Dog's Day Out

What's left for a dog to do in this high-tech world?

In the living room, Elizabeth keeps photos of her charges: There's Hakeem, the Chihuahua who chases the big dogs; there's Tuffy, the German shepherd, and Tessa, the dalmatian; and here's a baby picture of Cisco -- or is it Chester? And from last year, there's Biscuit in her Halloween costume. She's dressed as a pumpkin patch.

In the living room doorway hangs a little battery-operated ghost; loud noises, like Bailey's bark, make it vibrate madly. Elizabeth would like to decorate more for Halloween, but the dogs don't like the decorations; they don't like change. And Christmas? Forget it. The males would pee on a tree.

Elizabeth spends much of her workday cleaning. As soon as a male arrives, he feels the need to mark his territory, even indoors; and in the excitement of running with their playmates, both males and females sometimes forget their house-training. The backyard, of course, requires constant scooping.

Puppy love: Elizabeth Bradford spoils Lola, Tuffy and Tessa.
Deron Neblett
Puppy love: Elizabeth Bradford spoils Lola, Tuffy and Tessa.

All this Elizabeth accepts with equanimity; it is the nature of the beast. The smell of ammonia wafts from the playroom. "Did somebody piddle?" she asks in her dog voice, a supersweet high-pitched singsong. If you did piddle in the playroom, Elizabeth wouldn't hold it against you.

For 37 years Elizabeth worked as an oil-and-gas contractor, a well-paid vagabond who drifted from company to company doing title work. But a few years ago she grew tired of getting up early and driving downtown, leaving her Scotties behind.

She dotes on Tillie and Topper. For Tillie's first birthday, Elizabeth helped organize a "litter party." She and a friend put up posters, inviting one and all to "have a beer and a bone" at Lizzard's Pub. Tillie's entire litter showed up, as did many perfect strangers who thought it would be fun to party with their pooches. The moms took pictures of the dogs in party hats.

One of Tillie's littermates had been adopted by a neighbor of Elizabeth's, and the lonely dog often came over to play with Tillie and Topper. "I'm running a doggy day care," Elizabeth thought one day. She typed the words into a search engine, and the Internet spewed forth information: In faraway places like California, such things not only existed but were moneymaking enterprises.

Elizabeth drew up a business plan. She'd charge $25 a day, as much as many human day cares, and as a base of operations, she'd buy a house in Montrose, near River Oaks. "Location, location, location," she says -- obviously, her potential clients lived in those moneyed neighborhoods. They are professionals who work lots of hours and earn lots of money. Either their human children are grown, or they have none. They live in town houses or high-rises; they have no room for a second dog, and they come home too tired to walk the one they have. They feel enormously guilty.

Doggy day care was a perfect service for this gilded age, and when Elizabeth and a friend began doing informal market research, strangers at parks and restaurants not only expressed willingness to pay for the service but seemed ready to sign up. Elizabeth wasn't surprised; she knew her customer base. "Their dogs are their lives," she says. "I mean, I have three grown children and seven grandchildren. But my dogs are my constant companions. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for them."

Her voice changed, shifting from people-talk to dog-talk. "What are you chewing on?" she asked the Scottie lying next to her on the couch. She sang his name: "Fin-ley!" He looked at her. She looked at him. And they both seemed perfectly content.

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