For Independence Day 2020, we are telling the stories of the America that we love—resilient, ambitious, empathetic, and passionate about helping dogs and people. We spoke with Hadley Raysor, founder of Dandy Dog Walker, a trans- and queer-owned dog walking company in Brooklyn, New York, and Alameda, California that specializes in socializing dogs with behavioral issues and helping them find their pack. The bicoastal company employs mainly queer and trans dog walkers, and was recommended to us by our friend, the artist LJ Roberts, who loves hiring Dandy for their two dogs, Sparky and Ziggy (and embroidered the portrait of Hadley below). “Full of love and compassion, Hadley and their team, composed of queer and trans dog lovers, are especially gifted with working with pups that are newly navigating cities or need a confidence boost,” LJ tells us. “When Hadley works with my boys, I am in awe of how quickly they learn new things. A lovely bonus to having Hadley as our beloved dog-uncle is that they take the most stunning photos of our babes. Their images, which capture the spirit of our boys and adorn our walls, also remind us that our community is there for us and our fur-kids.” Want to learn how Hadley gets an entire pack of dogs to pose for the camera? Read on to find out.

How did you get into the dog walking business?

I went to Wellesley, originally majoring in neuroscience. I was premed, but I just wasn’t passionate enough to do it full-time. I ended up majoring in history. I always thought I would go to grad school, but I was advised by a couple of professors to take time off, and I did. I ended up co-founding a non-profit called Translate Gender in the gender justice movement, and I did that for five years. I worked with several friends in the disability justice movement, creating collective community access and care. At the tail end of that, I applied for my first dog walking job on Craigslist. I started walking dogs with a now-defunct company in Brooklyn and with Nancy Soyer of Brooklyn Dog Walk. I was also mentored by Elijah Weiss of The Working Walk.

“A lot of dogs are insecure. They want to be social, but they’re intimidated, and it generates a lot of amped up energy. They just need to find their pack.”

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had this entrepreneurial streak. One summer, I had a car washing business. I’ve always been very project driven. When I started walking dogs, I realized I had found my thing. When you know, you know, right? I naturally tend to gravitate towards a pack of 10 dogs who have been kicked out of daycare or other pack walks, or have behavioral issues. We move through the world together and I just love helping them learn how to set appropriate boundaries, socialize with each other, and navigate their world.

I started Dandy Dog Walker when I was living in Brooklyn. I was living in Crown Heights, and my co-founder LeAnna came on board and helped me take over in Brooklyn. And over in Brooklyn, we’re still doing half-hour walks, which is standard there. Over here in Alameda, there is so much more space, so we do longer walks.

I have a car, so I can drive around and pick up dogs. After a dog owner calls me up, we’ll do a meet-and-greet. I love the folx who get in touch because their dogs are having some behavior socialization issues, and they could really benefit from being in a pack.

After we do an intake, I take the dog outside for a one-on-one for 10 minutes, just to see how they are. Will they be activated by critters outside? Do they want to mark every single blade of grass? Are they reactive towards other dogs?

Hadley Raysor of Dandy Dog Walker, as embroidered by the artist LJ Roberts.

Both of my parents were high school teachers, so I learned a lot about classroom management from them. That’s helped me manage the packs. I’ll walk with the new dog on side, and the dogs who have been with me for a while on the other side of me. They don’t even get a chance to sniff each other for the first 30 minutes. Finally, we’ll have “sniffy time,” which is when I’ll let the new dog go behind the other dogs to sniff them. We are setting boundaries, and because they’re pack animals, the new dogs can to see what the more experienced dogs are doing.

Have you noticed dogs becoming more confident after joining the pack?

100 percent. All the time. I had one dog who was a Catahoula-Pit Bull mix, and he was terrified of people. A couple months in, his owner texted me and said, “We just slipped in a cafe for the first time, and he’s just sitting here. I’ve never had this experience with him before.”

I work really hard to find the best way to communicate with dogs, and to help them learn how to communicate with each other.

Can every dog be integrated into a pack?

Yes. I used to walk a three-pound Chihuahua who was super antisocial, and my goal was to get her to sniff a dog. Now, she’s very social and confident. I had a Formosan who was terrified of other dogs. Her first time on our pack walk, she took one look in the car at all the other dogs, and peed everywhere. She was just so scared of the dogs. But now she’s doing dog agility and thriving with her pack.

Mammals are very social creatures. A lot of dogs are insecure. They want to be social, but they’re intimidated, and it generates a lot of amped up energy. They just need to find their pack.

Independent dog walkers and dog walking businesses have lost a significant amount of business due to the pandemic. How can we support dog walkers right now?

In Brooklyn, we had 125 clients before the pandemic, and now we’re operating at one-quarter of where we were before. A lot of dog walkers have GoFundMe fundraisers. Or you can Venmo them. This helps a lot because many dog walking businesses and independent dog walkers operate under the table. They don’t have access to the same small business resources that storefronts with employees do.

“You would never yell at a dog when they mess up, and you wouldn’t do that for a human either.”

It helps when people share social media posts and help get the word out, the same way you would support any other local small business. Brooklyn Dog Walk and Dandy Dog Walker are mainly compromised of queer and trans people, who are walking the dogs. A lot of my current clients are home, and they want their dogs to go out and have pack social time, like summer camp.

How has Dandy Dog Walker been able to recruit dog walkers from the queer and trans community?

We’ve posted on Brooklyn queer exchange job networks. We also post to Craigslist, just because they are more people on Craigslist so you get a wider swath. But as with our business, a lot of our walkers come referred from word of mouth, like friends and acquaintances of current walkers who are looking for employment or don’t want to be baristas and want to switch over to dog walking. We have an interview process, but what’s most important is how folx are with the dogs. Have they worked with dogs before? Have they worked in the service industry before? It’s a huge responsibility, because you have someone else’s dog and the keys to their house. I also look for how folx communicate. It’s important to have an open line of communication at all times, in case anything happens. What’s really critical is making sure that the Dandy Dog Walker pack of humans feels cohesive, there’s really good communication flow, and people understand boundaries. It’s similar to dogs. Humans are confident and comfortable and at our best when we find our pack.

That’s a good segue into my long-term plans. I have an LLC called Workin’ Like a Dog. The goal is to open an alternative dog day care working with The Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) here in the Bay Area. They work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated trans women of color. Ideally, I could provide both housing and employment to help get folx on a path to getting access to resources that they didn’t have before. My work through Dandy Dog Walker and the coronavirus pandemic has really taught me that a lot of people don’t have access to stable income. Right now, a lot of dog walking businesses pay their walkers by the hour, which is shit. Walkers make a lot more money when they get paid by the dog. Hundreds more dollars. So, knowing these things, I want to make sure that Workin’ Like a Dog is an anticapitalist model of business, run by community members to create community and support local economy. I want to use my access and privilege and create resources that help people and dogs.

There are organizations I admire that already work with incarcerated people and dogs, like Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue. I would love to run an entire day camp for dogs. We could have maintenance and operating jobs for people who don’t want to interact with dogs. We could have people cooking dog food because a lot of dogs have allergies, and that impacts their behavior when they don’t feel great. That’s my long-term goal.

We love that there would be opportunities for people who do not want to interact with dogs, for personal or cultural reasons. That’s a great step for inclusivity. How do you keep your queer and trans dog walkers safe, especially since they are in a vulnerable position of entering people’s homes?

We are very visible about being a trans- and queer-owned dog walking business. We do the meet-and-greet intakes to make sure that both dogs and humans are a good fit for us. Now, I’m realizing that we should have a packet, like “Welcome to the Dandy Dog Walker team. Here’s the behavior we won’t tolerate from humans. Don’t attack your dog walker.”

Anyone who is non-binary or trans is more susceptible to violence, and that’s why we maintain an open line of communication. But I will also say that neighbors see us out and about with a pack of dogs every day, and neighbors will come through if they see anything, you know?

We know it’s not your job to educate people on not misgendering your dog walkers, but have you been able to use these opportunities for positive change?

Yes, you know, I didn’t work for two months because of shelter in place. When it got lifted in California, I went to go pick up the dogs again, and they were so happy to see me. I think folx can see how happy their dogs are when they are with Dandy Dog Walker.

I like that you can access human empathy just by existing and having people see your humanity through dogs. When I left Brooklyn, I had to say goodbye to my 20 clients. It felt like breaking up with 20 people. My email signature has my pronoun, and I’ve had clients ask me, once they felt comfortable, “What is your pronoun?” I love that we create a space for genuine and open dialogue. You know, people make mistakes, but they can learn. Same with the dogs. When they make mistakes, that’s when you can correct them and teach them. You would never yell at a dog when they mess up, and you wouldn’t do that for a human either. This is a really great opportunity to ask, “How can I do better?”

Photography courtesy of Hadley Raysor

Embroidered portrait by LJ Roberts

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