Home Daily Care Will Work-From-Home Change Pet Care Forever? Daycare and Walking Service Green Dog Already Sees Some Shift – Barron's

Will Work-From-Home Change Pet Care Forever? Daycare and Walking Service Green Dog Already Sees Some Shift – Barron's

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Green Dog Day Care co-owner Adam More retrieves a dog that a customer left in the vestibule, a no-contact hand-off devised to keep everyone safe from coronavirus transmission.


Photograph by Lucy Hewett

Back to Business

Barron’s and MarketWatch will check in regularly with six entrepreneurs across the U.S. as they confront the challenges of reviving their business amid the Covid-19 crisis.

  • Green Dog
  • Owner: Pilar and Adam More
  • Location: Chicago
  • Employees: Pre-shutdown: 12; post-shutdown: 7
  • Status: Open, slow to resume all services

Businesses small and large are encouraging or forcing their staff to work from home as a coronavirus precaution, which in some cases, including Google’s major announcement, will last as long as summer 2021. Hours logged in home offices mean there’s been less demand for prearranged walks from Chicago’s Green Dog, although some confined owners still want a pet pro to help release their active canine’s energy well clear of Zoom meetings.

In fact, with walks largely unrecovered since the May 18 reopening of Chicago businesses, it is the higher-margin drop-off daycare business that is keeping owner Pilar More and her trained staff at Green Dog entering August’s dog days just in the black.

The American Pets Product Association says Americans spent $95.7 billion on their animals in 2019. And even during a pandemic, pet owners while cautious appear unwilling to forgo pet services completely, and essential workers continue to need care.

Also see: For This Dog Daycare Business, Lockdowns Chewed Up Potential Profits

More’s sustainability-minded, dogs-only facility welcomed 25 canines at its on-site daycare on a recent business day. That’s been about the steady average since the May reopening. Its maximum capacity is 50. Thirty is probably the “sweet spot” that would allow More to fully exhale again. A few boarders have spent the night, but the number lags last year’s mark.

The business booked about 35-40 daily walks at this time last year. Right now they’re down to three or four a day, said More, a figure that hasn’t budged much in weeks.

But it’s a service she wants to keep on offer, hoping that increasing productivity strains and emotional fatigue for pet owners will prompt them to once again require Green Dog’s help with walks, particularly as Chicago school children are expected to learn by a hybrid approach of spaced, cautious on-site classes and remote learning this fall. Walking services with home pickup include an interview to uncover temperament and habits then matching the dog with the best handler. That means the walks require careful precautions, including mandatory masks and extra sanitizing, since Green Dog is sending staff into people’s homes. But it also means that More can’t hire back her most popular walkers until the business returns.

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Slideshow: Green Dog Day Care and Dog Walking

Green Dog Day Care and Dog Walking service opens for business after state-wide closings due to the Covid-1919 pandemic, Chicago, IL, Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Photograph by Lucy Hewett

More and husband Adam share operational duties at Green Dog in the city’s West Town neighborhood—a handful of dense blocks increasingly drawing professionals who might usually hop on public transportation for a 20-minute commute to the downtown Loop—and at the family’s second business, an artisans market, which also reopened in May in another residential and shopping neighborhood called Andersonville. They sought rent relief for both businesses during lockdown and were denied. They did receive federal assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program, which they immediately tapped for payroll for their reduced staff—currently a mix of part-time and full-time workers—and to catch up on their rent.

So far, the Mores have relied largely on reputation and returning clients, including a social media presence starring the day-care dog pack, to bring Green Dog back to life post-lockdown. Pilar says they might now have to spend more on direct marketing and advertising to “specifically target at-home workers and convince would-be clients that healthy dog play may be key to balancing work and home life.”

What’s Working

Caring for live animals was already a highly customized, sometimes unscripted and emotional business. The mandated Covid-19 safety requirements are, says More, an extension of this existing care, which may better position Green Dog to react to the crisis than other businesses.

Romping animals and their habits means that Green Dog already cleaned the operation thoroughly and frequently. With Covid-19, the business added an extra hand-sanitation area, employees wear masks at all times, and there is a drop-off zone in an enclosed vestibule where clients leash their dog to the wall. Once the client leaves, a staff member collects the dog without human interaction and brings the animal inside the play area.

The operation model already respected the pack socialization of dogs, which means limited human interaction and distraction. Instead, dogs form their own leadership hierarchies and mete out their own gentle justice around squabbles, food sharing, and so on. Only two handlers are in the dog-interaction area to maintain calm, and that area remains out of sight from the drop-off/pick-up area.

The owners of Chicago’s Green Dog talk about reopening their dog boarding, walking and daycare business at a time when fewer people are traveling and more are working from home.

The data so far on pet-to-human Covid spread (and vice versa) has shown little evidence of easy contagion, but the research continues. Green Dog has made it a habit to share findings with clients as they emerge.

Client relationships are paying off indirectly as well. Green Dog’s respected standing in its vibrant neighborhood turned faithful clients into would-be saviors when the business shuttered during the riskiest period for coronavirus contagion this spring. “Our customers time and time again reached out to us during the quarantine to ask how our staff was and they even initiated a GoFundMe to help out our employees during our shutdown,” said More. The fundraising topped out at about $14,800 before the campaign ended.

Challenges

More can only replenish a full staff when she’s certain that walks will return to normal. That leaves employees who are loyal to the business, already trained in its practices and familiar with the canine regulars in limbo and at will to seek employment elsewhere.

“It is hard to predict if we will ever even regain those [walking] numbers, especially as many people do not anticipate returning to their workplaces as they previously had,” said More.

And boarding requires personnel on site for a 24-hour rotation, which means a volatile “on call” scenario for staff who might be juggling their own income stresses during the pandemic.

Advice for Other Business Owners

“I really believe it is important to be a part of your own team,” says More. “At Green Dog, I did a lot of dog walking myself. It was a great way to connect with our clients, but also made me more accessible to and understanding of my staff. And let’s just say that Covid-19 means that I’ve cleaned a lot of bathrooms.”

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Small Business in Crisis

Barron’s in coming months will be exploring how the pandemic’s impact on small business is playing out, and how small businesses’ struggles will affect the broader economy and financial markets. Please reach out to us with your stories, questions, and tips to [email protected].

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