or bartending, usually. She moved back home after giving up her nonprofit job specifically so she could focus on her music and not work full-time. “I’m not your best example of how someone could live in D.C. off of dog walking,” she says.
But pet care provides artists other benefits—ones that are perhaps even more important than relieving the time and energy constraints nine-to-five jobs can create. Walking dogs, to her, is a therapeutic job. Stress burns away in the outdoors and wilts under the joy of the dogs when they see her. It can unlock her creativity in ways a desk job never could. She’s cautious not to make generalizations, but a lot of artists struggle with life in a buttoned-up world—for one reason or another—and turn to art as a way to shape the reality in which they live.
“A lot of artists struggle with and have no course of treatment for mental illnesses or trauma, and dog walking is probably really attractive for people like that,” she says. There’s the fresh air, the time to think, and the solitary space that can be so difficult to find in the city.
And then there are the dogs—these yappy, joyous friends, some so happy they pee to say hello.