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Vocation Vacation
Find out if a job with the dogs is right for you
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Ever fantasize about trading your laptop in for a chucker, or your commute for a daily spin around the agility course? Here’s your chance to live the dream of hanging out with dogs and getting paid for it.

Five years ago, Brian Kurth was an ambitious marketing executive at Ameritech, a phone company in the Midwest, when he hit a career rough patch. “I was doing the corporate grind, working my way up and all that, but I was just unfulfilled,” he says. During long commutes along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, he killed time thinking about what he’d rather be doing. One of the fantasy careers that kept surfacing in the glow of brake lights was dog trainer.

Not satisfied with what-ifs, Kurth decided to pursue his daydreams without giving up his day job. He convinced a local dog trainer to let him shadow her and learn the ropes. “My question to her was: What did it take for you to do this? She said, ‘I put all my savings and my house up for collateral,’” Kurth remembers. “It’s stuff like that I needed to know.”

He didn’t chuck it all to become a dog trainer, but word got around about his experience lining up a mentor for that and his other dream careers (wine-making and tourism), and soon he was helping friends find mentors for their most heartfelt ambitions. Out of that experience, a job layoff and a cross-country move, Vocation Vacations was born. By the end of 2005, Kurth’s Portland-based company was offering more than 200 dream-job holidays—a chance to spend a day (or longer) experiencing the nitty-gritty of an occupation under the tutelage of an inspiring tutor.

Through Vocation Vacations, people pay anywhere between $349 and $3,500 to walk in the shoes, boots or loafers of their professional idols in 30 states and the United Kingdom. They can talk hops with a Long Island brewmaster, take bids in the style of a Bozeman auctioneer, do color commentary for a Fort Worth Cats baseball game, create a signature fragrance with a Nantucket perfumer, and on and on.

“It’s the kind of stuff that people say they want to be when they grow up. Well, now they’re grown up and they’re not really doing it,” the 39-year-old Kurth says. “So we’ve brought them the opportunity to see if it’s really something they want to pursue. It’s that first baby step; it’s not the cure-all. But it breaks down the barriers. It breaks down the fear factor.”

The stuff of dream jobs, in Kurth’s experience, falls into five basic categories—food, fashion, sports, entertainment and animals, particularly dogs. The latter category is especially dear to Kurth (who might be clicker-training Retrievers right now had fate not intervened) and his entire dog-crazed staff. Vocation Vacations currently offers 15 dog-related immersion opportunities, including shadowing an animal shelter director in Ridgefield, Conn.; splashing through suds at a Denver-based pet supply and dog wash; and observing surgery at a veterinary hospital in Orange, Calif.

When Chris Macey, who does oil and gas mapping for a geospatial company in Denver, Colo., started thinking about a career change, his thoughts turned to animals. The 36-year-old grew up in a house filled with pets—everything except snakes. And he fondly remembers helping raise and train German Shepherds as a teenager.

On the strength of that happy past and some recent experience house- and pet-sitting, Macey plunked down nearly $1,000 ($349 for the Vocations Vacations fee plus airfare, food and lodging) for the privilege of seeing the inside works at Schroeder’s Den Doggy Daycare in Hillsboro, Ore., last October.

The 12 hour-learning experience included plenty of time romping with more than 40 dogs in the indoor off-leash areas. Macey said it totally lived up to his fantasy of hanging out with dogs all day. But owner-operators Pam and Wayne Pearson also provided nuts-and-bolts information on sanitation and safety, billing systems, segregating the dogs, evaluating dog temperament, vendor relations, finding the right employees, dealing with local zoning ordinances—the millions of details that have nothing to do with tossing a Kong.

“It is a lot of work, and that’s kind of what’s holding me back right now,” Macey says. Since he returned home, he’s scouted daycare locations and worked to raise capital in his free time. He also stays in touch with the Pearsons, who continue to be helpful and supportive.

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