• Print
  • TWEET

The Life-and-Death Business of Being a Dog-Walker

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos
New York City, 1970

I moved to New York in 1992 to be an artist and fell into walking dogs for a living when my half-sister, Moira, convinced me it would be more interesting than washing dishes or serving coffee, the only kinds of jobs I’d ever had. Moira taught me everything: leash and walking technique, analyzing canine body language and breed characteristics, cleaning up after them. It was all new to me. 

Moira was in a unique position to help. She was a well-respected dog trainer and ran a pet-care referral service over the phone from her apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. She added my name to the list of available walkers, and when new dog-owners—referred by local veterinarians or word of mouth—called her, seeking training advice or a list of trusted walkers in the area, I was suddenly in the pet-care business. I initially thought of it as a job like any other: a stop-gap solution to the question—“What’s the least stressful, most leave-it-at-the-office way to earn a living while I make my art?” Of course, it’s more than that now, in part simply because of how long I’ve been at it. Laboring against my genuine fondness for the dogs I’ve come to know and love, however, is the job’s inescapable cultural symbolism as a service-sector position that does not, to say the least, confer great status—something about which I feel considerable ambivalence.  

In the beginning, Moira procured every job for me, and by necessity, I took them all—even if it meant working for volatile personalities like her friend Eva, whose teacup poodles Brownie and Silver I walked for several months while I was learning the ropes. Eva was a sour, demanding person, the type who seeks power because having it is her only insurance against unreserved rejection by the world. Her disagreeableness wasn’t limited to withering put-downs; she dabbled in casual exploitation, too. 

Once, after babysitting Brownie and Silver and her two cats while she was out of town for her father’s funeral, Eva returned and refused to pay me. I’d stayed at her apartment many times before, and always as a paid arrangement. It was a job, after all. But she’d somehow got the impression that my admittedly shabby living situation was so unenviable that substituting her relatively palatial and luxurious accommodation for mine was remuneration enough. 

Feeling used, I wrote and hand-delivered a bridge-burning letter, the only line of which I can still recall is: “You make me feel like a cog in a machine.” Considering that, by hiring me, Eva was doing a favor for my sister (who was doing one for me), my lack of gratitude did not sit well with her. We spoke by phone that evening. “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GET A LETTER LIKE THAT AGAIN,” she yelled into the receiver. 

Fortunately, business soon picked up and I was able to let Eva go. Moira gave me her blessing, assuring me that peace of mind was worth more than money. 

* 

Rapport with the dogs is my primary concern, but I’ve invested quite a bit of emotional labor maintaining the many interstitial relationships established over the years. As a highly-visible almost-member of the community, I make small talk with my dogs’ neighbors and building superintendents, as well as my clients, in the various lobbies, stairwells, and elevators, and then also on the sidewalks, streets, and stoops. Like water, these relationships each find their own level and over time settle into something between polite acquaintance and genuine friendship. None of this is part of the job proper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Quite to the contrary: while there is the simple business of the job—walking dogs—there’s also the need to be regarded as a trustworthy person of integrity. Only the first part can be taught. 

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve built a good reputation among my colleagues and clients in the neighborhood where I work. But there have been mishaps over the years that I regret. Mistiming my exit through a closing apartment door once, it slammed shut on a golden retriever’s tail. Nutmeg howled and lunged. Fifteen years later, that’s still the only time it’s happened—but I think of it all the time. Then there was the occasion when, entering a dog run (after first allowing the dog I was with to go through), I opened the gate to avoid stepping in a puddle—but in the process allowed the greyhound that was standing close by to bolt. Bounding over the puddle, the dog shot off into the park’s larger, unfenced regions. 

I apologized to the dog’s two owners as they barreled past me after their runaway dog. “It’s okay,” the woman said, generously. “You never know what a dog will do.” 

The three of us chased their dog to the park’s perimeter before I remembered I was on the clock and had left my charge back at the dog run. I returned empty-handed, fretting and somber. I saw the greyhound’s owners the following day. They weren’t put out. Their dog had apparently run straight home and was waiting for them on their building’s stoop. 

One day, I got a call from a client of Moira’s named Daniel. He was a closeted corporate attorney with the least tidy domestic proclivities I’ve ever encountered. He and his orange Shiba Inu, Valentina, lived in the far West Village in an enormous compound that was chock-a-block with celebrities and the blandly rich. The lunch time walk I gave her daily would be sufficient for most nine-to-fivers, but as Daniel was more of an eight-to-eighter, Valentina spent many hours between my walk and Daniel’s after-work walk alone in the darkness. I think he felt guilty for neglecting her, for one day—in an inspired bit of wrong-headedness—he brought home Ariel, a white Shiba Inu puppy, hoping, I suppose, that her presence would take the edge off Valentina’s neediness and perhaps absolve him. 

I was forced to walk Valentina and Ariel separately because Ariel had grown up in the country and her highly-charged aversion to, among other things, honking taxis, billowing baggies, and New York City’s ubiquitous construction sites made walking her an exercise in crisis management. I kept her outside for forty-five minutes (per the terms of my agreement), but because walking her was an aggravating struggle, I sought corner-cutting methods. Taking her to the dog run at Washington Square Park where I wouldn’t have to do as much, and the onus would be on her to mingle and entertain herself, seemed like a happy medium. 

The problem was that Ariel was not a well-socialized dog, and while she was relatively unflustered during one-on-one doggy greetings on the street, she’d never been exposed to the unregulated chaos of a dog run. When we arrived at the Washington Square Park run, I opened the first of two gates, entered, and closed it behind us. Then I opened the second gate, entered and closed it behind us. As I began removing Ariel’s leash, she was already tugging away from the other dogs’ welcomes. 

Just then, someone unlatched the second inner gate and came in. Before they could close it, Ariel ran past, squeezed her waifish torso beneath the outer gate’s low aluminum rail, and took off in the direction from which we’d come. She sped west through the park, across MacDougal Street, then along Washington Place. I had no expectation of catching her. Yet I had no choice but to give chase. Several people from the dog run followed. 

Ariel didn’t make it across Sixth Avenue. A truck skidded to a halt, pinning her to the asphalt. I collapsed where I stood on the sidewalk, in shock and horror. When I got to my feet, I stumbled, dazed and bawling, over to her. I lifted her from the ground and held her in my arms, her bristly white coat contrasting with the bold streak of red that flowed from her mouth. I caught a cab to the nearest vet, but Ariel was dead on arrival. The doctor on duty called Daniel at work and gave him the news. I left Ariel’s body at the vet’s and walked back to Daniel’s apartment to drop off her leash and collar. As I stood in Daniel’s filthy living room looking down at Valentina, the immense disparity between what I longed to impress upon her at that moment and what I was able to made me weep. 

I blame myself for Ariel’s death, though it was the result of an honest mistake. But given what I know now about canine body language and behavioral psychology, it is a mistake I’d be far less likely to make today. I’m not sure I deserved Daniel’s forgiveness, but he gave it to me all the same, and I continued walking Valentina for another year or so until they moved away. 

* 

I walked Sammy the yellow labrador at least twice a day, Monday through Friday, for thirteen years. I find all dogs valiant and amusing, but for whatever alchemical reason, in Sammy’s case, our regard for each other never rose above a simmer. Her owners, Phil and Beth, were corporate-finance professionals, extrovert one-percenters—everything I’m not. Being in their orbit taught me a lot about class and privilege, though it would have remained all business between Sammy’s family and me were it not for one incident. 

That day, I let myself into the apartment at the usual time and found Beth and Phil sitting on their pristine white couch in near-silence. She was crying, he was studying the floor. Because something out of the ordinary was clearly afoot, I asked, “Should I take Sammy out?” Beth said yes, and then explained, “We’re having a really bad argument.” Exacerbating the awkward stillness in the room was Sammy, underneath the coffee table, one foot in front of the sofa, refusing to come out. After my gentle prodding proved ineffectual, Beth yelled at Phil: “Help him!” 

A few days later, Beth explained the scene I’d walked in on. While working out six months earlier, Phil had sustained an injury for which Beth had hired a physical therapist to help with treatment. Phil was now leaving Beth for her. 

I carried on walking Sammy, working just for Beth. Over time, we became close. While all relationships are a dance, some are yoked closer than others to convention. Inherent in my boundary-less arrangement with Beth were potential pitfalls we should have been warier of. She encouraged me to hang out in her apartment between walks during the day, and I became a fixture there. She gave me unfettered access to her state-of-the-art entertainment system, speedy wifi, and brand new iMac. When she went out of town and I stayed overnight with Sammy. 

On evenings when she arrived home before I’d left for the night, we’d sit at her kitchen counter drinking white wine and eating fancy cheeses. Mostly, we talked about her divorce, about love and its many compromises, and her future dating prospects as a divorced mother of one in her late fifties. During one tipsy conversation, she brought out a world map and we took turns pointing to cities we’d visit one day. She was occasionally flirtatious, but romance was out of the question; we had nothing in common and she was almost twenty years my senior. Also, our needs were different: she needed a friend; I needed a paycheck. 

Beth once told me I would never be out of a job because she would most certainly get another dog when Sammy eventually died. But I ended up quitting—ground down by Beth’s escalating demands for Sammy’s care. When Beth began insisting that Sammy would eat only food freshly cooked on a skillet (never in a microwave) and fed to her by hand, I started preparing my exit. 

Beth didn’t hire someone to walk Sammy after I quit. Instead, it became another item on her housekeeper Katia’s daily to-do list. When I ran into her on the street a few months ago, Sammy had been dead for several years. She told me that Beth never did get another dog. She had three boyfriends, but no dog. 

* 

My sister Moira passed away back in early 2001. She had taught me everything she knew about New York City and then she was gone. Death is like violence—not always surprising but always shocking. She had lived four and a half years beyond what had been, initially, a diagnosis of breast cancer with a six-month prognosis. That extension was a gift but one that, because I’d resigned myself years earlier to her eventual passing, was impossible to fully appreciate. 

The building Moira lived in is in the neighborhood where I work. I avoided walking down her block for years after she died because thinking about her was too painful. For a time, when I did pass her old building, I would pause and faintly genuflect, like a good Catholic passing a church. This ritual didn’t last. One intends to “never forget,” but running counter to this solemn impulse is life’s inexorable onrush. I now occasionally pass her old building and it may not occur to me until days later that I completely neglected to conjure her. 


Some names have been changed to preserve privacy where necessary.