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International tails: San Francisco

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We reached out to David Levin, owner of Citizen Hound, to find out about dog care in The City by the Bay.

Hi David! Could you provide an overview of your dog services and describe your experience in the industry?

I discovered this industry while freelancing as a advertising copywriter in San Francisco. I was about to apply for a full-time position at an agency when I came across dog walking, thinking it would be a fun addition to my freelance work. I never looked back. While working for a competitor, I befriended the former owners of Citizen Hound. When they decided to pursue other careers, we started talking, and they saw me as the right fit to take over. My advertising background revealed that many competitors weren’t marketing themselves professionally in a city filled with professionals with refined tastes. So, I crafted a brand that appealed to their tastes while staying authentic. To excel in this career, I trained to become a dog trainer and obtained the CPDT-KA license. For 13 years, I’ve been walking dogs, training others, and boarding. Our off-leash group outings in large open spaces are a unique offering in the US due to limited park space access.

What principles guide your dog services approach?

We prioritise relationships in our work, focusing on five key ones: with co-workers, dogs, members, the community, and our profession. This means going beyond typical business interactions and building personal connections through shared moments, memories, and meaning.

We also embrace the Japanese concept of ‘Kaizen,’ which underscores continuous improvement. We are always evolving, regularly updating training and marketing content, and perpetually learning and growing.

Lastly, we follow a win/win methodology with both dogs and clients. Our approach ensures that it’s a mutually beneficial experience, never asking dogs to perform just because we told them to and booking with clients only when it’s a win for both parties.

Image: Citizen Hound

Tell us about your catchment area and its impact on your service?

We serve a bustling area of urban professionals seeking dog care. The heart of our service area is a vibrant neighbourhood known for its social scene. Our members and staff share this social inclination, which we seek in potential clients. Our services offer a unique social experience for dogs, and we host social events that align with our brand, emphasising the social lives of their dogs.

How do you strengthen dog-owner bonds during training and care?

We try to train our staff and owners to think first like a dog, and to concentrate first and foremost on body language, their language. We want everyone to be bilingual. 

What industry challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Beyond the pandemic, dog walking isn’t a typical economic indicator. Predicting our growth is challenging. Because of that, ups and downs in our growth can be very hard to predict. Keeping tabs on any potential economic indicators is certainly not what I’d expected to be doing, but it’s necessary to predict many important decisions. 

Staffing is a perpetual concern due to the job’s responsibility and inherently low pay. To address this, I focused on providing excellent training and a positive work environment. Though our rise hasn’t been meteoric, the business appears to have less troughs and peaks than competitors.

Have you witnessed a memorable dog behaviour transformation success story?

Yes, we tried out a dog who’d only just been rescued the week before. He was a bit nervous and shut down and wasn’t being social. The owners decided they didn’t think this experience was right for him. I had to tell them that I didn’t want them to think I was pushing them for the money, but I thought they were wrong, and they should try it for a longer period to see how he fared once he settled into his new life more. I’d learned it can take six months to see the true colours of a rescue dog. Over time he did loosen up, and the owners said the only time they ever saw their dog playing was in pictures and videos we would share. That’s such a privilege!

How do you ensure ethical dog care practices prioritising animal well-being?

Among our company principles, some emphasise integrity in our staff:

1. Silence isn’t golden; it’s collusion – Often, when someone misbehaves, people stay silent due to the fear of speaking up. Those who hold others accountable prioritize the risks of NOT speaking up. Silence can lead to damaged relationships and morale. So, when doubt creeps in, consider these risks and speak confidently. If we don’t use our voice, someone else will use our silence. Unspoken issues endorse unacceptable behaviour, harming people, and the environment.

2. Out of the shadows, into the light – If you discover something inconsistent with our mission or values behind the scenes, collaborate with the person and management to address it openly. If it conflicts with our mission or values, it doesn’t belong in our company.

3. Be 200% accountable – The first 100% is to yourself, the second 100% is with others, where you hold them accountable to lift up the organization. Where you’re scared to do it, remember, this creates the workplace you want, and the opposite is collusion.

Can you share some insights about the biggest logistical challenges you face while working in your city

The park we take our dogs to most frequently is the most heavily trafficked park in the National Parks system, and the only one that allows dogs. There are a ton of obstacles. The parks manage a permitting process that’s fairly easy to navigate, which does limit the amount of competition.  

Image: Citizen Hound

How do you think the industry will change over the next 10 years?

Over the next decade I don’t expect the industry will change much. I hope that technology becomes more easily accessible and affordable that alleviates the most annoying parts of running a business, such as payroll, invoicing, accounting, and taxes. 

What advice would you offer to fellow dog care professionals looking to provide high-quality and compassionate services to their clients?

Find out what your competition is not doing or not doing well and focus on that initially with everything you have, especially when it’s in a visible area.

You’re much more likely to hit your goals if you define them. Figure out what you want many years from now and start making incremental progress toward them today.

Figure out where your fires are coming from and instead of just addressing them head on, build structures or systems that prevent them, like fire lines.  

 12. Lastly, because we can’t resist asking, what’s your favourite breed of dog and why?

I grew up watching “Benji” where an intelligent, scruffy small-medium terrier mutt who most closely resembled a border terrier always saved the day, and I often wonder if that’s why I’m so fond of little scrappy terrier mutts, or “scruff monkeys” as I like to say. They seem ready for adventure.

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