From Working Like Dogs to Working With Dogs

Posted on November 10th, 2009 by rsl21 in Business, Community

By Rory Kress
Albert, a thuggish, wrinkled English Bulldog struts across the bedroom and sticks a wet, snorting nose on Melissa Martin’s leg.

Melissa Martin and Albert

Melissa Martin and Albert

He is one of more than 35 dogs under Martin’s care—and he’s the only one that is actually her own.

Martin is the founder of Paw Paw Pet Care, a dog walking and pet boarding service. She started the company out of her Fort Greene apartment nine months ago after her husband, Adam Dougherty, joined the 9.6 percent of New Yorkers who are unemployed, according to the state’s Department of Labor. His employer, a Midtown art gallery, had downsized by 25 percent.

To the couple’s surprise, their business has proven profitable, so profitable, in fact, that Martin has had to quit her job as a manager at a local restaurant to keep up with the steady growth of their company—which she says gains one or two dogs each week.

“We make more money now than we made between the gallery job that I had and the job Melissa had,” says husband Dougherty.

Paw Paw Pet Care has found success as a pet service start-up in an economic climate of downsizing, layoffs and closings—and they’re not the only ones. With nearly one in ten New Yorkers left unemployed and few jobs opening up for these displaced workers, many are being forced to find new ways to support themselves. As a result, dog care industry leaders say they are seeing a boom, specifically in the number of dog walkers.

“It’s a major increase because people out of work suddenly think they can walk dogs,” says Bob Marino, president of the New York Council of Dog Owner Groups (NYCDog). “A lot of people are doing it just to survive. Whether or not they are good at dog walking is subjective.”

Marino estimates that Brooklyn in particular has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of dog walkers starting up since the recession. Pet Sitters International, the largest pet care accreditation company in the area, says their membership in Brooklyn has grown 21 percent so far this year.

Adam with Coco and Poncho

Adam with Coco and Poncho

Marino credits the past ten years of gentrification in Brooklyn for the local popularity of dog walking as a post layoff job.

“With [gentrification] comes higher levels of dog ownership. With higher incomes comes higher levels of pet care,” says Marino of the ample market in which dog walkers are competing. “But a lot of [dog walkers] will drop off in the winter. The people that get into it just for easy money peter out. The people that get into it because they love dogs will stick to it longer.”

For Martin and Dougherty—both lifelong animal lovers—the transition to dog walking was simply logical.

“We knew we wanted to start a business but we knew we couldn’t start one that needed capital,” explains Martin.

After the layoff, Dougherty received only one week’s severance from his former job and soon after began collecting unemployment. Hoping for the best, Martin and Dougherty designed a logo, plastered flyers across their neighborhood, and got licensed and insured. Together, they decided to focus on small, individual care: never walking more than two dogs at a time and never boarding more than four. As a result, Martin and Dougherty’s day now begins at dawn.

“For us, the recession was definitely more of an opportunity to kind of pause and take a chance,” says Martin thoughtfully as Albert’s snout explores her hands.

Albert and Tucker

Albert and Tucker

The new influx of dog walkers, like Paw Paw Pet Care, often run their fledgling businesses out of their homes and are able to offer lower prices than the established pet care services that have been around for years and support a full staff and, at times, a commercial space for boarding.

“People who are cutting back themselves, they’re looking for bargains so they’re picking names off telephone poles and bus stops,” explains Marino of NYCdog, accounting for the success these new businesses.

Brooklyn, home to one of the largest parks in New York City—Prospect Park—is experiencing even more growth than other parts of the city.

Michelle Lewis is the founder of Brooklyn-based, organic dog food company Scooter Food. She started the business out of her kitchen in 2006. When the recession hit, she noticed of the spike in local dog walkers and took advantage of the upswing by starting a new line of treats.

“I give dog walkers my snacks for free, then the dog owners find out about it,” says Lewis of her strategy that she says has brought Scooter Food up to 30 percent growth in sales each month since June. “The way Brooklyn people look after their animals, they’ll give them the best food and the best exercise possible. People live here because there are more open spaces so that general philosophy on life attaches itself to the way [Brooklyn residents] treat their pets.”

Mingus, a boarder

Mingus, a boarder

Lewis says she is working with Paw Paw Pet Care to see how their two companies can generate business for each other.

But for Martin and Dougherty at Paw Paw, it’s not just about boosting revenue.

“The amount of freedom and self empowerment that comes with owning your own business and running your own show is wonderful,” says Dougherty, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind his left ear as he trots along Clinton Avenue, two panting mutts in tow. “I’m glad that we took the risk, that we were forced to take the risk. I don’t think we would ever have done something like this if we both still had secure and stable employment.”

As their business expands beyond what they can handle in their own apartment, Dougherty and Martin are now looking to take Paw Paw out of their home and into a commercial space where they can better accommodate their growing client base.

At sunset, Dougherty rounds another corner at his breakneck walking pace. The dogs scuttle across the pavement to keep up with his jaunty strides. Reflecting on the nine-to-five life he says he’d never return to, Dougherty smiles.

“We’d rather walk the dog than be the dog.”

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