Last week, Shine Pets went into the field with "Liam" (his name and those of the dogs have been changed), a dog-walker and dog-sitter in Brooklyn NY, to see firsthand a day in the life of a city dog-walker. We'd picked a perfect day for our excursion, weather-wise; spring had come early to New York City, with both dogs and humans around the borough eager to get out and soak up some sunshine – or, in the case of one of Liam's canine charges, lunge at children in a misguided attempt to make friends.
On our way to pick up the first dog on Liam's route -- Ruby, a stocky Puggle – Liam filled me in on his dog-walking background. He started in 2009, via his roommates at a rehearsal studio, although he was apprehensive about "the natural element" at first. "I grew up with asthma, so I wasn't outside much" as a kid, he said, adding, "I'm 120 pounds; the wind could take me."
But he's adjusted to the vagaries of New York weather – and New York pets. Dogs that get nippy or have other behavioral issues don't seem to trouble him. With Ruby in tow, we headed into another building, and Liam told us, "You're about to meet Cleo. Cleo is an animal who bit me for a like a year and a half." We wondered why Liam had tolerated Cleo's chomping for so long…until we saw Cleo, a very fat spaniel who looks like a furry circle from above, at which point we theorized that she had assumed Liam was food. Certainly it couldn't have been that he's not fast enough to get out of the way; girlfriend is slow-moving.
We headed towards the waterfront with the roly-poly pups in tow. Occasionally we saw another dog, but nobody else that Liam could spot as a dog-walker. We asked if the local dog-walkers have park and playground cliques, like the local child care-givers do. Liam confirmed it, but he doesn't hang out with them, generally: "They roll in their own circle."
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On the block where Truman Capote lived many years ago, we picked up Linda and Silver, a pair of unrelated Shiba Inus. Silver is not a big fan of the going-out rituals – coming to the door, letting Liam put her leash on – so while he negotiated with Silver, we read the detailed notes he leaves on a little pad in the hallway each day for the owners. The painstaking descriptions of their urination and defecation, their moods on pick-up and drop-off, reminded us of the exhaustive reports one cat-sitter used to leave us, including diagrams of where the cats were sleeping when the cat-sitter arrived.
The herd had now grown to four dogs; outside Linda and Silver's building, a big Husky mix slept under a berry bush. When we left for the dog run by the water, he slitted one eye to watch us go. "He's got some stories," Liam said. We asked if he ever walks more than four dogs at a time. He used to, and he does have more than four clients, but walking five or six at once was starting to stress him out, so he stopped taking on that many.
The dog run we visited wasn't terribly impressive, mostly dirt and rocks and a couple of benches for humans to sit on. None of the dogs did any running, either, electing instead to flop down in sunbeams (or, in Cleo's case, to sit directly underneath the bench and take a nap). "Dogs I walk are pretty mellow," Liam said, in the understatement of the day. "I think that has something to do with me, subconsciously."
With the dogs either snoozing or lackadaisically following a leaf around in a circle (Linda), Liam and I talked about anal-retentive owners, humpy dogs, and the perils of bringing a Pit Bull into an elevator.
Liam: I try to work with it, so it doesn't bother me, but Linda and Silver's owners, they're very clean. I don't know if you noticed, you go in the apartment it's kinda like, plastic on all the furniture, don't touch anything, and I think – I dog-sit for them, which is pretty funny, because I think of myself as kind of loose and dirty, but they've given me quite nice reviews and compliments when I left their place.
Shine Pets: That's good!
That's kinda hard to work with because I have to throw out all my own trash in, like, I bring my own garbage bag, and I note exactly my path, where I walk in the place, and kinda retrace on my way out, if that makes any sense.
Dragging a Swiffer behind you.
Pretty much, yeah, yeah. So, but they're really super-nice and she lets me know, she's upfront about that, you know. She talks about that.
[The Shiba Inu is] a good breed of dog to have if you're – fastidious.
"Fastidious." Good word. Let's see, who else is there. Cary. Oh, Cary; yeah, there you go. [Those owners] are pretty weird. This is a little bit obnoxious, because I've already had three instances where I had leash problems with them, with the dog, and that's the pit bull – with the Newfie, in the elevator? [Cary had freaked out on a Newfoundland in a small elevator.] I sat down next to the dog in the elevator, holding the leash, and it was one of those choke collars that dug into the dog's neck, so it has this weird mechanism where it links up, and it had just undone itself, it just like fanned out, and then all of a sudden Cary was free and just [flaps hands]. And I think Cary wanted to play with that other dog in the elevator, but the thing was, the [Newfoundland's owner] was screaming, so it was like emergency mode inside of an enclosed space within 60 seconds.
That's not going to help the dog's outlook either.
I think I'm getting a bad rep there now, because I totally took that perspective verbally, and I think people were not appreciative that she was like [air quotes] defending for her life – but then I was like, "You're totally not helping the situation." Like, you're not helping resolve the actual situation if you're just standing there making a lot of noise inside of an enclosed space. But I've actually spoken with her afterwards, and she's really nice, but she's deathly afraid of the dog I walk now.
This is a mellow bunch. This is not a dog run, it's a dog sit.
Exactly. We're redefining everything.
A dog lounge.
No, this is totally a dog lounge for them.
Have there been any dogs where after a few walks, you're like, "I can't deal with your dog anymore"?
I'm guessing no, because if Cleo was biting you for like a year and a half, and that's fine…
Yeah, I've still got marks right now. This [Liam shows a healed gouge mark on his thumb] is from the last dog that came over and lived with me. It got me, like, mouth here, you know, and it was like, pretty tight, and I was trying to get it off, and trying to get it off, it got me there…and there…it was hard to play guitar for a while.
I'll say. Was it playing, or --
No, no, it was pissed – I made it angry, 'cause it was trying to hump my pillows and I was trying to tell it to get off, I think too many times, it got really mad that it wasn't allowed to do what it wanted to do. The last time I was like, "Get OFF," it just like, arrrhh, got really pissed.
So now it has its own pillow?
Yeah, and I was trying to do the bear thing where I was, like, growling against it? 'Cause once it started growling at me I was trying to intimidate it to quiet down…[shakes head] Yeah, this little – what's it called? A little Toto dog? A kind of terrier.
Yeah, Cairn Terrier.
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They love you – and then they draw a line, where like…yeah. And then they submission-pee all the time, which is really annoying. When they really like you? 'Cause then the minute they see you, they're just gonna drop and pee wherever they are.
"Don't like me that much!"
"I don't want to meet you on a carpet or a rug, ever." 'Cause I wanna be able to get away, and not have my client be pissed at me because you stained it. … I get in trouble, too, with building staff.
'Cause sometimes the dog just comes out and meets other dogs, and also submission-pees too, and then I'm just like, "I don’t have any hardware on me," you know. I guess that's where a good dog-walker is always prepared: always has a little bag of treats, always has a roll of toilet paper, always has their rain gear.
Like dog handlers with the liver treats in the mouth?
A little whistle, an extra leash – squeaky toys, a hat, and you see those little ball hooks where, like, you don't have to touch the ball on the floor? … But my only gripe is with the Pit Bull parents, because they always talk nicely to me, and now the dynamic's getting weird, because I think ever since we had that incident [in the elevator], they're overreaching in terms of what they expect that I would want, if that makes any sense. Where I just wanna get this kid on a consistent base of listening to commands, and knowing who the boss is. They're always talking about other things like, "Oh, how are you today," or "Are we late in paying you?", and it's kind of filling in all these other social aspects of the care, as opposed to – I'm thinkin' about the dog, and I notice that they're paying attention to all these other things. … But the thing is the guy is already getting a bad rep, like other dog walkers won't come around, and he's already getting that, like, pariah sense about him when he walks, you know.
How often do you walk that dog?
Three days a week.
And is he okay with this herd?
Oh, no no no, he goes by himself. And that's the saddest thing, 'cause it's like, he doesn't even get a chance to [socialize], you know?
How do you spot other dog-walkers? Is it the amount of layers they have on?
Yeahhhh, totally. Totally.
You can tell by the wardrobe; a very very nice hat that covers from the sun. You know, a lot of ladies do the whole brim hat. What else? Oh, and also very plastic neoprene nylon-ish clothing. Which I hate; I – I need to actually change, because these shoes are killing my feet, I've beaten them to death. But they look better than sneakers, I just hate wearing athletic, proper sneakers, they look like stupid ridiculous things to me. It's very important for me that I have a physical representation of how I feel inside.
What's your process for picking clients? Have you ever interviewed them, or during your interview just been like, "I don't think we can hang"?
Ah, no, that would go against my general philosophy, because I don't believe I can derive valuable opinion out of a person I've seen on one occasion anyway – so I wouldn't say no immediately, I would probably at least do it for a month or two, and then I would say, "Okay, this seems to be consistent behavior."
We dropped the Shiba Inu ladies off, and headed down Court Street to pick up Professor (with a stop to say hi to a crossing guard, then another to fish an unauthorized "snack" out of Ruby's mouth). Professor is a Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix whose mother occasionally calls Liam to say that Professor is waiting for him – even though she herself is at home, with the dog. Professor's owner means well, Liam told me, but overfeeds the dog treats and people food, which leads to digestive issues during the day. Professor is a good girl, mostly, but she tends to lunge protectively – or curiously – and then on top of that, Liam gets static from passersby when he's unable to clean up her diarrhea. "Do you want to get me a bucket and some water, then?" he asked rhetorically. "Or should I stir the poop around with a plastic bag, make it look like I'm trying?"
On the way to our next stop, Liam had to reassure people several times that Professor is sweet-natured, warn them to approach slowly, and reel Professor in. One high-school kid recognized Professor's breeding immediately and got really into her. Following Liam's directions, he petted her gently and made a friend, but her occasional forays into "SQUIRREL!" mode, Liam said, were another example of inconsistent training at home.
But Professor was a model citizen, he said, compared to a former client, a chunky Jack Russell who hated skateboarders. Mae could spot a kid on a skateboard crossing at an intersection two blocks away, and start barking her head off. She also pulled on the leash and always had to lead the pack, but Liam found the silver lining in this, commenting that that meant Mae's distinctively deafening Jack Russell bark was directed away from Liam's ears. (He also noted that Mae's owners instructed him not to talk to them if they were at home when he arrived.)
The last pick-up of the day was also the cutest: Pinky, a four-month-old Pomeranian puppy the color of a fine bisque, who passed the time at every stoplight sitting fluffily on our feet. She was the favorite of every group of strangers we passed, especially the kids, and she made a hilarious contrast with the large and somewhat fearsome Professor and the fat and beleaguered Cleo. But Liam, who walks Pinky only twice a week, commented that sometimes, he can tell she hasn't "touched the ground" since he saw her last: she lives in a household with two little girls, and she gets carried around a lot. He worries that she's going to get spoiled.
We'd looped back around to where we'd started, and it was time for us to go before Pinky made an illegal exit at the bottom of our tote bag. Liam wished us a happy evening, while almost unconsciously limbo-ing his legs out from yet another tangle Pinky had created, and crossed the street surrounded by a cloud of canines.
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