The Age - City professionals are sending their dogs on the adventures they're too busy for
Meet the growing inner-city dog walking business giving your dog the adventure you're too busy to take.
Operated by Tom Lillecrapp, 31, of Fitzroy, Melbourne – alongside his sleek Weimaraner; leggy two-year-old Captain – Tom and Captain bills its service as dog 'adventures', meaning off-lead, multi-terrain jaunts. No staid pacing around suburban blocks.
Their logo, visible everywhere from the vans that collect the dogs, to the snapback hat and sweater Lillecrapp wears while out, shows snowy peaks under a blazing sun, but if trips out to the Alps aren't quite on the cards, there's plenty of exploring to do in the byways of metropolitan Melbourne, like the winding paths of Yarra Bend – one of their favoured spots.
"An adventure is somewhere they can swim, where they can run around in long grass, where they can just be silly, and not have to worry about roads," Tom says.
Rising housing density in Melbourne's inner suburbs, along with workplace pressures, means that many dog owners might not have the space for their pet to run wild, much less the time to enable it.
Lillecrapp identifies his customers as mostly young professionals, ranging from their late twenties to early forties. Whether the issue is work, or young children, he says they are often "time poor people that love their dog, and feel a bit of guilt about perhaps leaving it in their apartment all day".
The early days
Lillecrapp started walking in 2013, after giving up a job in commercial real estate for the life of a devoted large dog owner.
While idling on the waiting list of a Weimaraner breeder, he and a housemate starting thinking about sharing his time around: "I'll be walking Captain anyway, so I might as well walk some other dogs. We started handing out fliers, and then it started quite slow and formed into something."
The operation now includes seven staff members: one part-time administrator, one part-time bookings manager, and five full-time walkers. Although the business is based in Fitzroy, the additional walkers allow them to service the broader metropolitan area.
Each walker runs about three adventures per day, with up to six pooches. Tom estimates they take 300 dogs out each week, at rates of $29 per hour for a single pet ($39 for a pair) – though prices, which he characterises as low for the industry, are due to rise mid-year, as the operation consolidates and expands.
A new phenomenon
Customers must accept the risks of off lead walking, but their growing client base means the business is confident about knocking back those dogs likely to be troublemakers.
Tom concedes that some could view a dog walking service with scepticism. "My parents would never have used a dog walker when they were growing up. Why would you pay someone to walk your dog? Don't get a dog then."
"Owners love it, because they might be sitting at a desk, and they can see their dog is having fun, and they don't feel guilty"
Emma Power, a senior research fellow at Western Sydney University, suggests that Australians today have "much closer relationship with pets than we used to have".
"If you go back to the 1950s in Australia, pets were kept outside the house, and they tended to have names that were dog-specific. Today pets are kept inside the home; they're quite likely to live in the living room, they might go into the bedroom, and we tend to give them names that we might also give to a person."
This new emotional intimacy, combined with the higher disposable income of some young professionals, helps account for the growth of the boutique pet services industry.
Today, dog owners might employ the services of a "pet hotel", instead of a kennel. Retail shops like Hachi and Dogue sell pet fashion. One Victorian enterprise, Pawleo, offers home-delivered, locally sourced, "raw" dog food.
Although Tom and Captain have used traditional marketing techniques, like a sticker blitz across Melbourne's northern suburbs, they also depend on a dedicated Instagram account – a fitting outlet in the present social media environment, with its endless appetite for cute animals and travel photography. This online audience has led to partnerships with bigger brands – one pair-up last November saw Lillecrapp sporting a Uniqlo top on a trip to the beach.
"People like to follow a story, see Captain and I, and see what we're up to," Tom says. "I wanted people that didn't have a dog to follow us, and then if one of their mates needed a dog walker, these people would go, 'oh I follow one on Instagram'."
This narrative strategy reaches their clients, who receive photos of their pet after each adventure, along with a description of the trip. "Owners really love it, because they might be sitting at a desk, and they can see their dog is having fun, and they don't feel guilty – they feel more, like, oh I wish I was on that adventure".
Rise of the 'fur baby'
Emma Power observes from her interviews with pet owners in Sydney that some apartment-bound dogs are actually getting their needs serviced more attentively, and frequently, than those in detached, low-density housing.
Sabrina Males, of Northcote, whose golden retriever is walked twice a week by Tom and Captain, is one of many customers who allow walkers to collect her pet when she's not at home. "I think it's cruel to keep them locked up. To know that he's out there having a great life – I know it sounds stupid, but it's responsible dog ownership as well."
New clients can submit their pet's social media handle, or dedicated hashtag, along with the usual information on vaccination, allergies, and personality (the bookings manager make sure that incompatible pets are not grouped together), and walkers often tag each dog in their daily Instagram post.
"A lot of our customers, they know their dog is just an animal, but they treat them like a child," says Tom. "So they feel proud when there is a photo of them on the internet that they haven't put up, and their dog's having fun – 'this is what my dog got up to today, and I'm at work'."