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Walking Dogs Is No Cakewalk

Imagine a car that has been driven for nearly six years by a dogwalker in San Francisco. With over 100,000 hard city miles put on it, the bumpers are dinged, the hubcaps are scratched and the brakes and tires have had to be replaced far more often than any normal vehicle would need in that time. But it’s the interior that I want you to focus on. Picture crusted drool along the tops of the windows, matted hair gathered in every nook and cranny, upholstery that has been soaked in all manner of bodily fluids – vomit, urine, feces, saliva, and worst of all, a little-known liquid I like to call “butt juice”(I’ve only met other animal care professionals who know about anal glands and the pungent horror they secrete, but every potential dog owner should be forewarned. If the power of this stuff could be harnessed we would have an incredible new weapon in biochemical warfare). And this is after weekly car washes, interior and exterior; they groan when they see me pull up at Auto City.

And that’s not even a rainy week. Conjure up for a moment the smell of wet dogs on top of all that, and their musty breath fogging up the windows. Envision the towels used to dry off the water-logged pooches lying in a soggy, muddy mess on the floor. I don’t ask you to visualize this so you pity me the hardships of dogwalking in the winter, only so you understand that my job is not just a walk in the park, as articles like this one Josie Holtzman wrote for NPR’s All Things Considered might have you believe, as if dogwalkers were frolicking in the great outdoors making money hand over fist while the rest of America suffers. My job is not for everyone, so don’t go quitting your desk job or getting too jealous next time you see one of us out and about.

Yes, we make decent money. I made more my first year picking up poop than I made during my fifth (and last) year changing the lives of society’s youth as a high school art teacher. I initially only intended to take a break from teaching to have some time to create my own art, but haven’t gone back because I enjoy it and the money and hours are good. But dollars aren’t everything. As small business owners, dogwalkers do not get benefits, retirement, paid vacation, or a vacation at all unless you work really hard to plan for one (man, I miss those summers off).  And recession-proof it is not. Many of my clients lost their jobs or had to cut back over the last two years. Even in non-recession years, your monthly income is not guaranteed. People cancel last minute, they take their dog to Tahoe for the summer, they move away, etc. The city is a transient place and the turnover can be high. Dogwalkers have to hustle to keep work steady just like any other self-employed business owner.

The article does mention the physical toll and the logistics of walking dogs in New York. In San Francisco it’s just as physically taxing and we have the same logistical challenge of keeping all the keys straight, but it is a little different in that most of us don’t walk from apartment building to building picking up dogs, we drive. A lot. In my busiest year, I was driving about 50 miles a day, feeling an awful lot like a cab driver. We are lucky that this city has many parks and beaches we can drive to and then let the dogs run off-leash. But this brings us to politics. We may not have “office” politics, but the park scene can be downright contentious. Paranoid parents, nature lovers, and park police all have issues with dogwalkers. Some for good reason; there isn’t much on the books to regulate the dogwalking profession, so you get some opportunistic hacks after those six-figure incomes the article mentions who load up fifteen dogs and set them loose in a park to defecate wherever and do what they will for a few minutes, load ’em up and do it all over again three or four times a day. Doesn’t make for a pleasant park experience for anyone else around. But for those trying to do a good job, keeping things clean and everybody safe, getting an earful from an irate birdwatcher gets old.

You do have to be good with both dogs and people. As wonderful as dogs are, they are unpredictable animals, and their owners can be, too. I am fortunate to have been doing this long enough that I can be particular about which clients I take on. I have weeded out the persnickety, inconsiderate owners (like the ones who made sure I brought their dog back spotless, but would regularly forget to leave my pay) and the crazy dogs (like the German Shepherd who bit me because I approached her frisbee too quickly), but I racked up a book’s worth of stories about them I intend to write someday.

You also have to be good at business – keeping organized records and invoicing and discussing money on a regular basis. And you have to be good at being alone. You do not have the comradery of co-workers. Your non-dog interaction is limited to your stay-at-home mom clients and the other dogwalkers shepherding their packs around the parks. Somehow you have to cope with the monotony while staying completely on top of the necessary systems to keep track of keys, dogs, who pooped, which house you’re going to next, etc. You fight boredom while preparing for potential chaos or crisis at all times. All for very little prestige. Most people look at you like you flip burgers when you say you walk dogs for a living. Unless they’ve read similar articles to the NPR one and then they’re just curious about how much money you make. I certainly got more respect as a teacher. I recently ran into my ditzy second grade teacher (I remember I used to correct her spelling), and she gave me a condescending “Oh, that’s ok”, when I told her what I was up to.

Most people get into this not for the quick bucks or any glory, but because they love dogs. And you have to in order to put up with all I’ve mentioned. But even that love for dogs makes it tough. Besides the possibility of them moving on from this impermanent town, once you get attached, there’s the inevitable end if you do this job long enough. Almost six years in, and the dogs I started with as puppies are now middle-aged. They’re getting lumpy and slow and I’ve had to have many end-of-life-care discussions with clients whose dogs weren’t puppies when I started. I’ve had to say goodbye to many a best friend, and it breaks my heart every time.

Again, I’m not writing this for any “woe is me” reasons, just to point out the particular tribulations of a job that on the surface looks like a lot of money for a lot of fun. If I deter some of those who don’t really care about dogs from entering the field, great. If you are still interested in the gig after reading this, you may have what it takes to be a great dogwalker. I’d just encourage you to get a good whiff of a dogwalker’s car before you commit.

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Adventures in Dogwalking – Pug-Pug

Of the cast of characters who play in my dog walking pack, the one that entertains me the most is the Pug. I won’t use his real name here, not so much to protect his identity, but because it is a mouthful, a dissonant hodgepodge of letters that don’t go together belonging to an obscure Reformation theologian, perhaps a heady wish by his owners that he would be an intellectual sort. The name could not fit him less nor could it be harder to say, so I just call him Pug-Pug.
He is a roly-poly little bundle of energy, stubborn as all get-out, with a tail that uncurls when he’s running around like a maniac. He’s a good-looking Pug, if you like that sort of smoosh-faced alien thing. Pug connoisseurs are always commenting he’d make a good show dog, but were he ever to go that route he would be disqualified as only one of his testicles ever descended, lending him one of his many nicknames, The Uni-baller.
He is a quirky little guy, and has gone through many stages of odd behavior, including standing and staring at the floor in a corner, then pouncing suddenly at nothing, also going through the house and scratching at closed doors, and eating dirt, twigs and rocks as we go on our walks. I couldn’t quite decide if he was a neurotic special needs pup with pica, or an eccentric misunderstood genius.
When he got his sole testicle removed, he had to wear one of those embarrassing Elizabethan collars for about a week to keep him from pulling out his stitches. Most dogs cower in the big pathetic plastic cone, but not Pug-Pug. He used the satellite dish on his head to his advantage in the game of fetch, knocking other dogs out of the way and cupping the tennis ball to the ground so no other contenders could get to it. It was things like this that led me to believe he might be smarter than he let on. But the following incident proved that theory wrong.
Pug-Pug has a buddy in the pack, a large Doberman Pinscher who uses him as a chew toy, gnawing on Pug-Pug’s juicy neck rolls. At first I was afraid Pug-Pug was getting mauled, but he always went back for more, kind of like a little brother who dotes on his older sibling so much he’ll take attention anyway he can get it, even if it means getting pummeled. Once Pug-Pug’s neck was protected by the plastic collar, however, the Dobie had no interest in him. Pug-Pug followed his every move trying to get his best buddy to play with him, but to no avail. It was at this moment I witnessed how dim he really is.
Tagging along at the much larger dog’s heels, Pug-Pug crashed into his ankles with the cone as the Dobie came to a sudden stop. Pug-Pug looked up and sniffed with great interest the nether-regions of the Pinscher, who I saw begin to squat and hunch his back in the “about to do my business” stance. Pug kept sniffing away, and sure enough, “Plop!” a gigantic Dobie doo as big as Pug-Pug’s head landed on the brim of his cone. I saw panic in his eyes, and he began to retreat, backpedaling as if he could get away from this offensive intruder into his personal space, but everywhere he went it hotly pursued. He backed himself into a wall, and stood there, paralyzed by the inescapable poo.
After making sure someone else had seen this to share in fits of laughter and cursing not having a video camera for what would be a sure thing on America’s Funniest Home Videos, I helped Pug-Pug out, ridding his cone of the consequences of his curiosity. I thought for sure, he’d learned his lesson, but the very next day, cone-free after a week of confinement, Pug-Pug perched himself at the tail end of his best friend for round two of his exploits into dog doodom. This time he stood back carefully until he thought the Dobie was done, then leaned in to investigate the steaming pile on the ground, only to receive the second helping square on the back of his empty little head.
I never again overestimated his powers of reasoning. The moral of the story is that you can judge a pug by his collar. That, and carry a camera. And handy wipes.