Small Business & Startups

Not your average dog walkers

Jackie and Luke Moord’s small business is certified, sophisticated and growing.

June 5, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Nature of the Dog
Luke and Jackie Moord have turned what was once a way to make some extra cash over the lunch hour into a full-time business. Photo by Michael Buck

The Nature of the Dog is a classic example of a very small business that suddenly took off, then involved the founder’s spouse, and now employs three other people — and in the process, changed the lives of the two entrepreneurs behind it.

Jackie and Luke Moord live on the south side of Grand Rapids, but he and three employees drive all over the metropolitan area to walk their clients’ dogs. Jackie is a stay-at-home mom who also works from home doing the online marketing for the company.

The Nature of the Dog is one of several dog-walking businesses in the Grand Rapids area, but it may be way ahead of others in its degree of sophistication, organization and marketing savvy.

It is a registered Limited Liability Company under the laws of Michigan, “and we are bonded and insured. None of this is required in the state of Michigan, however,” said Jackie.

Back in 2011, when she was still employed by Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus as director of e-commerce, she began walking dogs during her lunch hour — as much for the exercise as for a little extra cash. As a teenager, she made money doing dog-walking and pet-sitting and really got into it, laying the foundation for her business today.

Then her lunch-time business became increasingly popular — and on top of that, she got pregnant. Her husband, Luke, an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Community College, started helping her with the dog-walking as the business continued to grow.

“It came to the point where I was doing the majority of the business,” he said, and the arrival of the first of their two children sealed his fate. Now she’s at home, with plenty to do there, and although he still teaches at GRCC, it’s “not as much as before.”

These days three outside employees — part time but employees, not contractors — work walking dogs with Luke. Jackie does the online marketing, using social media.

Luke said it is now a full-time career for both of them — “a big move for us.”

“We’re busy enough and we have enough people working for us, so it made sense to go all in,” he said.

Luke says they have “a few dozen” clients.

“Our business is exclusively repeat customers,” he said, and it’s exclusively dog-walking.

“We don’t do any pet sitting,” he said, and they do not have a kennel at their home. Their work is totally mobile: wherever the clients live in the region.

Jackie said a lot of clients are business professionals who work too far from home to be able to come home at lunch time and take the dog out for a little fresh air and exercise.

The Moords charge standard fees for their dog-walking, starting at $19 for 30 minutes.

The company also offers yard cleanup services for dog-owners who are too busy to do it themselves.

Obviously, pets are big business in the U.S., and one organization that studies it claims it has grown remarkably over the last 20 years. The American Pet Products Association estimates $60.59 billion will be spent on all types of pets during 2015, and it says the amount spent in 2014 was slightly more than $58 billion.

The total amount spent on pets in 1994 was only $17 billion, according to the APPA.

The estimates for 2015 put pet food as the largest share of the spending, at $23.04 billion. Pet services — mainly grooming and boarding — will be around $5.24 billion. In between are the veterinarians and pet supplies and the market in pets themselves.

Dogs are king: 54.4 million American households have a dog. Cats are the runners-up, of course, at 42.9 million households. About 13.6 million households have a fish, 6.1 million a bird, and far fewer numbers account for reptiles, other small animals and horses.

Pets Best Insurance Services LLC in Boise, Idaho, announced in May that, since 1981, it has paid out more than $100 million in pet insurance claims. Dogs make up 88 percent of the paid claims, although they’re 82 percent of all policies sold.

The pet insurance company said the “economic euthanasia level,” also known as the stop-treatment point, was $1,704 in 2012. That means when an impending veterinary bill reaches that amount, most owners will throw in the towel and opt to have the animal euthanized. Dr. Jack L. Stephens, founder of Pets Best, said the money it has paid out in claims is estimated to have covered the stop treatment point more than 58,000 times.

There are estimated to be 77.8 million dogs in the U.S., so it should come as no surprise that there are support organizations out there for people trying to run a business in some sector of the dog industry. Dogtec is one, and it has the wholehearted endorsement of the Moords. The Nature of the Dog is a member of Dogtec and certified by Dogtec in dog-walking.

Dogtec is based in California, where certification of dog walkers is “really big,” according to Jackie.

Dogtec provides precise professional information on the correct way to walk a dog, including what breeds mix well together and which don’t, plus first aid for dogs in case they get into a fight or start choking and need CPR, or are injured and en route to a veterinarian.

But the primary business of Dogtec is business.

Its website describes Dogtec as “a full-service business and marketing support organization for the dog pro industry.” It helps dog business owners get started and prosper, whether the specialty is dog training, dog walking, pet sitting, “dog daycare,” or dog boarding.

“Dog handling is basically what the program teaches you,” said Jackie, “but also how to run a business.”

The Moords are looking at earning certification as dog trainers, as well. Both are dog lovers; their home includes a dog and a cat.

A challenge in their day-to-day business are dogs with behavior problems. Some owners seek out The Nature of the Dog because their pooch doesn’t get along well with other dogs when out in public. They figure the Moords will know how to handle the situation.

The Moords are careful to meet in advance with a prospective client and the dog to go over all the policies and requirements in the contract for service. It’s a “meet-and-greet,” said Luke, and “some people treat that as an interview — they want to see how you interact with their animal.”

Has he ever been bitten on the job?

“The worst has been just kind of a mouthing,” he said, without any puncture wounds.

“I know the difference between a dog that wants to bite me and one that is warning me it’s a little bit scared,” he said.

He and his walkers do carry pepper spray, in case the dog they’re walking is attacked by another dog. But his first tactic, he said, is to throw it a handful of dog treats “and you just keep moving.”

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