In the same way dogs can sense earthquakes, professional dog walkers can sense the tremors of bad times ahead. Since the summer, Lorrie Baranco, a 39-year-old with an American Staffordshire Terrier tattoo running up her left arm, has seen clients of her 9-year-old business, Bone-afide, cut back on hours. One longtime customer — an Internet-made millionaire — just handed his Labrador's leash to his nanny to save money. "It's the slowest I've ever been," Baranco says.
San Francisco has an estimated 300 to 500 professional dog walkers, according to the San Francisco Professional Dog Walkers Association. In a city with more than 120,000 canines, dog walkers' work connects them to all walks of life — gray-suited lawyers and hoodie-cloaked graduate students, financial types and high school teachers —making them a barometer of San Francisco's economy.
Baranco's Potrero Hill clientele reflects the eclectic neighborhood: tech workers, waitresses, graphic artists, and a guitarist. At the height of dot-com mania, she walked 22 dogs a day. That shrank to 10 after the bust. This summer, high gas prices burned her for $80 a week to fill up her truck (Priuses aren't exactly made to carry large dogs).
Wall Street's fall has shortened the spending leash. Two more of Baranco's clients switched from five days a week to three, a loss of $320 a month. Baranco now averages about six dogs a day, and she isn't the only one howling of slowing business. Doggy daycare company O'Paws saw inquiries start dwindling in March — the month Bear Stearns fell. After the latest Wall Street troubles, one potential client who worked at Charles Schwab backed out, owner Jonathan Tracy said: "When the market tanked, she said she has to wait and ride this out."
Some of the city's dog walkers — depending on their neighborhood and client list — have so far escaped the fallout. "San Francisco is a touch more insulated than other areas," says Nancy Stafford of Penguin Pet Pampering, founded in 1989. But industry downsizing may come early next year, predicts Joe Hague of the San Francisco Dog Walkers Association. "People might stop their dog walking in the holiday season and not pick it up again for a long time," he says.
But San Franciscans are a resilient pack, dog walkers included. Baranco survived the dot-com collapse by picking up failed walkers' business. This time around she has printed more business cards, worked the city's parks for contacts, and is setting up a Web site: "I'm going to stick with it and make it work again."