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Vocation Vacation
Find out if a job with the dogs is right for you

Ever fantasize about trading your laptop in for a chucker, or your commute for a daily spin around the agility course? Here’s your chance to live the dream of hanging out with dogs and getting paid for it.

Five years ago, Brian Kurth was an ambitious marketing executive at Ameritech, a phone company in the Midwest, when he hit a career rough patch. “I was doing the corporate grind, working my way up and all that, but I was just unfulfilled,” he says. During long commutes along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, he killed time thinking about what he’d rather be doing. One of the fantasy careers that kept surfacing in the glow of brake lights was dog trainer.

Not satisfied with what-ifs, Kurth decided to pursue his daydreams without giving up his day job. He convinced a local dog trainer to let him shadow her and learn the ropes. “My question to her was: What did it take for you to do this? She said, ‘I put all my savings and my house up for collateral,’” Kurth remembers. “It’s stuff like that I needed to know.”

He didn’t chuck it all to become a dog trainer, but word got around about his experience lining up a mentor for that and his other dream careers (wine-making and tourism), and soon he was helping friends find mentors for their most heartfelt ambitions. Out of that experience, a job layoff and a cross-country move, Vocation Vacations was born. By the end of 2005, Kurth’s Portland-based company was offering more than 200 dream-job holidays—a chance to spend a day (or longer) experiencing the nitty-gritty of an occupation under the tutelage of an inspiring tutor.

Through Vocation Vacations, people pay anywhere between $349 and $3,500 to walk in the shoes, boots or loafers of their professional idols in 30 states and the United Kingdom. They can talk hops with a Long Island brewmaster, take bids in the style of a Bozeman auctioneer, do color commentary for a Fort Worth Cats baseball game, create a signature fragrance with a Nantucket perfumer, and on and on.

“It’s the kind of stuff that people say they want to be when they grow up. Well, now they’re grown up and they’re not really doing it,” the 39-year-old Kurth says. “So we’ve brought them the opportunity to see if it’s really something they want to pursue. It’s that first baby step; it’s not the cure-all. But it breaks down the barriers. It breaks down the fear factor.”

The stuff of dream jobs, in Kurth’s experience, falls into five basic categories—food, fashion, sports, entertainment and animals, particularly dogs. The latter category is especially dear to Kurth (who might be clicker-training Retrievers right now had fate not intervened) and his entire dog-crazed staff. Vocation Vacations currently offers 15 dog-related immersion opportunities, including shadowing an animal shelter director in Ridgefield, Conn.; splashing through suds at a Denver-based pet supply and dog wash; and observing surgery at a veterinary hospital in Orange, Calif.

When Chris Macey, who does oil and gas mapping for a geospatial company in Denver, Colo., started thinking about a career change, his thoughts turned to animals. The 36-year-old grew up in a house filled with pets—everything except snakes. And he fondly remembers helping raise and train German Shepherds as a teenager.

On the strength of that happy past and some recent experience house- and pet-sitting, Macey plunked down nearly $1,000 ($349 for the Vocations Vacations fee plus airfare, food and lodging) for the privilege of seeing the inside works at Schroeder’s Den Doggy Daycare in Hillsboro, Ore., last October.

The 12 hour-learning experience included plenty of time romping with more than 40 dogs in the indoor off-leash areas. Macey said it totally lived up to his fantasy of hanging out with dogs all day. But owner-operators Pam and Wayne Pearson also provided nuts-and-bolts information on sanitation and safety, billing systems, segregating the dogs, evaluating dog temperament, vendor relations, finding the right employees, dealing with local zoning ordinances—the millions of details that have nothing to do with tossing a Kong.

“It is a lot of work, and that’s kind of what’s holding me back right now,” Macey says. Since he returned home, he’s scouted daycare locations and worked to raise capital in his free time. He also stays in touch with the Pearsons, who continue to be helpful and supportive.

“Being in the middle of it, it seems overwhelming,” Macey says about his dual-life. “It’s like this will never happen. But Pam had a corporate job and Wayne had a corporate job, so it is possible.” When he thinks back on the work holiday, Macey’s biggest takeaway has nothing to do with start-up costs or customer relations.

“You can make a living and you can be doing what you want to do,” Macey says. “I think that’s the purpose of Vocation Vacations: to show you that yes it is possible. If you want to do it, you can do it.”

The inspiration impact is key. Kurth and his colleagues are proactive in searching out excellent mentors, and they frequently turn away people who aren’t a good fit. Not just anyone will do, Kurth says. He wants to help people “change their lives,” which means finding mentors who will inspire “vocationers.”

That often translates into finding mentors who themselves took a mid-life leap of faith like Kurth. Lisa Collins is a classic example. For several years, the 32-year-old Chicagoan worked in finance by day, but her nights were all about dogs. She began as a volunteer in the dog adoption room at the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago, and quickly advanced to a dog-training apprenticeship and leading classes herself.

Dabbling in training turned serious when she was laid off from her day job about three years ago. “I got the kick in the butt to go and try the dog stuff full-time,” Collins says. Soon after, she launched Collins Canine, which offers a variety of positive-reinforcement behavioral and obedience training geared to average dog owners.

When Brian Kurth approached her about a mentorship late last year, she knew she had something to offer. “I get about one email a week asking how I became a dog trainer,” Collins says. She signed on with the company because an immersion-holiday seemed like the best way to answer that question.

Vocation Vacations is always adding new canine-centric opportunities. Last October, the company launched an experience with a pet detective, Kat Albrecht of Pet Hunters International based in Fresno, Calif. Albrecht uses many of the tools of traditional law enforcement to find lost pets (including snakes). The two-day mentorship costs $999 (plus airfare, lodging and food), but includes working with specially trained detection dogs, developing leads and interviewing witnesses, participating in mini-stakeouts, and much of the on-the-job training required for certifying Missing Animal Response Technicians.

In January, Vocation Vacations launched a mentoring opportunity at the Paw House Inn in Rutland, Vt. This 1786 farmhouse oozes rustic charm and dog-loving details that routinely fuel retirement fantasies in guests. The eight-bedroom bed-and-breakfast is tricked out for pups, with dog beds in every room, an off-leash park with an agility course, and an indoor dog daycare center so owners can enjoy nearby fun (like skiing at Killington or Okemo Mountain) guilt-free.

The mentors for this dream-job holiday are innkeepers Jen Fredreck, 34, and Mitch Frankenberg, 38. Five years ago, they didn’t have the benefit of Vocation Vacations when they made their leap. Fredreck was an attorney working at a law school and Frankenberg was a financial analyst when they decided to trade in their fast-track New York existence for a wholesale life-change.

Though Frankenberg took an online innkeeper class, “there was a lot of trial and error. We learned from our mistakes,” Fredreck says.

“It’s not the glorified, romantic ideal,” she admits. “Until you actually own an inn, you’re not going to know what it’s like.” The $899, three-day mentorship offers an owner’s-eye view of the business, covering everything from how to prep gourmet breakfasts day-in/day-out to dealing with dogs of different temperaments. The overriding theme is hard work and plenty of it.

Still, there are times, Fredreck says, when she’ll be out in the snow playing with the dogs, her husband and their 18-month-old son, and she’ll pause to appreciate the special life she’s been able to create. “It’s a fantastic family business,” she says. “We couldn’t be more thrilled.”

People take Vocation Vacations for two reasons, Kurth says. For many, like Macey, it’s a window into a passion they hope to pursue. For others, it’s a one-time deal—a lark or a chance to gain insight into an industry but not a catalyst for change. The majority of vocationers come from a few high-burnout professions including the law, information technology, accounting and financial services. They range in age from 18 to 70, but the baby boomers and upper-end Gen X’ers looking for a second or third career—and usually a dramatic lifestyle shift—comprise the bulk of his clients.

David Ryan fits squarely into this demographic. The 43-year-old Ryan was an international banker. He worked for the world’s third largest bank for 17 years and in eight countries. Early in his career, he and his wife adopted a “stray mutt” in Taiwan, who went everywhere the couple until she passed away at the ripe-old age of 14. They decided to wait until they settled down before finding another dog.

“I tried living without a dog for a couple of years, and absolutely hated it,” Ryan says. “When we moved back to the states, I couldn’t get a dog fast enough.” It was that deep affinity that put thoughts of a dog-centered second career in Ryan’s head.

After reading a Wall Street Journal article about Vocation Vacations on an airplane, of course, he signed up for two dream-job holidays.

He spent a couple days working with Heather Stass at K9 Capers Doggy Daycare in Agawam, Mass., where he learned a very important lesson. “There is too much poop involved in this for me,” he recalled thinking.

Still he developed enormous respect for Stass specifically and dog daycare in general. Talking with clients at “go-home” time, he discovered the enormous and important difference the service made in the lives of the people and their dogs. Stass helped plug Ryan into her network of daycare owners and she stays in touch as a friend and resource.

In his second dream-job vacation, Ryan spent a few days with Kirsten Nielsen, a dog trainer in Portland, Ore., and one of the earliest Vocation Vacation mentors. “Kirsten was incredible at not just letting me see her business and shadowing her for a day, but she has been an ongoing contact for me and a mentor in terms of thinking about dog training,” Ryan says.

The two experiences turned his world upside down. He retired from banking, sold his New York apartment, and enrolled in The Tom Rose School for professional dog trainers in St. Louis, commuting back to his family in New Hampshire on weekends.

“Kirsten and Heather made me realize that there are people out there who make their living with their love for dogs,” Ryan says. “And that realization gave me the courage to make the move from my banking world to my animal world.”

Today, he is launching two businesses simultaneously. He is a trainer under the name Beyond Dog Training, and he works as a consultant to dog businesses in six states (so far). “I learned there are an awful lot of incredibly talented dog trainers and groomers and daycare owners and kennel owners, all sorts of people, but their main strength and interest is not in running a business,” he says. Ironically, the “mentoree” has become the mentor.

Vocation Vacations founder Brian Kurth says this is typical. Vocationers who make the change to a second or third career often discover their previous experience takes on new importance in the new role.

“It looks to people like I’m working harder now than I did as a banker, but it doesn’t feel like work,” Kurth says. In fact, plans to begin taking blood pressure medicine during his last year in banking have proven unnecessary. “It’s marvelous to be working in the interest of something I really love. I have to remind myself [that] every once in awhile, you’re supposed to take a couple days off.”

The transformative power of Vocation Vacations is Kurth’s mission, but for Ryan, the mid-life job switch has had a second unexpected bonus. Suddenly, his kids think he’s cool.

Recently, he was walking a friend’s dog with his children. “One of my kids saw one of his friends, and yelled, ‘Hey Schyler, this is my dad, he’s a dog trainer!’ They’re much more thrilled about having a dog trainer for a dad than a hot-shot banker.”

Vocation Vacations

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 35: Mar/Apr 2006
Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom. lisawogan.com