After a demanding legal career, Laurie followed her heart to open a business offering healing water therapy for elderly and ailing dogs. She’d go on to write a memoir of her adventures with her beloved dog Gunny.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Port Arthur, TX, which is a small town on the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana border. I have a brother and a sister. We raised horses when I was young, and I showed my horse competitively until I was about 13. The first time my parents let me out of the yard, I came home with a puppy from the neighbor’s house, who I named Bandit. My current immediate family consists of me and my husband, Juan Carlos Duperier, and our chocolate Labrador retriever Dino.
I went to college in San Angelo, TX at Angelo State University and received a BA in French and English. I then completed a joint degree in law and a Masters in Foreign Service (JD/MSFS) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in 1990.
I started practicing law when I graduated from law school, and began my career in Los Angeles, CA for a big New York law firm (Shearman & Sterling) in the litigation department. I wanted to leave DC, because, honestly, there were just too many lawyers and it seemed that everyone I met and spoke to was a lawyer and wanted to talk about their work more than anything else. (In LA, everyone wants to talk about the entertainment industry, but that was more interesting for me because it was not an industry that I was working in.)
When I lived in LA, I spent most of my free time with my cousin Brian, who is like a brother to me. We decided to go to Madrid, Spain one winter on a “two for one” special with American Airlines, and that turned out to be a life-changing trip. A couple of days after we arrived in Madrid, we went to a little tavern near the Plaza Mayor called the Meson de la Guitara, hoping to hear some Spanish guitar music. Sitting at the bar that night, clapping to the Flamenco music, was Juan Carlos, who later became my husband. We struck up a conversation with him and ended up spending a lot of our vacation time with him. This was 1995, not long after Terry McMillan published her book How Stella Got Her Groove Back about falling in love with a guy in Jamaica when she was on vacation. When I returned home, I got teased a lot about how I got my groove back in Spain! Juan Carlos and I literally mailed letters back and forth for over a year, talked on the phone, and saw each other every 3 or 4 months, at which point I decided to move back to Washington, DC because it was a much shorter trip to/from Spain. Two years later, in 1997, he moved to the United States and we married.
We had discussed what to do about wedding presents, and decided that his present to me would be a puppy. I had not had a dog since college because my long work hours just didn’t permit me to care for another being, so I was pretty excited about the thought of a puppy. We agreed we would get a chocolate Labrador retriever, and he went alone to the breeder to pick out our dog. Although we did not know it at the time, he found my long lost soul mate for me—Gunny—and nothing was ever the same again.
After about five years in Los Angeles, I decided to move back to Washington, DC. By then, I was working for a Washington, DC based law firm (Arnold & Porter) in their Los Angeles office, so it was relatively easy to transfer to their DC office. Eventually, I became an in-house lawyer at The Philip Morris Companies, now known as Altria. I was posted to Hong Kong, then Lausanne, Switzerland, to the headquarters of Philip Morris International, where I became Vice President of Compliance Systems, overseeing world-wide compliance for the company.
In 1995, I came back to Washington, DC to work for Altria as Vice President and Associate General Counsel, supporting the government affairs, trademark, and corporate affairs groups. I did a variety of things in my legal career—litigation, regulation, corporate affairs support, and compliance—and it was all interesting.
In total, I practiced law for 18 years, most of it quite happily. My work was challenging and I worked with incredibly smart and talented people throughout. But, as often happens, the further up the ladder you go, the further away you get from doing what you were trained to do (and love to do)—and the more time you spend on HR issues, conflict resolution, internal politics, and managing lots of people. Those aspects of the job I found draining and much less rewarding.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had a low level of dissatisfaction for a couple of years, whereas previously I really had loved my jobs and the people that I worked with. I was losing my passion for what I did, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do or could do—and what I was doing was quite lucrative and made for an easy life financially. So, while I thought about quitting and doing something else, I also told myself that I could keep doing what I was doing for a while longer and figure it out later. After all, I was in my mid-40s and had a lot of life left ahead of me.
And I thought that by sticking it out for several more years, I would be more financially settled and better able to transition to whatever the next something was going to be. That said, the phrase that was always humming in my head was, “How long am I going to wait to start living my life?” I worked incredibly long hours, traveled frequently, and didn’t feel that I had much of a life outside my job.
Then, a really crazy thing happened. I was laying in my hammock in the back yard reading the Sunday Washington Post when the base of the hammock suddenly broke and the giant 4×6 piece of wood from which the hammock hung catapulted into my head. It knocked me unconscious and tore a big gash in my forehead, barely missing my eye and resulting in extensive stitches. Luckily, there was no concussion or bleeding on the brain, proof of just how hard my head is!
But for a couple of inches, I could have lost my life rather than have a scar on my forehead, and that is when I decided that the answer to my question about how long I was going to wait to start living my life was “not long”. I couldn’t wait to start living my life because, as I was reminded so jarringly on a regular Sunday afternoon, none of us knows how long our life will be. So, it was time to get moving and figure out what to do.
Lucky for me, my chocolate Labrador retriever, Gunny, had been working on a plan for me, and he led me to my next act.
What is your next act?
I own Gunny’s Rainbow, LLC, a warm water swimming pool for dogs. I focus mainly on rehabilitating geriatric dogs suffering from arthritis and dogs recovering from various orthopedic surgeries. I also am a Reiki master and incorporate that healing energy into my practice with many of the dogs.
The first thing I did after I quit my job in 2008, at 44 years old, was sell my house, buy a new house about a mile away from my perfectly good house in Bethesda, MD right outside Washington, DC, and build an indoor swimming pool to open Gunny’s Rainbow. Gunny was my heart dog, my soul mate, and the guiding light of my life. He needed a lot of physical therapy, including swimming, in order to maintain his mobility and his quality of life, so from his need sprung the idea for the next chapter in my life: I was going to build and run a dog swimming pool. Gunny knew that I needed a change from my legal career, and I think he knew that I could care for other dogs with the same compassion and love that I cared for him. He knew that I would do anything to help him, and if that meant that I needed to stop practicing law and build a pool for him and other old dogs, then that was what I was going to do.
There are many things to love about working with dogs all day, especially geriatric dogs. For starters, they are always honest and most always very kind. They take their aging in stride, much more so than people do, despite often suffering greatly from arthritis and other degenerative diseases in their later years. So, they are incredibly happy and grateful to have the chance to swim and float in warm water, which enables them to move without pain. It also helps to ease their pain as the warm water soothes their joints and allows them to float, weightless for a time, in the water.
What I love most about swimming with old dogs is the relationship of trust that develops between us, and knowing that I have brought comfort to them in their last years. By helping the dogs, I am also helping their people who so often feel helpless in the face of their dog’s physical decline. As one client said to me, “swimming at Gunny’s Rainbow makes an old dog feel young again.” And often, it really does!
Gunny lived for several years after I built the pool, and he was really happy that the other dogs had a place to swim and heal, although as it turns out, he had zero interest in swimming. Too bad! After getting me to quit my job, buy a house, and build a pool, he swam twice a week whether he liked it or not! It really was an important part of maintaining his quality of life. Unfortunately, he continued to fight various diseases along with his orthopedic problems, and when he turned 14, we knew there was not a lot of time left.
You have gone on to write a book. How did this come about?
As Gunny’s health declined, and our inevitable parting loomed, another evolution began to materialize. We were two souls that had become one: I no longer knew where I ended and where he began. Soul mates. And for years, people who knew of our crazy adventures around the world and all of the life-or-death moments we experienced, had said to me, “You should write a book!”
I thought that WE should write a book. So I asked a friend who was an animal communicator to interview Gunny on about 20 topics or so, and over the course of about six months, she did. I incorporated the thoughts and feelings that he expressed into our memoir, The Endless Path: A Memoir. It is a story about love, loss, courage, and what it means to walk through life with a soul mate that you have known over lifetimes.
In many ways, publishing the book was actually much more difficult for me than opening the pool. I found it terrifying to share my intimate thoughts and feelings publicly, and I was concerned that people would think that I had totally lost my mind. As if opening a dog pool wasn’t enough, now I was publishing a book sharing my innermost thoughts and feelings about my dog, our immeasurable love for each other, and worst of all, the depth of my grief when he died. It was truly unnerving. But I promised him before he died that I would tell our story, so there was never any question that I had to see it through. And I did. The Endless Path: A Memoir was published in September 2015.
Much to my delight, I have had nothing but lovely reviews and messages from people about the book. Many people have taken the time to review it on Amazon—all 5-star reviews so far. Other people have reached out to me to tell me what the book meant to them and how they completely understand loving a dog so much; they shared with me the depth of their grief when they lost their heart dog. It turns out a lot of the world feels the same way I did. Like me, they just never felt comfortable talking to people about it because it didn’t seem “normal.” Several of my clients at Gunny’s Rainbow are therapists and they recommend the book to their clients who lose a companion. I did not set out to write a self-help book. Gunny and I just wanted to tell our story. But we are certainly happy if in fact our book—and me “going public with my crazy” as I call it—gives others comfort.
Why did you choose this next act?
I really never considered doing anything other than opening Gunny’s Rainbow when I quit my corporate legal job. I was motivated by love for Gunny and wanting to help him and other dogs, and it coincided with my need to find a new career path for myself.
Early on, I toyed with the idea of maybe looking for a position on a Board of Directors for a company to earn some money and keep one toe in the legal/corporate world, but I quickly became immersed (pun intended) in doing water therapy and the two things did not seem compatible. One reason I say that is because I went from a job where I de facto put on body armor every day to withstand the conflicts and ordeals of corporate life, to a job with dogs where I really was able to work with an open heart and total vulnerability. A dog is not going to hurt you emotionally. Pretty much ever. And there are no hidden agendas and politics to manage. So, I felt like it would be Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde to try to do both well and I preferred to just be one person—the nice, open-hearted one.
Because I was totally “done” with practicing law, I have not missed it at all. I loved it almost all the years that I did it, but I did not want to do it anymore. So in that sense, it was not hard to quit. Financially it was very scary, however. I had always drawn a paycheck every two weeks, had paid vacations, and had good health insurance. Those days were over the moment that I quit my job. Under the best of circumstances, working in the pool I would be able to make no more than 1/10th the amount I had made as a lawyer, and likely a lot less. Plus I had the added expenses of building and running the pool. So, while I had enough savings to ride it out for a while, it was a plunge into the unknown in terms of financial security.
I wish that I could say I did a lot of thoughtful preparation, but I didn’t. I looked at the numbers to see how long I could last running the pool in the best and worst cases, and then I just did it. Because I was motivated by love and a deep desire to make this change, I did not do a lot of the financial due diligence that one frankly should do. I did take classes on how to swim/rehabilitate dogs, so I made sure that I knew what I was doing in my new chosen profession, even if I did not exercise as much financial diligence as I should have. The reality is that I was going to open the pool and give it a shot even it did not work financially in the long run.
How supportive were your family and friends?
It was a mixed bag. I think most everyone understood my desire to quit my job—they knew that I had worked awfully hard for almost two decades and how little free time I had in my life to do fun things. It was a great run, but it came at a cost to my personal life.
However, quitting a high profile lucrative job to open a dog pool was a bridge too far for many of them. Had I quit to do consulting, or work in a law firm, or practice law and use my degree in some way, I think it would have been more understandable for them. For starters, swimming dogs is not really a “profession” in anyone’s mind. Second, it is not anything that I had any background or training in, so it just seemed weird to people. Third, and very importantly, they did not see how I was going to ever have a client or make a living since most of them had never heard of a dog therapy pool.
In a nutshell, I don’t think anyone was against me quitting, they were just baffled by what I was going to do in my “new life.” They saw, I think, little chance of success. And for many, they also saw little value in it. That always amused me because why would I have more value to society as a tobacco lawyer than as a dog water therapist?
My husband was supportive of me quitting my job and opening the pool, even though it meant big changes to our lifestyle because I had been the main breadwinner in our family. We did not have a safety net other than our savings. No wealthy family members and no lottery winnings! No one knew better than Juan Carlos how stressed out I was, and I was often in a really bad mood. I worked late every night and many weekends, and was exhausted a lot of the time. That said, we had a nice standard of living and took great vacations and had all that we needed. They say that once you have enough money to cover the essentials in life of food and shelter, having more money does not correlate to happiness and I think my experience proves that rule. I did not need more stuff. I needed to be happy and have time to enjoy my life. The Spanish are expert at enjoying life so that was a concept that Juan Carlos was 100% in agreement with!
What challenges did you encounter?
Regarding the dog pool, the first challenge was actually constructing the pool room and getting all the equipment that I needed. It was also a huge challenge to run the business out of my home because of all the regulations on home businesses where I live.
Once I tackled all of that, the next challenge was to get clients and build a business. Serendipity found me when the first person who called to bring her dog to swim happened to be a website designer and she wanted to barter swims for website design! It was perfect because a real client, who really knew what I did, designed my website. I hoped that “build it and they will come” would be enough, and in a way, it was. Clients found me on an Internet search, and I really have not had to do any paid advertising at all. That website, a good reputation, and word of mouth have kept the pool full of clients for 7½ years now.
The third challenge was a physical one. It is very difficult to lift 80 to 120 pound dogs in and out of the pool, and tough to be submerged in water for 5 hours a day. I had sat at a desk for most of my life, and this was physically demanding work even if it was not mentally demanding the way my legal job had been.
Lastly, there was a huge emotional challenge that I had not really properly anticipated—dealing with loss and grief. In many ways, what I am doing is hospice work. I am absolutely improving the quality of the life of the elderly dogs and their people, and bringing them joy and relief from pain, but the personal loss that I suffer with so many of them dying has been emotionally very difficult.
Regarding writing and publishing The Endless Path: A Memoir, there were innumerable obstacles.
The first obstacle was having the time to really concentrate on writing while running the pool. I had the person who was working with me work an extra day of the week so I could have that time to write. It is very difficult to write a memoir for half a day and then go socialize and swim dogs in the other half.
Secondly, it was very challenging to confront all of the emotions that came up writing the book. The writing itself was not difficult—I had been writing my whole life, albeit in the legal world—but I am a natural writer so it comes easy for me. Gunny and I had made a promise that we were going to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of whether it reflected poorly on one or both of us, and some of those truths were hard to tell.
Third, I had to decide between self-publishing and trying to get an agent/publisher. I made a small attempt to find representation and ultimately decided that I would rather have complete control over how our story was presented, so I went the self-publishing route.
Lastly, the skills and tasks involved in actually publishing the book and marketing it are things that I could NOT do alone, so I hired some very competent people to help me and that is how I resolved those challenges. I found the perfect website designer to design the book’s website; found a professional proofreader; started publishing at the famous local bookstore here in Washington, DC (Politics & Prose); and, with patience, found someone to help me with a marketing plan to sell my book.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Although it sounds trite, failure was not an option. In terms of the dog pool, I believed that the business could work and it does. Dogs get better and live longer, people are happy, and new clients come to fill in the spots of the old dogs when they pass away. So honestly, no, I never thought about giving up. The closest I came to giving up was when the expense and stress of leaks and equipment failures overwhelmed me. Once I got those resolved, I did not look back.
In terms of writing The Endless Path, I would not say that I thought of giving up, but there were times when it was really quite emotionally difficult to keep writing. I did not really have a choice, however, because I made a promise to Gunny that I would tell the world his/our story, and I always keep my promises.
I guess through it all, the truth is that Gunny kept me going on both fronts. Both the pool and the book were his legacy and I did not want to let him down. Had I done this only for myself, I don’t know if I would have a different answer. But I wasn’t doing it just for me, so I was highly motivated to see it all through and to succeed. I was also fortunate to have a husband who really wanted me to be happy, and who was willing to make changes in his own life to help me make changes in mine.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that there is nothing more powerful than the power of love. So now, when faced with a challenge or negativity, I throw love at it. I did not know that I was capable of loving so deeply, and did not anticipate the strength that I would find in loving and being loved with such intensity.
I also learned that I can do more than one thing in life well. We always hope that we are good at more than one thing, but now I know that I can practice law and argue with the best of them; I can run a business; I can write a book; and I also can go to the most quiet and tender part of my being and just “be” with a dog who is hurting and bring him comfort. Those are wildly different things, and I am surprised to find that I am able to do all of them pretty well. I already knew a lot about what I did not do well—such as accounting or sports, it is a long list—so it was nice to have a longer list of things that I can do. And hopefully I will discover some new things in the coming years!
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I honestly don’t think so. I think I did what I needed to do at the time I needed to do it. I could not have written the book earlier. I could not have opened the pool later. And I could not have kept working in my lawyer role for much longer or I would have become physically ill. I feel that I listened to my heart rather than my head when there was a decision-making moment, and that my heart kept me on course.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Listen to your heart/your gut/the “knowing” place inside of you. If you feel you need to make a change or you feel an internal dissonance in what you are doing and what you want to do, value that and listen to it. I am not saying that your good brain has no role to play, but I think if you try to be only logical, only rational, or listen to others, you may not end up in the best place for you. I think we all know on some level what we are here to do and it is not necessarily just one thing in our life! So let yourself realize the full expression of your unique self and don’t let others who are timid or afraid hold you back or make you doubt yourself.
I think changing what you do for a living often involves getting in touch with parts of yourself that you may not have really been well-acquainted with before the change. So it is hard—on you, your family, and your friends. And I think it always brings change to your life in a variety of aspects from your friends to your finances. But it is your life, and I think it is important not to sit back when you are old and ask “I wonder what would have happened if I had . . .?” Better to know the answer to the question, and follow your heart and your inner desire, come what may.
What advice do you have for those interested in working with animals?
If you think that you want to work with animals, fantastic! But don’t think that working with animals means you avoid working with people; the people are the ones who bring you the animals, love them, and are involved in their care. So you have to interact with and love people, too. And, know that there is almost nothing that you can do in terms of working with animals that pays much money, other than being a vet. It doesn’t matter how good you are. There is a ceiling on the amount of money that you can make unless you start to franchise and expand. And then guess what? You aren’t working with animals any more, just lots and lots of employees. That is fine; but just know, that’s how it goes!
For those thinking about writing a book, I would say that you need to remember that the book process has three distinct and totally unrelated parts: writing it, publishing it, and marketing it. It requires three different skill sets and it takes a really long time. So, if you have a story to tell, tell it! Hire good people in each of those three areas to help you as necessary. And persevere in the face of a rejection.
What resources do you recommend?
With regard to running the dog pool:
La Paw Spa in Sequim, WA teaches dog water therapy to adults, most of whom are looking to change careers.
Kathleen Prasad at Animal Reiki Source is a resource for people who want to learn reiki for animals.
With regard to writing my book:
Teresa Spencer provides a variety of services to assist authors, from ghost writing to, as in my case, helping me outline the book before starting to write it.
Jo Spring for proofreading services and other author publishing assistance.
Politics & Prose was instrumental in handholding through the publishing process.
I ultimately published with Ingram Spark. They have drawbacks, but are the biggest book distributor in the world so the book is easily available on Amazon, B&N, etc.
Leigh Kramer at Helicopter Marketing, for assistance in marketing the book.
What’s next for you?
I think my next transition is to slowly move from working with dogs in the water to writing full time. As I age, it is harder and harder to do the physical work required in the water, and it is harder and harder to deal with death on a constant basis.
Having told my story in The Endless Path: A Memoir, I would like to keep writing to tell other people’s and dogs’ stories who are unable to tell them for themselves. Everyone has a story and, to me, they are all fascinating. So, I would like to help give voice to those stories, much as you do here on your blog!
Contact Laurie Plessala Duperier at email@example.com.