A joyous but cautious reunion

Ashley Fetters

THE WASHINGTON POST – When dog walker Jessica Enfante showed up for her first day back on the job in June, she experienced the kind of sweet reunion with an on-the-job pal that millions of teleworkers could only dream of. She arrived at the door of her most curmudgeonly work friend – a poodle mix she refers to as “the Grumpus”, who retreats at the very sound of the word “walk” – and he bounded up to her, enthusiastically seeking some love pats on the rump.

Infection concerns being what they are, “We aren’t supposed to love on them too much,” said Enfante, who works at the Falls Church, Virginia – based pet-care business Fetching Life. But the occasion proved too gleeful to resist.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a difficult year for dog walkers everywhere; indeed, it’s been a difficult year for just about all workers whose livelihoods depend on other people leaving the house to go to work. Newly homebound dog owners began walking their own pets during the day and effectively hobbled the entire industry.

But as parts of Washington have re-opened, dog walkers are re-appearing on the city’s sidewalks and walking trails. Reunions between human and canine have been joyous – and the business has changed in ways that have forced both participants to adjust.

In cities and suburbs all over the United States (US), the usually robust demand for dog walking dropped dramatically during the pandemic. Washington DC, named the fifth-most-dog-friendly city in the US by the pet service company Rover last year, was no exception.

In the spring, John Richardson, owner of the Capitol Hill-based business John the Dog Walker, saw his business drop from “25 to 35 walks a day to two”, he said. A number of clients continued paying for walks they weren’t receiving, just to help keep the business afloat, and Richardson, a former adjunct professor who’s now semiretired, was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan. That “carried everybody through to September”, he said.

Jessica Enfante walks Wampa in Arlington, Virginia. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Other dog walkers had to find new sources of income. Enfante’s employer Fetching Life shut down its operations for about six weeks in the early spring, and she spent the extra time putting more energy into her side business, selling clothing on Poshmark. Cierra Roberts, who started her dog-walking business Retro Pupz in 2019 during her senior year at the University of the District of Columbia, picked up some shifts delivering food for DoorDash.

In July, when the city entered Phase Two of re-opening, some dog owners began commuting to work and outsourcing their walks again. Melonie San Pietro, however, said she’s started to see business trickle back in just in the last six weeks. A significant portion of recent business for her company, Wanderpups, has come from local residents who are still teleworking but now need more help.

“With school being back in session (remotely), people are now working their jobs and helping their kids with school,” she said. “So they don’t have a minute to take their dog out.”

Multiple dog walkers interviewed for this story noted that some of their clients had moved away during the pandemic, either out to the suburbs or to other neighbourhoods. But the pandemic-puppy adoption trend has made up for some of the losses – puppies require more attention and care than adult dogs, and when people are working full time, San Pietro said, “they don’t have time to take their dog out six times a day”.

Unsurprisingly, dogs and their walkers have missed each other. Drake, a 70-pound lab mix that Roberts used to walk almost daily, is now especially elated when she arrives to take him for the occasional jaunt around the neighbourhood. “He’s literally at the door most times waiting to see who it is,” she said, “and almost instantly, he’s, like, leaping into my arms”.

Richardson, meanwhile, spent the spring thinking fondly about one of the dogs he used to both walk and pet-sit: a Chihuahua named Lafia. When the city began to re-open, he contacted her owner to see whether he and his own dog, a golden doodle, could spend some time with her. Turns out, the owner did need a sitter, he said, “So we got our Lafia dose.”

That said, both dogs and walkers have had to readjust to their routine after such a long interruption. Roberts, a former track athlete for UDC, frequently incorporates running into her walks, and wondered initially if the dogs would still be in shape to keep up with her. (Most have been up to the challenge.) Walkers have had to build in more time between walks for bathroom breaks at places such as parks and grocery stores, now that the politics of entering someone’s home at pickup or drop-off have become more complicated. And some dogs have been wary of humans’ new masks. “One dog who’s a little skittish around new people was kind of like, ‘What’s up with the thing on your face?'” Enfante said.

Social-distancing requirements have also taken some of the friendlier moments out of daily walks. Enfante’s employer now prohibits up-close encounters with strangers. Recently, she had to tell a neighbourhood couple and an eager, particularly fluffy golden doodle that petting would not be an option. Everyone involved, she said, “I was like, ‘This is not good!'”

Perhaps the most dramatic change to the business has been the introduction of owners as a visible, participating party in the dog-walking transaction.

The walkers typically become closely acquainted with clients’ pets and homes while remaining only faintly familiar with the clients themselves.

Now, though, many dog walkers meet owners outside or at the door for a handoff.

After seven months of minimal in-person social interaction, clients’ cravings for live conversation have become a minor occupational hazard – San Pietro has noticed lately that Wanderpups walkers have had to build in more time between scheduled walks to accommodate those dog owners who just want a few extra minutes of chatting. On the other hand, the extra face time with customers can be revitalising.

“You get to have, like, a little bit of human interaction with the clients, or sometimes the neighbours are happy to see you,” Enfante said. “It’s a way to be safely back in the world and have these pleasant interactions (again), which is kind of a blessing in 2020.”