News & Politics

Diary of a Dog Walker

Can you spoon-feed my dog? And then there was the cat who liked to hide.

This article is from 2006's Pet Guide package. The information may be out-of-date, so please call locations listed for new information.

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You would think walking dogs would be easy. I'd learned to walk before I was a year old–and that was half the dog-walking job.

But Washington is a place where some people threaten lawsuits if they find a bubble in their no-foam lattes, and you learn fast in this age of puppy Prozac that their dogs can be just as demanding. So when I tell you I was a dog walker, I'm really saying I was a gourmet chef, doggie psychologist, and pet trainer.

I found the job through Craigslist and figured upward of $20 an hour walking dogs was easy money. The dog-walking service issued me a cluster of keys for the dozen or so homes on my route along with poop-pickup bags.

Clients go to great lengths to ensure that their pups get good care. Many consider their dogs children, and who would allow their kids to be treated like animals? They ask their neighbors to spy on you to be sure you're not shaving minutes off the clock. Some count Milk-Bones to monitor the number of treats being fed. Owners even hide in their house or install nanny cams to make sure you're doing your job.

A couple with two Jack Russell terriers named George and Gracie left instructions that their dogs be fed homemade chicken soup poured over a bed of white rice, warmed exactly 15 seconds in the microwave and left to cool for 60 seconds. Mallory, who worked for the same dog-walking service between art classes at Montgomery College, faithfully followed the instructions, and every time she did, the dogs flew into a Pavlovian frenzy when she opened the fridge.

Once, distracted by this canine melee, she forgot to heat the food. The owners, who were on vacation in Hawaii, had set up a computer cam. They saw the infraction and called the dog-walking service to complain. George and Gracie never ate cold soup again.

A Dalmatian named Cassidy was on a raw-food regime known as the B.A.R.F. diet (bones and raw food) designed to replicate a canine's natural diet as a carnivore. This dog literally ate raw meat on the bone. Flip to the other side of the spectrum to Pippin, a sensitive-stomached pug who opted for such delicacies as veal baby food mixed into his kibble. A stickie on the fridge read: "If Pippin doesn't take to the food, I find he rather enjoys being spoon-fed." Any real dog walker will do whatever it takes to keep those tails wagging and clients happy.

Because many dog owners are pet lovers, I've seen an array of animals on my route. Turtles wanting a leaf of lettuce, iguanas who need misting, fish that crave bloodworms. I have to say cats are the most peculiar.

I admit that cats can outsmart me. During visits, cats–like all pets–need to be seen to ensure they're happy and healthy while their owners are away. Some cats don't want to be disturbed. It takes time to learn their hiding spots–inside the box spring, atop window treatments, behind the couch. Some walkers have spent an hour searching, only to find the cat in a place they had already looked.

Dogs are more predictable. It's the owners who are full of surprises. They're always forgetting to cancel service and often return home to find their dog missing. Sometimes the dog walker walks in on an owner.

A cowalker arrived at a Bethesda mansion while the parents were away on vacation to find the house littered with beer bottles and a four-foot bong while Woody, the chocolate Lab, was jumping in and out of the swimming pool and racing through the house. There was no sign of the suspected teenagers. Because we're charged with leaving houses as clean as they were when the owner left–no excuses–she cleaned up the mess.

Dog walkers are a pack; we cover for one another and help out as needed. Chanda, a cowalker, arrived at a house to find a puppy with its head wedged between the bars of its cage. The dog was standing on its tiptoes so it wouldn't strangle itself. Chanda couldn't pry the bars apart, so she called me, and I raced over with bolt cutters.

Then there is the call none of us wants to get: dog walker in distress. Zoë arrived early evening at a home in DC. During her house check, she found a surprise in a bedroom–an "early deposit" as we call them in the business. She cleaned it up with a handful of paper towels and flushed them in an upstairs bathroom before taking the dog out.

She returned 30 minutes later to find what she described in a quivering voice as "raining inside the house–from the ceiling, from the lighting fixtures–water everywhere." I was there in ten minutes and saw an inch of water on the kitchen floor. Zoë told me the toilet was clogged and she didn't have the strength to turn off the valve. I ran upstairs to plunge the toilet and turn off the water; I texted another walker on my two-way and called in a wet vac. The owners were expected home that evening.

The cowalker with the wet vac arrived, and we began cleaning. We must have sucked 100 gallons of water from the kitchen floor. The howling of the wet vac and the noise from the hair dryer I was using to dry a computer keyboard were enough to drown out the sound of the front door opening.

I could use a whole lot of words to describe how this homeowner reacted, but to sum up, she was really, really mad. I unplugged the vacuum and told her not to worry, that we were licensed, bonded, and insured. I didn't try to talk myself out of trouble like a downtown lawyer. I just left. I'm a dog walker, and some messes are just too big for poop bags.

Dogs generally assume the characteristics of their owners. Workaholics beget energetic "pop-a-lots," nicknamed for their nonstop pogo-jumping by the door. Humans who enjoy their meals and television time usually raise dogs that lean toward the rotund; those take a little longer to coax off the couch for a rally around the neighborhood.

Dogs can be as quirky as their humans. Boudreaux, a Catahoula, suffered from acute separation anxiety. When I arrived to walk and feed him, he was man's best friend. When I tried to leave, doggie drama. He knew the jingle-jangle of my keys meant I was leaving, and Boudreaux loathed to be left alone. He'd run to the door to block me, growling as the fur on his back stood up. After a few narrow escapes, I left a note for the owner asking for a solution. She put a Ziploc bag filled with Cheese Nips by the door and advised me to scatter them across the kitchen floor. When Boudreaux went to sniff them out, I bolted.

Once you learned how to work with each dog's eccentricity, you had a friend for life. Buddha the Shar-Pei liked her wrinkly skin kneaded like dough. Wilbur the pug liked having his tail uncurled and scratched. Boomer the mutt wanted the Animal Planet cable channel left on all day, and his owner requested I place nuts on the outside windowsill so Boomer could watchsquirrels.

Then there was Vince the dachshund, who hated men. He would lie under the sofa, playing hard to pet, staring right through me when I called for him while shaking his leash. I lured him out with a square of American cheese, or as we call it in the dog-walking trade, "canine kryptonite," for its ability to render dogspowerless.

I learned from the owner that Vincedidn't respond well to male voices; she suggested I try speaking in a higher pitch. The next day I arrived with my finest falsetto, and by the end of the week I didn't even need the cheese. Still, Vince seemed very happy when I would leave. He always made me feel like he was walking me.

Ben Pekkanen ( retired from dog walking and is working in film and television while finishing a master's in fine arts at the University of Maryland.