I have been chomping at the bit for a chance to ride with the dogs on the Portland Bark Bus, a local adventure dog business that launched this summer. On a recent chilly fall Friday, I finally got a chance to ruff it up and go doggie day-tripping on the Bark Bus with the dogs and their pack leaders, Casey and Dylan.
The Portland Bark Bus pulled up outside my house and I climbed aboard and took my seat amidst the dog passengers. I saw a few neighbors’ heads turn as I drove past in the well-branded mini-bus with my nose pressed against the window just like my other bus buddies. Every dog had their designated seat and was strapped in with a Kurgo safety belt. I lounged on a comfy cushion bed but as a two-legged passenger, I managed to avoid being strapped in with a harness. I was introduced to the dog line-up for the day who were all regulars but seemed happy to welcome a furless newby.
Bailey, a playful chocolate labrador who resides in Portland, gave me the once over. She had a bed at the back of the bus and has a bit of a reputation for harmlessly mouthing off at newcomers, making “mailman announcements” and eating things she shouldn’t on her daily adventures. I sat next to Griffey, a boxer from South Portland, who snuggled up and made me feel right at home. Griffey’s a “happy-go-lucky” type of guy who goes with the flow. Across the aisle, next to co-owner Casey, sat Teddy, a cinnamon doodle who’ s “the golden child” and has been riding the Bark Bus since he was a puppy. Teddy’s doting Moms, Lisa and Donna, are huge fans of the Bark Bus and even asked Dylan and Casey to be his Godparents. Ziggy, a shaggy black “Muppet-mix” and “the bear of the group”, was seated just behind the co-owner and bus driver, Dylan. Ziggy sniffed me out when I boarded the bus but as we drove off his eyes were glued to the road as “the unofficial bus-driver”.
I would have expected a lot more woof and carry-on on the bus ride but all the riding dogs were very laid back and nonchalant. As regulars, these seasoned bus warriors seemed to know that soon enough we’d be at our doggie day-trip destination in Windham where they would get to run and play to their furry hearts content.
Casey is the Maine connection on the Portland Bark Bus. She grew-up in Windham and has spent about 10 years in the dog industry working for local dog businesses like Planet Dog as well as another dog walking company. I met Casey at Planet Dog just as she was getting ready to spread her wings and pursue her dream of racing sled dogs in British Columbia. Little did Casey know that in pursuing her dog-driven dreams she would also meet a dog-minded partner in life. Dylan is originally from Jackson, Wyoming and quit his desk job to escape to the mushing dog world of British Columbia. Casey and Dylan met for the first time when they arrived at the world champion sled dog kennel in British Columbia last winter. Together, they were left to take care of over 100 dogs that were husky/pointer mixes while the owners were off on the competitive sledding circuit.
Casey and Dylan’s love for working with dogs and affection for each other developed as they worked as a duo at the sledding kennel. As hired seasonal canine caretakers, they “fed, watered and exercised” the dogs on a daily basis. For the young pups who were effectively in the phase of mushing pre-school, training sessions included running alongside the three-wheeler and getting used to being hooked up to the sleds. Casey and Dylan loved the opportunity to be immersed in the mushing world and the close bond they formed with their canine friends. When the season ended, it was hard to say goodbye to their pack but Casey managed to woo her new found love, Dylan, to follow her back to Portland, which she described as “the doggiest town in the USA”. On their road trip back to Maine, Casey, Dylan and their newly adopted sled dog, Nelson, sniffed their way through the green spaces and dog parks of other cities and began to hatch a plan for starting their own adventure dog program in Portland.
“An adventure dog program for the active dog in your life.”
5 walk punch card – $150 / 10 walk punch card $250 / Overnight dog-sitting – $60
The Portland Bark Bus is a converted mini-bus that was a sourced from Chicago and most likely served as group transportation for a church or school. The bus has been transformed into a spacious dog-friendly minibus to safely transport adventure seeking dogs on a field trip where they can run, explore and play off-leash with other social bus-riding wags.
The theme on the bus was designed to have the feel of a “rafting bus”. The dog-centric photos and doggy bling made me feel like I was back in a doggie version of early grade school years with comfy cushions for each four-paw passenger. Having worked as a dog walker using her own car in the past, Casey wanted to offer a safer ride where the dogs are secured and not able to distract the driver. Each doggie client has their own cushion bed seat and is safely strapped into their harness but with the flexibility to move around enough to sniff out neighboring passengers and reposition for a comfortable ride.
Casey and Dylan believe their mode of adventure dog transportation provides a “stress free ride” where “dogs are not tethered by their collars or stepping all over each other”. Having a designated dog bus also has the added benefit of keeping the furry side of the business out of their personal vehicles. In the summer months, there is air-conditioning available to cool down the furry passengers and tasty electrolyte ice cube treats are served up.
Each of the bus riding dogs is equipped with a Bark Bus Pet Check magnet with GPS capabilities which is scanned to let owners know their fur-kid has been picked-up, where they are at and when they have been happily tucked back into bed at home.
As we drove to our destination play area in Windham where the dogs will get to run free on private family land, I got the inside scoop on the mission of this dog-minded entrepreneurial pursuit and how it works.
“I know what it’s like to be in the city with dogs and the need to get them exercised. A lot of people just don’t have the hours it takes (to properly exercise their dogs)…I love delivering exhausted happy dogs and peace of mind.”
Casey and Dylan explained that the ideal bus adventure dog is a little submissive in temperament, well-socialized with people and other dogs and has good recall. Often the best dog clients are “people-dogs first and dog-dogs second” as this helps with keeping their attention. Casey loves working with young dogs who adapt well and learn the ropes from the beginning.
When a client first contacts Portland Bark Bus, there is a “meet and greet” at the prospective client’s house, then a mini-adventure is planned with Casey and Dylan’s own dogs, Arrow and Nelson, to see how they interact. Initially, the new recruits are on leashes and then test recalls are done in a safe environment. Once they are deemed ready, the new dog joins the Bark Bus team and is typically the first pick-up to help them settle in before they retrieve the rest of the pack. There is also an effort made to balance out the boy-girl wag mix, which they see as an important factor in group dynamics.
On a dirt road, on our way to our Windham play destination, we picked-up our final passenger, Luke, a yellow Labrador who belongs to Casey’s cousin. Luke wagged along with us since his folks give access to their private acreage.
When we arrived at our doggie oasis, the dogs were unclipped from their seatbelt restraints and piled off the bus like a mini Noah’s Ark crew ready for action. Casey and Dylan, kept their commands to a minimum, just like sled dog trainers, but when a command was made all fur-lined eyes were on the pack leaders.
After 90 minutes of ruff play, the woof-gang were slowing down and seemed ready to have a drink and knowingly head to their designated seats. With a bunch of contented dogs buckled in, we began the procession to each dog’s house where Casey scanned them in via Pet Check, sent off a school style daily report emails to the respective owners and settled them in – “Ziggy gets a gold-star today”.
All the canine passengers had their leaving rituals, Teddy had to have his “baby” before he could be tucked in. Moose, another regular who wasn’t on this trip, needs to have the TV Show “Friends” on a loop playing before he is left and some just need to be reminded to have that final tinkle.
After being dropped home by the Bark Bus, I could picture my fellow bus buddies snoozing away with happy tail dreams until their family came home. I had to do a little explaining to my dog, Ted, who didn’t get to come on this particular Maine Wag field trip. Ted is chomping at the bit to hop onboard the Bark Bus and ride with the woof-gang some time soon.