When Your Dream Job Might Be a Nightmare

I have a confession to make: Although I'm doing what I've always dreamed of doing for a living, sometimes I get really sick of being a freelance writer.

I know what you're thinking: "Bleep you, Michelle. At least you have a job, which is more than some of us can say. So quit whining."

But it's not just whining. We all dread certain aspects of our jobs -- even jobs we truly love and/or appreciate having. We all know what it's like to work so hard we fry ourselves to a crisp. We all fantasize about how great life would be if only we could get paid to brew beer, teach yoga or make miniature figurines.

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By the end of 2008, that's where I was: overworked, under-rested and up to here with sitting on my rump day in and day out with only my e-mail inbox for company. I needed a break from all the grim headlines, never-ending deadlines and endless stream of irate reader e-mail.

My fantasy? To take care of dogs for a living.

So when Vocation Vacations asked me if I'd like to shadow a dog daycare owner for eight hours, I howled for joy.

Not Your Father's Working Vacation

My dream of trading in my keyboard and mouse for a leash and chew toy isn't something that came to me overnight. I've lived with dogs all my life and have been grilling dog sitters, walkers and daycare owners about the pros, cons and profit margins of their businesses for as long as I can remember.

Still, asking your dog boarder how far in advance they fill up and the number of times they've been bitten is only the tip of the research iceberg. That's where Vocation Vacations, a mecca for career changers with big dreams and big severance packages, comes in.

For about $500 to $1,700, the company will place you in a two- or three-day internship in the far-flung trade of your choice, complete with seasoned mentor who shows you the ropes, one-on-one. Stand-up comic, sports announcer, flight instructor, dude rancher, oyster farmer -- no vocation is too obscure.

(Dog daycare owner ranks among the company's top 20 requested vacations. Curiously, so does writer.)

The Perfect Gig: Fantasy vs. Reality

Before the mass layoffs began late in 2008, Vocation Vacations was something people signed up for when they "just wanted to see what a dream job was about," founder Brian Kurth said.

But now, "We're seeing an increase in vocationers who've been laid off or fear they're going to be laid off," he said. "The shift in the economy is really changing our clientele to those who are being forced to create change for themselves."

According to the Vocation Vacation Web site, my own vacation (shortened to one day for this column) at Dog's Day Out in Seattle would include greeting the pooches at the start of each day, maintaining order among the pack and making nice with customers.

I would soon learn, however, that most of this was code for "exercising your housekeeping skills."

"This is basically a cleaning job," Dog's Day Out owner Danette Johnston told me while brewing tea in the kitchen of the Craftsman home she'd turned into a small doggie playground in 2000. The furnace had unexpectedly quit, the repairperson was late and we were trying to stay warm.

As she filled me in on the evolution of her business, her 15 four-legged guests jockeyed for my attention, the bossier ones barking and scolding the others.

"And then you also have to watch dogs," Johnston added.

For 20 minutes or so, I was in dog-watching heaven, petting and cooing at and throwing the ball for each of Johnston's canine charges, each one sweeter and goofier than the next. And despite the fact that I can count on one hand the times I've cleaned my bathtub, I told myself that bleaching and mopping and scooping up poop in the backyard would be a welcome change from my usual sedentary life.

But I knew I was kidding myself -- even before Johnston told me she spent her first two years working 12-hour days because she couldn't afford employees yet. Even before my eyes started to water and my nose started to run and I remembered that I was prone to sneezing violently when occupying a small room with more than one or two dogs in it.

The Beauty of Trying Before You Buy

Truth was, the most interesting part of my day was mining Johnston and Zorah, one of her employees, for details about their jobs and the business of boarding dogs and thinking about how I'd tell their story later when I sat down at my keyboard. Like a fickle 3-year-old with a new toy on Christmas morning, I was bored with the dogs themselves in less than an hour.

I tried to hang on for the much-ballyhooed puppy behavior class scheduled to occur the last hour of my stay. But after half a day in tail-wagging wonderland, I pleaded deadline, grabbed some more tissues for the car ride home and high-tailed it out of there.

I don't consider my foray into the world of dog daycare a loss, though. Sure, I realized that my dream job stinks (literally). But I'm glad I got that dose of reality -- even if it came wrapped in a pungent plastic sack -- before I took any concrete steps toward pursuing my less-than-dreamy fantasy job.

Of course, you don't need to spend $1,000 to sample a job you're interested in exploring hands-on. Internships and volunteer gigs often can serve the same purpose. So can calling a professional you admire and asking if they'll let you observe them at work for a morning in exchange for breakfast. If you're still in school or recently graduated, your career center likely can help you set up such gigs.

And while they're no replacement for seeing a job in action, classes and blogs can help you gauge whether a job that's piqued your curiosity is something you want to explore further.

As for me, I'm back in the writing saddle and couldn't be happier. One day of sending my career to the dogs was all I needed to realize that I'd been barking up the wrong tree.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.