A Breed Apart
some dogs don't make the pack
by jeff nichols
i took a job at a company that professed to being a "premium" dog-walking service. the company only walked one or two dogs at a time and their website implied that the ratio was a healthy alternative to "mass group" walks. who would disagree? we've all seen those huge packs of dogs waiting to add yet another canine to the pack. and there never seems to be a lot, if any, exercise taking place. rather, one guy seems to hold 10 to 12 dogs, while another guy disappears into a building to pick up yet another, then they all walk to the next building. the best you can do with group dog-walks is file it under the old "better than nothing" mantra.
in my mind, i had a clear mental image of myself walking well-groomed, thoroughbred golden retrievers (or possibly hungarian vizslas) down fifth and park avenues, scoffing at those big packs of dogs. plus, with only one or two dogs, people might accidentally mistake me for the owner. no one would suspect me of being some poor schlep having to pick up dog poop for a buck. (actually, in many cases, dog walkers in nyc get the last laugh; several make six figure incomes).
i was quick to find out that "premium" was a euphemism. or rather, a distortion of the word. in this case, "premium" meant i would be walking dogs that no one in their right mind would go near!
the finicky, belligerent, passive-aggressive, the hyper, the co-dependent and yes, the vicious. most of the dogs that i was assigned were denied from the pack walks because of "temperament issues." or the fact that they were simply too big.
the fist dog that i was assigned was a beautiful rhodesian ridgeback. i was told to pick the dog up at a woman's office in midtown. as we know, most dog breeds have certain distinctive character traits. over the years, i have walked at least five ridgebacks, and it seems like they are the same dog every time. they are lovely, gentle dogs, but they simply will not leave their owners if the owner is in the house. a lot of dogs are like that, but all ridgebacks are this way. the office, all women, had to help me push the big boy to the elevator. i felt like i had to come across as professional in front of the women (i think they were architects), like i had gone through this very scenario before.
once i was on the first floor, the 120-pound ridgeback become dead weight and wouldn't get off the elevator. the massive dog would not budge; the doormen snickered, or at least i thought they did. apparently the doormen and maintenance people had seen this before.
i pushed and prodded the beast out of the elevator and down two full blocks before he decided to walk on his own. the walk back was so easy that it made it all worth it.
i was assigned several dogs that were simply huge. there were the obligatory great danes, massive demonic-looking (but sweet) rottweilers, weimaraners and, of course, saint bernards.
but the biggest dog that i ever walked was an irish wolfhound that weighed 200 pounds and was 5 feet tall. the dog was nice, except, as one might imagine, that its bm's were roughly the size that a clydesdale would produce.
generally, i had no problem picking up dog poop, and in this case i clung to the mantra that all dogs have dignity. this mantra went out the window in the rare case of diarrhea.
of all the dogs that i ever walked during my stint as a "premium" walker, one german shorthaired pointer was simply too much to handle. until the owner intervened a month later, no one had told me i shouldn't bring the dog to the park. the pointer would take off after squirrels at the slightest provocation. this became apparent on our second run when a squirrel caught his view. i ran to keep up with the dog, but the leash gave way. i stood ineptly, as the dog ran from the east 79th street entrance down to 72nd street. i was resigned to the fact that this massive dog was going to be pummeled by a cab, but finally the dog slowed and a reluctant pedestrian grabbed the leash.
perhaps if i had not just witnessed a horrendous pitbull attack a month before i took the job, i would have not have been so apprehensive when i was instructed to pick up two pitbulls and walk them together. the address was just off central park west (mostly weimaraner, golden retriever and black lab country), and as soon as the key entered the lock, i heard thunderous barking.
once inside, i was faced with two solid blocks of muscle. at the same time, a certain eeriness pulled my attention to the gothic apartment with its 15-foot ceilings and museum feel. it was clear by the chewed furniture and dog toys littering the floor that the pets ruled the apartment.
i was certain i was going to be mauled. would the office really put me into a scenario where i could be ripped apart by pitbulls, and was this by any definition "premium"?
as turns out, one dog was completely benign and loving; the other was sweet but scared. the situation was resolved when the owner, a waif of a woman who worked close by, came home and instantly put the collars on the now submissive dogs.
at the end of each walk, dog walkers leave a note as to how the walk went. in the beginning, i rambled about every nuance of the walk. but then i realized that all the owner cared about is whether the dog went number two. it didn't matter how much you bonded with the dog-if it didn't go number two, you were not worth your salt as a dog walker and you would replaced. even in the dog-walking industry, the pressure is on: one must produce!
jeff nichols is a resident on the upper west side.
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