You have to start somewhere. Today, it's on a quiet street in Lakewood with two Siberian huskies named Niko and Loki welcoming me into their home, wearing big canine smiles before engaging in a firm sniff between the legs. We're just getting to know one another, but I have to admit: I like where this is going.
Nina Park, the Lakewood manager for Cleveland Dog Walk, began walking the furry cousins, a pair of her strongest and most intelligent clients, late last year. It's 11:30 a.m. and the 20-minute walk around the block will be the highlight of the duo's day until their two dads come home from work in the evening.
"Most of the people we service work long hours; they're teachers, doctors, or they might commute far away for their job. It really just depends," says Nina as we start our stroll. "These guys, they're crated during the day because they'll probably get into some mischievous stuff if they're left alone, but no dog wants to be in a crate for 8 to 10 hours or more, so this is their mid-day break, their adventure for the day."
There are more than 55,000 dogs licensed in Cuyahoga County, with Labradors, German shepherds, boxers and other athletic dogs placing high on the list of popular breeds. The Cleveland Animal Protective League reports that 6,433 adoptions were completed in 2014, of which statistically, a third would have been dogs or puppies based on intake. It's no wonder that Cleveland has seen an increase in pet-centric startups and services.
On an average day, Nina will walk 10 to 15 dogs for Cleveland Dog Walk, a dog walking and overnight care service started by Maureen Murphy. That's about five hours a day traversing the streets of Tremont, Ohio City, Lakewood, Westpark and Rocky River, all jurisdictions that Cleveland Dog Walk covers. "We have over 75 dogs in our care. It's a nice, small team and everybody is really enthusiastic and flexible. I've been with Maureen since August of 2014," Nina explains. She says she'd previously been working with rescue dogs in local shelters.
As for what it entails besides walking, "there's a lot of stopping, letting them sniff and observe," she says with a laugh.
We let the adorable twosome lead us onto tree lawns, pulling back when a cup of barbecue sauce left on the sidewalk seems to get their attention. "They become a special part of your life, almost like your own. It's a lot of fun and as a dog person, you really can't get enough, so our job is like a sampler platter of breeds."
In the suburbs there aren't many distractions mid-day for the dogs, but the local deer population was around this afternoon, a neighbor tips us off, so it's a quick skip back to the house to end our tour. "The only training involved for the job is spending some time on the route with someone who's walked and knows the dogs. Explaining any quirks, say if the dog is stranger aggressive or doesn't like other dogs, or will bolt if they see a squirrel. To have this job, you really need to love animals and be able to be alone with your thoughts all day."
As we leave to head to Abby's house, a 17-year-old mutt and one of the "Top Ten Cutest Dogs in Cleveland" according to a recent Cleveland.com contest, I wonder if people have any apprehension with giving Nina permission to be in their home while they're away, a common concern when hiring a dog walker. "We treat the dogs and the space they live in as if it was our own; we build a reputation with our clients. They can read reviews to see how well we've done in the past. A lot of it is trust based and learning to let someone else in. Most people are easygoing; they're just happy someone can be there for the dogs," Nina says. With Cleveland Dog Walk placing first on the Cleveland Hotlist for two years in a row, the proof is in the peanut butter (which we put in a Kong for Niko and Loki to enjoy).
Maureen chose to start Cleveland Dog Walk in 2012 after returning from California to Tremont, a neighborhood she was familiar with since working as a bartender at Edison's Pub, a dog-friendly establishment. With the addition of more clients and employees, she's been able to expand considerably into Lakewood and beyond.
Edison's has served as a catalyst for more than one dog-centric business. Melanie Petrilli-Barrett, owner of Pet Zeppelin, continues to work at Edison's to supplement her year 'round professional pet care service that provides help to some 20 clients.
As business has increased throughout Tremont, OHC, and Hingetown for Pet Zeppelin, Melanie too decided to make the commitment to becoming a registered LLC in addition to the licensing, bonding and insurance necessary to safely operate. We took a 40 minute walk with Roger, a Boston terrier/ English bulldog mix whose humans own local businesses on Lorain Avenue, and it quickly became apparent that walking in the city wasn't as much of a walk in the park as Lakewood had been.
For one, there were far more strangers walking around who tried to pet Roger even though they didn't know him. There was more food and debris on the ground as well. In the tightly pocketed yards on Bridge and Franklin, many dogs were left unsupervised in their lots, which meant we had to keep a close eye on Roger, who doesn't get along with other dogs. Melanie knows how to quickly disengage conflict between dogs if it arises, something she's learned through experience and training at Lorenzo's, a prestigious obedience school in the area that Pet Zeppelin has partnered with as part of their umbrella services.
Both Cleveland Dog Walk and Pet Zeppelin break their walks into 20-minute increments, with pricing beginning in the $15 range and increasing depending on the dog's needs or the length of their walk. Both businesses report that a majority of their walks are one-on-one, with another dog joining in only if it's a multi-canine household.
It's all chew toys and fire hydrants during a day in the life of the dog, but for the dog walker, it's poop. Mainly, picking up a lot of poop.