Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Dogs stopped me being overweight and unhappy

Dogs stopped me being overweight and unhappy

A YOUNG businessman whose weight ballooned to more than 19 stone while working in office jobs says he has found his true calling as a dog walker and day carer.

James Thomas launched Dogs of Henley in February 2017 after more than four years of trying and failing to settle in various sales and recruitment roles.

The 26-year-old, who lives near the town centre with his partner Stasy Sergeerva, almost always exceeded his targets but found the jobs dull and unfulfulling so could never stay for long.

Now he and Miss Sergeeva spend their days looking after up to 15 small-breed dogs at a time, walking them two or three times daily over distances of 10 or more miles through the South Oxfordshire countryside.

They work from a large house which has been specially adapted with gates and fencing to keep their charges safe and supervise them as they play with each other in the garden or rest indoors between walks.

The couple, who are helped by Mr Thomas’s mother Sarah, can also look after dogs overnight when their clients are away.

At present, they are not accepting new business as they are fully booked until next August.

Mr Thomas, whose family moved to the town from Caversham in 2001, has lost almost five stone since he started and says he would be delighted to run the venture for the rest of his working life.

He honed his business skills by studying the subject as a BTEC at The Henley College, which he enrolled on after scoring poorly in his AS-level examinations.

He was also inspired by his father Rod, who works in venture capital.

Mr Thomas was happy with his GCSEs, which he sat at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, but struggled to keep up with the increased academic demand at Cherwell College in Oxford.

He barely passed two of his three subjects and failed the third.

He was going to pursue a career as a skiing instructor but his mother persuaded him to attend an open evening at The Henley College and he was drawn to the two-year business course by its practical focus and lack of examinations.

After finishing in 2012, he was eligible to study business at university but instead he chose to enter the workplace, first taking a role with a financial brokerage firm in London, then working in recruitment for a company in Twyford and another near Henley.

Mr Thomas said: “The course showed how simple it is to run a business because we managed an imaginary one, looking at things like its turnover and profit. It demystified the process and encouraged you to just start one of your own.

“I’d always been obsessed with being an entrepreneur and making it on my own but at that stage I was still overcomplicating it.

“I felt like I had to come up with a really grand, game-changing business idea so I would take a job until the inspiration came.

“The training at my first job was cut-throat but very useful as it gave you the confidence to get on the phone and sell to high net worth individuals, though I left because I had to commute two hours each way.

“I stayed at the next job for two years and did very well, bringing in a lot of money, but I was very unhappy. I was sitting completely still all day and stuffing my face so I was getting pretty overweight.

“I took a few months out but I was offered another job and went back into it, thinking I’d had time to clear my head and was ready to make a new start.

“Once again I did really well at first but by the end of 2015 I’d become absolutely enormous.

“By the summer of 2016 it was clear I wasn’t going to hit my targets any longer as I just wasn’t feeling motivated. I knew I had to do something when I started envying the smokers who had an excuse to get up and go outside every so often. I thought about taking up smoking so that I could join them.”

He quit his job soon afterwards and took up casual work walking dogs, which appealed to him as his family had kept dogs when he and his three siblings were growing up.

After a few months he realised there was a market for an inclusive day care, walking and boarding service so he wrote a business plan and obtained a licence from South Oxfordshire District Council, which periodically inspects his premises.

Miss Sergeeva also sat a qualification in canine first aid.

Mr Thomas said: “I was working for another walker and when I saw the numbers they were looking after per day I realised it could be profitable.

“There was definitely a need because some dogs were clearly unhappy being dropped off and just left alone.

“I had 500 flyers printed and took out an advert in the Henley Standard and my first enquiry was from someone wanting to board their dog for four nights. I wasn’t offering that service so I asked my mum’s advice and she said, ‘well, I guess you’re offering it now’.

“My dad was also very supportive, which gave me the confidence to see it through. He works in a very serious, hard-nosed world of suits, courts and big deals so I thought there must be something in it if he likes it.

“My health has improved so dramatically since then and I feel much better because my lifestyle is so enjoyable.

“My old colleagues lived and breathed their jobs and would take work home but I never cared that much whereas now I’m following my passion.”

Mr Thomas and his partner can each look after six dogs at once while his mother can take an additional three.

They walk them in shifts while providing a “home from home” service with play and informal puppy training.

Mr Thomas said: “We want it to reflect what a dog’s life would normally be like at home so, for example, we ask their owners if they have rules like not following people upstairs. We then enforce that consistently so they don’t develop bad habits.

“We allow them to come inside and go outside freely and we’ve got beds set up in multiple rooms with lots of radiators and a central ‘hub’ in the kitchen. It’s like a ‘free range’ kennels with no cages, pens or anything like that.

“It’s an absolutely awesome job. You need a lot of energy because our day service runs from 7am until 6.30pm but I’m an energetic person and enjoy having an outlet for that.

“It’s pretty easy for us to manage small dogs because I grew up with a German shepherd, a Labrador and a Labrador-cross so these aren’t much by comparison.

“The policy came about by chance simply because our early enquiries were from small dog owners.

“However, I’m glad we went down that path because I see walkers out with six dogs of 20kg or more and wonder how they cope.

“Also, if a little dog wees on your carpet it’s just a puddle, whereas if a German shepherd wets the curtains then you’re going to have to replace them.

“Our job probably looks like one heck of a task to the untrained eye but we’re always on top of it like a well-oiled machine. It’s a very relaxed, fun environment, although we’re always head-counting and supervising the garden.”

Mr Thomas is glad he initially worked in unsuitable jobs as it taught him to follow what he enjoys.

He said: “I could have gone to university and scraped through with an okay degree but then I’d be three years behind the stage I’ve reached now.

“I always wanted to get out and start doing something rather than learning in a classroom.

“Those jobs taught me to be really energetic and on the ball but I’m simply not a ‘killer’ salesman who’s always looking to close the deal.

“Now I’ve found something I’d happily stick with for the rest of my career.”

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