Olive, a foxhound-beagle mix, looks fairly innocent. But of the many four-legged clients crashing at Zach Williams’s Capitol Hill apartment, she’s caused the most trouble.
Last summer, Williams—a lawyer who moonlights as a dog-sitter—left the room to get a crate. Maybe it was dumb to leave a plate of raw chicken wings on the counter. But Olive isn’t very tall. And he was gone only three minutes. In any case, when he returned, two pounds of meat and bone had vanished. (Mysteriously, the plate had not moved.)
Chicken bones can be lethal to dogs, so this was an emergency. Williams first called Olive’s owners. They were understanding and not surprised—Olive is a repeat offender. He then dialed three vets, all of whom told him to wait and watch for signs of distress. He spent the next 48 hours laser-focused on the dog’s rear end, willing her to pass the bones. She did, including on his rug.
Yet Olive remains a frequent houseguest. After years of boarding her, Williams says she’s like family. He blames himself for the chicken wings, plus he suspects that his own beagle, Annie, was an accomplice.
Williams boards as many as three dogs at once, in addition to Annie, in his 600-square-foot apartment—not exactly a relaxing way to spend downtime. But the 33-year-old is far from the only busy area professional who’s gotten into the dog-sitting game.
The website Rover.com—sort of an Airbnb for dogs—has 60,000 Washingtonians registered as pet sitters and clients. Owners read sitter profiles, then choose where their pets will stay according to proximity, cost, and reviews. Aside from these numbers, it’s hard to know how many others are pet-sitting on the side through word of mouth and for under-the-table cash. But given the District’s robust population of millennials—the demographic most likely to have pets and pay top dollar for their care—there’s plenty of incentive to get into the business.
Williams, who signed up with Rover.com in 2014, charges $36 a night and boards as many as three dogs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, his most popular time. That can amount to $1,036 a month after Rover takes a 20-percent cut. Though he says he does it because he loves dogs and likes having companions around for Annie, the extra income covers entertainment and clothing expenses.
Toni Dach, a 35-year-old software specialist, lives in a Brookland condo and usually boards one dog every weekend at $28 a night. Like Williams, she does it mostly so her mixed breed, Buddy, can “hang out with other dogs.” She also says two years of pet-sitting has made her a better guardian to Buddy: “I’ve learned so much about dog behavior and how to manage it.” She’s quite attached to her regulars. When a Lab mix named Hershey moved to Canada, Dach threw a goodbye party with humans and canines.
On a recent Saturday, Williams arrived at Anacostia Park by 7 am with a gaggle of his own regulars: In addition to Annie and Olive, he had Kona, a goldendoodle, and Winnie, a Norwegian elkhound. They ran around for about an hour before heading home for breakfast. He fed each dog a different diet. Olive was on medication, so he mixed the pills into her meal. Only after the dogs were let out for another bathroom break did Williams consider what he’d make for himself.
This is how most of his weekend mornings begin. Then he runs errands or watches football with friends, but he can’t spend too much time away. “You just plan your social calendar around the dogs,” he says. “I don’t have, like, candlelight dinner dates with four dogs in my house.”
He laughs, but two years into the side gig, he concedes it’s getting to be a bit much. He’s trying to cut back to one dog per weekend.
Olive better mind her manners.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Washingtonian.