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Dog Days of COVID-19

April 5, 2020

Walks, playtime, and lots of cheese—that’s what the coronavirus outbreak has meant for Teo. He is a 2-year-old Australian Shepherd-Catahoula mix, recently adopted from Muddy Paws Rescue by Brooklyn resident Kate Selden.

While New York City’s humans are grappling with the realities of an extended stay-at-home order, dogs are currently living their best lives. Local animal shelters have seen a surge in applications to foster and adopt, and with most owners home all day, dogs are getting longer walks, more treats and extra attention.

But this is not great news for dogwalkers and other animal care providers whose business has plummeted as a result.

“It’s just a bloodbath,” said Chun-Soon Li, founder of the Brooklyn-based ProspectBark. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Li estimates that she has lost 85% of her business since the beginning of March. The ten-year-old company normally serves about 2,000 clients, but that number has dipped below 50 as more residents are working from home and no longer need daytime pet care.

And some of Li’s few remaining customers are not even sending their dogs on walks. They’re buying gift certificates, pre-booking services and, in some cases, simply tipping their walkers out of loyalty.

When Governor Cuomo first issued the stay-at-home order, the list of “essential businesses” did not include dog-walking companies like Li’s. But this left many essential workers and high-risk individuals with no options for pet care right when they need it the most. So, the list was expanded to include all “animal care services.”

But many pet owners—not wanting to risk exposure—have asked dog-walkers to cancel their walks.

While the CDC said there is no evidence suggesting dogs can transmit the coronavirus, most pet care providers operate with the assumption that dogs can carry it on their leashes, collars and fur. Even when practicing proper social distancing, this can put both dogwalkers and clients at increased risk of exposure.

But some dog owners simply don’t have a choice. Healthcare professionals are working overtime, often without a day off. Elderly and other high-risk populations may not want to risk leaving their apartment every day to walk their dog.

Li said her staff avoid entering a client’s home, whenever possible. They bring their own equipment and after walking, they clean everything—including the dog—with disinfecting wipes.

But it has not been enough.

Like many small businesses, Li has been forced to do layoffs. Her 40-person staff has dwindled to a handful of managers and walkers.

“We’re now into redline territory,” said Li, who used personal funds to buy groceries for her former employees. But she is determined to keep her business open, even if it means dipping into her 9-year-old daughter’s college fund.

Some pet care providers have been able to adapt their services to minimize losses.

“We have changed our services pretty drastically,” said Sarah Fraser, co-founder of Instinct Dog Behavior and Training. The company runs two dog training facilities locally—one in Harlem and another in Englewood, New Jersey. But right now, in-person training is not a priority or reality for clients.

Fraser and her team asked themselves, “What are clients and other dog owners going to need?”

Now they provide reduced-cost boarding services for healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients as well as high-risk individuals and their families. If needed, Instinct even provides a “pet-taxi” service to personally bring your dog to one of their facilities.

Fraser said these bookings have only increased in the last few days, with the news that the state’s  stay-at-home order would be extended until at least April 15. Her hope is that she can keep services affordable, while still bringing in enough revenue to avoid layoffs.

“We’re stubborn,” said Fraser. “We are going to find a way to continue providing this service.”

Like many businesses, they have also pivoted into the realm of virtual services.

They teach a virtual puppy training class and they recently started offering free virtual “comfort dog” visits for seniors and COVID-19 patients. Instinct staff connect participants in a private video session with one of their dogs. It’s not quite the same as an in-person therapy dog, said Fraser, but she hopes it can provide support to those who are experiencing increased isolation during this time.

“When we look back on this, are we going to be proud of what we did?” said Fraser. “I hope so.”

But the outlook is less optimistic for others. Fraser noted that many of her fellow dog businesses have closed.

“Business is pretty much flat,” said Brooklyn resident Dawn Fowler-Bennett, who runs Happy-Go-Puppy with her husband Ed. Normally the couple has two or three dogs at their home-based daycare in addition to a few overnight boarders and dog-walk clients. Now they have none.

Luckily Fowler-Bennett has another gig. She works as the Client Services Supervisor at Pawsitive Veterinary, where business has not slowed down at all, especially with all the new pet-owners.

“It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” said Fowler-Bennett. “We are working with a very limited staff right now.”

In an effort to minimize the potential of an office-wide infection, the staff works in rotating shifts of four. But this means fewer staff for the same number of patients. And in addition to managing their regular caseload, employees now follow an hourly hand-washing and surface disinfecting routine.

“Be nice to the animal care workers,” said Fowler-Bennett, “it’s more difficult on us than people realize. Especially those going into clinics and risking exposure.”

And Li agrees. If your income allows for it, she recommends continuing to pay your dog walkers, even if they are not providing services. It will help keep businesses like ProspectBArk afloat, ensuring they’re around when the lockdown is over and you need them again, said Li.

In the meantime, Fraser recommends that you make time each day to have fun and “do something silly” with your dog. Instinct and other companies are offering free and low cost resources for training your dog at home.

This is welcome news for Selden, who recently noticed some problematic behaviors in Teo. Initially, she panicked and thought she’d made a mistake in adopting him. But being stuck at home has given her more time to work with him. She turned to training resources on YouTube, found a treat Teo loves—cheese—and they created a routine together.

“It’s actually been this amazing grounding force,” said Selden. “It’s just giving me something to focus on, when otherwise I would be obsessing about COVID.”

And in this time of social distancing, dogs are providing something even more fundamental.   

“To have a creature that I can hug all day long has been a lifesaver,” said Selden.

On this point every animal care provider would likely agree. Dogs are doing what they’re best at and providing comfort right now, said Fraser, tearing up.

Maybe this is why animal care providers are so essential, especially in times of crisis. 

Li remembers working through Superstorm Sandy to support clients and their pets.

“We work 365, like the post office—’Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night’—that’s us,” said Li.

And now she—along with many other essential workers—can add “nor pandemic” to that list.

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