Back in 2006, I was a lazy art school drop-out. My temp agency had stopped offering me work after one bad feedback too many from clients, and I didn’t want to return to community college on the academic probation I’d acquired before I’d ran off to art school two years prior.
Browsing Craigslist, I saw an ad looking for someone who had past animal experience and a reliable car. Thinking back to an exotic animal center I’d volunteered at when I was 15, and a car in good condition that I’d inherited from my Grandparents, I responded.
A few days later, I drove down to a working class part of the city and pulled up to an old house with a big gate. I figured I was at the wrong place, but on cue, 5 barking dogs ran out of the house to greet me, along with an exasperated older lady who invited me in.
I sat down in their “office” (a kitchen table covered in Precious Moments figurines and dog crates), while an older man ignored my resume and told me things akin to a parody of a racist uncle.
“Jews,” he said, “are very neurotic. They micro-manage everything. Black people don’t tip. I like doing parties for Mexicans. If you’re late, they don’t care because half the party is running late as well.” He asked if I could start tomorrow.
In hindsight, a job based out of a derelict, cluttered house and an employer who asked me nothing about my past experiences, and went off on racist tangents, were huge red flags that I should have jumped in my car and tried my luck at another temp agency. But I was young and stupid. I had no job, no academic plans, no friends in this city, and no self-esteem.
“Tomorrow works great!” I said. And for the next five years, I worked a job straight out of an improv routine. I took puppies to children’s birthday parties.
The question I always got, when both explaining the job, and working the job itself, was always the same: “Where did you get all those puppies from?”
The family I worked for (who as I would learn, had left most of the business in the hands of their elder daughter) were a family of dog breeders. The puppies I was bringing were for sale, though not at the parties themselves.
As I’m typing this, I’m sure it’s raising a lot of people's hackles, and I can’t blame anyone. Kennels and shelters are overstuffed with dogs who need homes, and breeding does little to help this.
I made a lot of excuses for myself in the time I worked the job. I said that the family I was working for was a licensed kennel so it wasn’t “really” backyard breeding (a term for when a non-professional breeder mates two dogs together and sells the puppies for profit), that the dogs had food and water, and their kennels were cleaned every day, that they were inspected by animal control, and taking them to parties socialized them.
Yet, when I look back, so many of the practices were so shady just to make a profit. I have a lot of regret about that job. It’s like working for a retail clothing store you KNOW uses child labor, except the factory is right behind the actual retail store.
So why did I keep it?
Well, when you broke it down, the job was incredibly fun. Every day, I went to work and chose 10 puppies from our kennel (well, eight puppies, two mama dogs). They were all small breeds, so even the older ones still looked super cute.
I washed them all, and spent my day driving over the city taking them to birthday parties, but also to anything from preschools to summer camps.
When I was there, I set up a large pen and let the puppies loose. I would then spend usually an hour making sure all the children got to play with the puppies, and also made sure the puppies were happy, and had food and water. I also spent a LOT of time cleaning up puppy accidents. And I mean a lot.
The job gave me a great sense of responsibility that I was missing at my time working at coffee shops and retail stores. I went into that job as someone who could barely put down their phone to help a customer with their order, to someone who was responsible for the well-being of 10 little animals. It gave me a work ethic. Something no temp agency had been able to do.
It was also great to make people happy. And people were genuinely happy when we showed up. Kids were ecstatic, sometimes the adults even more so. A big pen full of cute little puppies? What’s not to love?
Plus, those puppies were great for my mood. I could come into work sad or depressed and those puppies never failed to cheer me up.
On top of that, it paid great. Sort of like an Uber for dogs, if you worked long hard hours, you could come away with a lot of money. I was not paid per hour, rather per show, plus any tips I might make. So at $60 per show, if we had a busy weekend, I could walk away with almost $500 for two days of work.
During the summer time, we were incredibly busy, and my biggest regret was that I was far too young to be making that kind of money because I didn’t save a cent of it.
The problem was there was no true way to grow in the company. We were paid in 1099’s: Technically not legal as you can’t be an independent contractor if you’re dependent on the company giving you your materials, aka the puppies.
There were no raises or bonuses (even when the price of the parties got raised), and there was no way to get promoted as the company was family run, and refused to treat the job like a business in terms of how things were run or conducted.
They were still advertising in the newspaper, they refused to update their webpage, and the owner was known for going onto Yelp and threatening to sue people who left the company poor reviews or dared to question the ethics of breeding dogs.
My busiest summer was before the recession hit, and things took a dark turn, as I found myself working three weeks straight, all while being tormented by the oldest daughter who ran the business. I’d request things like new equipment (my baggies I kept the doggie treats in were falling apart) and she’d angrily tell me it was my own problem.
When I’d show up at my shift that started at 6 in the morning, she’d blame me for “waking her up” because of the dogs barking when I entered the kennel.
She had a nasty temper and loved to brag about the value of using corporal punishment on both the dogs and her step-child. I felt terrorized by her to the point that in the middle of summer when my dad passed away, I was too scared to ask her if I could up and leave for a few days to take care of his posthumous affairs.
My Dad died Thursday night, I came in Friday for work, and because I was scheduled Saturday and Sunday, I worked those days too and THEN headed back home to handle things.
You’d think this would have been the last straw, but like anyone in a bad job, I told myself it would get better. The older daughter eventually left the business, allowing for the younger, more responsible daughter to take over as manager, and I told myself things would get better.
But for me they did not. The recession was in full swing, with weeks of zero work at all, our main kennel tech had quit, leading to a revolving door of people getting paid under the table for far too much work for far too little pay, and the thought of myself aging in this place with no room for advancement, made me shudder.
I tried to better the place, I had suggestions for improving our social media presence. I even came in on my own free time and tried to clean up the front area (this lead to the daughter’s mother telling us not to throw out a container of weed killer caked in dried dog feces with 1/8 of chemical left in it, because it “might be useful”).
The more I told myself that I could better the job, the more I saw that I couldn’t. And when I couldn’t, that’s when I started to Not Give a Shit.
So my 5th year into the job, I re-registered for community college classes, found a part-time job, applied for financial aid and put in my two weeks’ notice.
I showed up the final day to pick up my check and the response was an anonymous “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out."
There was a lot to be said about a job that could make people genuinely happy. And one thing I got out of that was a desire to do this in the other jobs I took as well.
At the end of the day, I think all people work at bad and even harmful and problematic jobs. But I get to at least say that mine was full of puppies.