Only a ball about to be thrown gets this sort of attention. Photo: Zola Narisetti

Liz Spenser, a dog owner who lives in Prospect Heights, says she has not set her alarm clock for work in about five years. Jonesy, her mixed-breed dog, perks up the moment the white van arrives to take her to doggy playgroup. 

“Jonesy lets out two sharp barks before I even hear the keys in the door and makes a mad dash from the bedroom toward the living room. I love the fact that I don’t have to get out of bed for another 45 minutes or so and Jonesy gets to play and of course do her business,” says Spenser.

Vanessa Ivey, 36, who runs OutsideBklyn, an off-leash dog playgroup with pick-up and drop-off services, collects Jonesy next to last before heading to Prospect Park to play with an average of 15 to 20 dogs in a shady spot near the water. On a recent morning, when the temperature was already 69 degrees at 6:30 a.m., Ivey secured Jonesy in a crate next to the other dogs after lifting her into the van. 

She took a quick look at her phone and she and her assistant, Trey, cross-checked the list to make sure they weren’t missing anyone: “Bentley, Nova, Rosie, Beans, Dia, Buddy, Cagney, Kendrick, Zuzu, Gibson [aka Gibbles], Nisha, Tosti, Rosco, Ruthie, Layla.” She did not say Sprinkles and he started to bark. Sprinkles is Ivey’s dog who wants to be counted, too. “And Sprinkles,” she exclaims, rubbing his chin before jumping into the driver’s seat and heading to the park.

Ivey, a native of Montego Bay, Jamaica, sometimes marvels at how she came about starting a business that doesn’t have anything to do with owning a restaurant. After she joined her mother in Stuart, Florida, at age 16, she completed high school and then immediately went to Florida Culinary Institute. She had spent a lot of time in the countryside with her grandmother in Jamaica, where she developed a love for cooking using many of the vegetables from her grandmother’s farm.

“There was something special about knowing you could feed yourself with food you helped grow, by watering the vegetables, turning over the soil and even singing a reggae song to coax the vegetables along if it came to that,” Ivey says with a laugh. Her grandmother also raised chickens and ducks and there were plenty of dogs that wandered in the yard hoping for scraps. “We never really named them since they would just come and go. There was Dog, Black Dog, Little Dog, Dog with Limp,” she says.

Ivey was given a Maltipoo by a neighbor’s groomer — a puppy named Kimi that she brought with her when she relocated to New York. A string of jobs as a sous chef at a few Manhattan restaurants soon became a grind — and she missed being  away from Kimi so much. Because she did not yet have her green card, her immigrant status could complicate employment options. 

Ivey and her furry clients in Prospect Park one morning. Photo: Zola Narisetti

When Ivey heard about a job working for a dog walking service, she jumped at the chance. She walked dogs for about two years, and also did some pet sitting before approaching two other dog walkers she regularly saw on her routes about possibly starting a van service that provided morning and afternoon play in the park. Together, they started NYCJaywalkers in 2018, servicing the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Dumbo.

Like every other small business, theirs also took a hit during the pandemic. While they were averaging about 45 dogs a day over the two daily sessions, the business dwindled to about five dogs. “We were all scared, not knowing if we could get Covid from our clients or if they could get Covid from us. We were in and out of so many houses that we just shut down for three months,” Ivey says. “[ Yet] a client lured me back out. She was sending me pictures stating how much her dog missed me.” However, when they reopened, even though they were wearing masks and taking other precautions, the clientele just wasn’t enough. “People moved out of the city or state, lost their jobs, were working from home and incomes had changed,” she says. “We had to rebuild and it was very hard maintaining the two vans, insurance and splitting the income among three people.”

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Jasper trying to grab the ball before the others. Photo: Vanessa Ivey

One of the partners left NYCJaywalkers in fall of 2021, and Ivey parted ways with her other partner in May 2022. They gave their clients the option to stay with Jaywalkers or move to OutsideBklyn with Ivey. Most of the clients chose Ivey. She also built a word-of-mouth new client base among the pandemic-puppy set. She has since hired staff to help with the dogs. 

Giustina Surbone, who lives in Park Slope, was a client of Ivey’s before she even started the playgroup, utilizing her dog-walking and pet-sitting services with her first dog, Gala. 

“Gala had a lot of issues and wouldn’t go to a lot of people, with the exception of my husband and myself and Vanessa, who also helped me through her death,” says Surbone. “I have another dog now, Layla, a lover of life, people and dogs and she’s also crazy about Vanessa.” 

Most clients send their dogs to the playgroup several times a week, so the pups end up bonding with each other.

“Layla is a very social dog and being in this big play group in the morning and sometimes the evening just made her so happy … and tired. And what she charges for her services is pretty moderate, especially when you look at what you get outside of the play,” says Surbone. “Vanessa has stayed in my house as long as three weeks when I went away to watch Gala and now Layla and she’s a young woman with a lot of integrity and love.” 

Ivey says the name OutsideBklyn is fitting because “dogs are like wolves, they need to be outside, chasing balls, squirrels, even their own tails.”

Like the postal service, Ivey runs the playgroup rain, sleet, snow or shine, adjusting off-leash locations from Prospect Park or Fort Greene Park based on the weather. “We go to Red Hook Piers in the summer or I set up a sprinkler or doggie pool,” she says. “In winter we go sledding. But if it’s too cold or too hot and the clients are counting on bathroom breaks, I make the rounds for clients who are at work.”

When the temperatures soar, the dogs head to the beach. Photo: Vanessa Ivey

“Rain or shine” appeals to Danielle Wade of Prospect Heights, who sends Rosco, 8, and Ruthie, 3, both rescue pit bulls, to OutsideBklyn. 

“I tried other dog walkers but Vanessa is one of the best things that ever happened to us. They get a lot more energy out and I think they are better socialized and Vanessa has helped me with Ruthie’s ball obsession,” she says.

“Aside from the playgroup, I feel completely comfortable with Vanessa. I left during Covid and I let her stay at my house instead of going back to New Jersey.  I just felt it would be easier on her and I trust her to take care of my home and my dogs,” Wade says.

Ivey’s love of dogs is apparent in the photos she sends clients of their pets in Halloween costumes or during birthday celebrations. Leaning on her culinary skills, Ivey bakes cakes with peanut butter and banana for their birthdays.

“The clients fill out a detailed questionnaire regarding temperament and vaccines at my first meet and greet,” she says.”But I really want to know when we can party. One week I celebrated birthdays for Bentley, Nova, Rosie, Beans and Gibson. I think I picked up more poop, but it was worth it.” 

OutsideBklyn charges $40 for one session and $60 for two sessions. Discounts are given for multiple dogs from the same owner. You can reach Ivey at (347) 388-0292; on the OutsideBklyn website or via Instagram.

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  1. Great job Vanessa, you certainly chose the perfect career as you are so passionate with animals.

  2. I’m beyond proud. This is only the beginning. I’ll always bet on you and cheer you on. Patiently waiting for the future endeavors.

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