If you want to be a dog in Washington, meet Jana Novak

You know the old adage, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” But you probably don’t know of Jana Novak, a former Hill aide, who quit her job three years ago, and took the adage to heart.

So she left Capitol Hill to be a dog walker. Now she hangs out with your furry friends.

Novak worked for stars such as former House Speakers Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the late Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.) and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

She was assistant editor of Rising Tide, the magazine of the Republican National Committee. She nearly worked for almost-Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.), but he resigned in a tearful speech to Congress, admitting marital infidelity, the day after she was hired.

“I was shocked and surprised in the sense that I was excited to work for Livingston,” she says. “I thought I was going to work for someone I believed in.”

In many ways, Novak thrived on Capitol Hill. She worked in communications, so if she wasn’t writing speeches, she was handling press or dispensing a message that matched her beliefs.

What finally did her in?

We’ll get back to that later. First, meet Lacy, Page, Pounce, Kiki and Molly, her four-legged friends who have become like family. Pounce, a Jack Russell Terrier, lives up to his name. He’s the only male among the five. Lacy and Page, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, are adorable lapdogs. Page is the more outgoing of the two; Lacy is shy and skittish. Kiki’s a friendly Italian Greyhound who manages a perfect downward-facing dog-yoga stretch despite possessing legs as thin as chopsticks. Molly is interested in walking only until she has undertaken the main business of the outing, and then she wants to go home.

Novak calls the crew “Pounce’s Entourage,” explaining, “It’s more polite than ‘harem.’”

In the fall of 2003 she left the stress of 12-hour days on Capitol Hill and took an administration job. She left that after six months. For several months she “worked” from home, doing a whole lot of nothing, she admits. By February 2005 she wanted fresh air and exercise. This is how she came to be a dog-walker for Saving Grace, a company created by Grace Steckler, formerly a nun who lived in a convent for 12 years before realizing that the cloistered life was not for her. In some ways, the business is a reflection of lives changed by drastic measures.

On most days, Novak can be found dressed casually in sneakers trotting around cobblestone sidewalks on Capitol Hill with leashes and doggie biscuits and little plastic bags. Today she wears red shorts, a blue tank top and sunglasses with her hair scooped up into a ponytail.

It looks like a lovely way to live.

That’s the way Novak sees it.

“My joke is, it’s the same job I used to have — I’m picking up after someone, the dog just appreciates it more.”

There is a hint of seriousness here. “Before, I used to wake up and dread the morning,” Novak says, but now, “I don’t think there is one day I’ve woken up sad.”

“Oh Pounce, careful, honey,” she says to the eponymous head of the family, as he gets himself into one scrape after another. He stuffs his nose into a glass jar of dirt. Then he tangles the leashes.

The dogs congregate at a spot that clearly interests them. Novak apologizes. “Sorry, a dog peed there,” she says. “Everyone’s got to smell it.”

The members of Pounce’s Entourage treat each other as family. When one dog is on vacation the others stop at its house along the route and wait, wondering where they are. They also treat Novak as family, and they have helped her through the roughest of times. Most recently her mother was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer for a second time. Last year, during another difficult time for Novak, she would walk with dogs thinking rather than, as normal, chatting to them. They knew. They went home anxious. Owners phoned wanting to make sure Novak was OK.

Novak was not the typical Republican woman when she worked at the Capitol. Her style was more a “hippie chic” than pearls and pastel; she’d show up in frocks more suitable for California than Washington. Not that her ideals were hippyish — just, perhaps, her personality.
Still, she thrilled in some of the ways of Washington politics. While working for Fowler, a woman she says few ever remember was in leadership, she’d leak news anonymously to reporters. 

She delighted in working for Gingrich and says it was difficult for any other politician to measure up. “I found Newt to be brilliant,” she says. “Still one of the favorite people I’ve ever worked for.” 

Gingrich supports her decision to be a dog-walker, but you get the sense he doesn’t believe it will last. “Different people follow their paths,” says Gingrich. “That’s what makes this an amazing country. I think she’s probably trying to find the rhythm of her own life. She’s smart and sensitive and creative. I’m a great admirer of her father (the author Michael Novak) and I think she inherited some of his brilliance and some of his literary skills.

“If she’s happy doing this for a while I think it’s terrific. People often underestimate Washington. They describe it as more cynical than it really is. It’s very possible to make lifetime friends here.”

By the time Jana Novak worked for Brownback, her last job on the Hill, she was a senior policy adviser focusing on the impact of media on children. In a good way, she says, the senator ran his office like a think tank.

She’s not sure about his presidential campaign. “He thought he’d be the Christian candidate, and he’s not appealing to those candidates as much as he thought,” she says.

By the end of her time working in Congress, Novak says, she was burnt out. “You get tired of the long hours,” she says. “On Capitol Hill you find people play politics on a micro level and that’s actually what I grew tired of. I’d like to know who my friends are — not just [people who befriend me] because of where I work.” 

Think Novak is nervy? Meet Steckler, the mastermind behind Saving Grace, a business that pulls in an annual half-million-dollar profit. Until 1998, she lived in the convent. She was in the midst of soul-searching and sorting her life out when she moved to Washington and took a room in a Capitol Hill townhouse. Within two months became romantically involved with her roommate. A year later she married him. They have two children and a third on the way.

Steckler no longer attends church. Instead she tries to feel grateful and blessed for everything she has. She sees her business as helping people and wants the name, “Saving Grace”  to live up to itself.

“We help people with their dogs, we turn off their coffee pots when they forget, we help them with their keys when they get locked out,” she says. “It’s very satisfying to help people in so many ways, not just walking their dogs.”

It’s early afternoon, and Novak is picking up her second bunch of dogs — they are bigger than the morning crew. This is “Pepper’s Entourage,” named for the only female, a Scottish Terrier. Novak refers to her as her “little diva.”

This group is more excitable than the earlier pooches. Camus and Professor Longhair once got into a brawl. Steckler had to throw a flowerpot at the dogs to break up the fight. Professor Longhair is an infamous postman-chaser.

Novak hasn’t abandoned politics — it’s just a way of life that no longer fits her. This spring, she co-wrote Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of Our Country with her father, who in addition to being a writer is also a renowned theologian and former U.S. ambassador who now holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). There, he works alongside Gingrich, a senior fellow at the think tank.

When Jana Novak goes to Washington dinner parties, her father often wants to introduce her as a freelance writer, she says. Novak won’t have it. She is proudly a dog-walker. Besides, she says, she wants to know who will talk to her for her and not for any so-called status.