File image: Picking up puppies, frolicking through forests and hanging with happy doggies seems like the perfect job. For some, it is. For one, it all got too much. Photo / 123RF
This story was originally published by the Spinoff.
Picking up puppies, frolicking through forests and hanging with happy doggies seems like the perfect job. For some, it is. For one, it all got too much.
Ted, a mixed-breed rescue pup, likes to scoop up dry horse poo for a munch while he walks. His best friend Louie, a saint Bernard, sidles up next to any free hands looking for a lazy scratch and a cuddle. Golden lab Enzo attacks everything he does with "100% joy and a big bum wiggle". Beanie, a teacup chihuahua, can hold her own but she's so small she needs to be carried much of the time.
Put a group of dogs like this together and there's bound to be some excitement. Yet, in a dusty carpark at west Auckland's Muriwai beach, a minor miracle is under way. Ted, Louie, Enzo and Beanie are just four of nearly 20 dogs slowly emerging from two parked vans, modified to carry so many animals. One by one, they calmly exit, sit on the dusty ground and wait for their leashes to be clipped on.
There's no yapping, whining or jumping around. Not a single bark can be heard. These are good dogs that sit on command and move when they're told. "Hey," coos Leda Taylor, the one in charge of this calm canine crew, when she hears a low-pitched moan. Whippet Spyder quickly quietens down. "You're being a monkey today, Spyder," Taylor whispers, like they're sharing a secret.
Taylor and her partner Camille Courtois spent their morning picking up their pack from locations all over Auckland, leaving home at 8am to make their rounds. Through Taylor's highly respected dog-walking business Follow the Leda, and Courtois' spinoff Free Range Dogs, they know all their dogs well and have spent many hours training them. Any dog owner looking to sign their animal up has to have it spend the night with them first. "It allows us to see if a dog fits … and how much work there is for them to become a really good dog," says Courtois.
Taylor's been doing this for eight years, ever since she dropped out of art school because she spent all her time painting animals. She started small and locally to her central Auckland home, walking about a dozen dogs, charging $25 each. Courtois came on board when the pair met in a cafe and began dating. Now, animals overwhelm their lives.
They walk up to 30 animals four days a week, charging $50 for a two-hour "adventure", and their animal-handling abilities have made them beloved among the film and TV industry. This writer's previous encounter with the pair was on the set of the Lucy Lawless mystery show My Life is Murder, when their cat Zeppelin took a dump mid-audition. He got the role.
Holidays? There aren't any. For Christmas, they took 25 animals up north for 10 days. Today, at Muriwai, they're training a new walker to help cope with demand. It's a sure sign the industry has exploded. Taylor was one of the first, but dozens of dog-walking businesses have entered the market recently, riding a wave of puppy popularity. Not all of them operate with the same level of care as Taylor and Courtois.
That boom started about five years ago, when dogs became something more than a family pet. "They started to call them fur babies, having their own Instagrams, it was a social media thing," a former dog walker tells The Spinoff. Dogs also helped those who were unable, or chose not, to have children. "They were able to have that outlet of, 'I do have a dependent, I dress it up, it goes to daycare, it has a walker, it goes to parties.'"
Canines are big business. Day cares, grooming services and dog-walking businesses are everywhere. Barkley Manor, a Grey Lynn one-stop-shop for dog owners, has its own TV show. You can barely visit a park without seeing another walker new to the market. With their branded utes and a snazzy logos, they're easy to spot. Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones (which has been operating for six years) and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland.
With that boom, some are worried cowboys are looking to get in, set up and make a quick buck. While researching this story, I spotted one walker in West Auckland with as many as 20 dogs attached to her body using a complicated rope harness system. It looked stressful, and she looked worried. But, when charging $50 per dog, the industry standard, it could have been a $1,000 pay day. Do that five days a week and it could be a very tidy income.
As an unregulated and unlicensed industry, it's hard to get statistics on just how many dog walkers there are, or any documented instances of harm. Talk to those in the industry, and they'll say it's happening. Jennifer Brewer, a former dog walker, sold her business and quit because it became "the wild west". She warns some walkers take on too many dogs, putting the animals in harm's way. "It's when they get too many dogs or don't know anything about dog behaviour that dogs start to be at risk," she says.
Her business, Hound Dog High, was one of the first in Auckland. Brewer did everything by the book, learning first aid and completing an online dog psychology course. Now, she's aghast at the industry, calling it out for its lack of regulations. "You can see some really awful shit," she says. "When there are walkers who don't have a cap on the number of dogs that they can truly handle, that's when they struggle, that's when there are dog fights, that's when people get hurt, and the industry starts to look awful."
Now, when Brewer sees a walker who doesn't have control of their animals, it upsets her. "I think about the dogs, and the owners. You don't know what's happening," she says. "It's very easy to take cute photos of dogs jumping through the grass and post them on Instagram. No one's showing pictures of them scrapping in the back because they're all trying to get on the one cushion and there's no space and everyone's thirsty because there are no water bowls."
Taylor and Courtois agree there are rogue dog owners and walkers and say there are parks they no longer visit in case uncontrollable dogs are there. "There are so many rude dogs in public parks," says Taylor. She prefers open spaces like Muriwai or Riverhead, where they can train animals without being interrupted. Some of their canine clients have been expelled from daycare. She points to a "reactive" boxer in today's pack and says: "He's the sort of dog that will be kicked out of daycare within the first 10 minutes." With careful supervision, they've assimilated him into their pack.
Brewer warns dog owners should get to know their walkers, ask them about their qualifications and experience, and even go on a walk with them before giving them their animals. "There are the people out there doing it ethically, and there are the people who have no idea what they're doing," she says. Also check which parks your animals will be going to. They should be large, quiet spaces with as few people as possible. "If you encounter another walker, that's when drama can happen, depending on how that walker is with their dogs. The last thing you want is a dog fight or a lost dog."
Brewer's an accountant now, and has days when she misses the open air and beach walks. But she doesn't miss the drama. Asked if she'll ever return to dog walking, Brewer replies, "Hells no!"
As Taylor and Courtois show The Spinoff across a two-hour Muriwai "adventure", there's a right way to do it. Care is evident at every turn. Two of today's pack are deaf, so they've been taught hand signals. Another is still learning to be off his leash, so he stays close by, ready to be reeled in if he gets too adventurous. Training for each dog is ongoing. "There are definitely a few dogs … that have had bad adventures," Leda says. Today, they won't take them on the beach because the hot black sand could burn their paws.
She and Courtois are aware of cowboys, and know instantly know when a rogue dog walker is coming their way. You can tell by the noise. "You can hear some dog walkers arriving from miles down the road because their car is so loud with the barking and the whining," says Taylor. "For us, that is the most stressful thing in the world." She and Courtois try to stay out of any industry drama, but their skills and knowledge means they know when someone's doing the job for the wrong reasons. "You can tell when you first meet someone if they shouldn't be working with dogs."
Spend any time with them and it's easy to see why they're called "dog whisperers". Across a two-hour walk, not a single bark is heard. Their dogs sit patiently by the side of the path to let vehicles pass, and look for approval before diving into a river. It doesn't mean they don't have fun: they frolic through forests, pick up pine cones – and, occasionally, horse manure – and prance around, at times delirious with excitement.
But Taylor always has full control. "It's about keeping the pack dynamic as safe and as calm as possible," she says. Each dog sets an example for the others, and just one rogue dog can upset the balance. She and Courtois don't wear sunglasses, so their animals can read their eyes. Walkers' mood can influence the pack too. "If you let your emotions get in the way it's going to affect everything." They won't let anyone approach their animals to interact with them, or allow other animals to rush up to say hi. Before allowing me to join, I had to promise not to throw anything.
It's clearly not a job for everyone. Put a foot wrong and you can easily step in some doggy doo-doo. Just moments into today's walk, a terrible smell fills the air. "Oh yuck," declares Taylor. "The first of the negatives." A puppy with a crook tummy has done his business all over the grass, and it's liquid. Leda pulls out multiple green poop bags and attempts to pick it up, but she ends up smearing it around. "We've had a few accidents like this in the van," she says. "When I first started it had carpet. It was incredibly bad." Things improved once they installed rubber matting.
Finally, after using a third bag, Taylor's happy with the results. By the end of their two-hour walk, there'll be many more bags just like this one. They need to be disposed of, and all those dogs will need feeding, watering and dropping off back home. It's an all-encompassing job that takes much of the day, but Taylor couldn't be happier. So are their animals. At home time, some refuse to leave the van.
Recently, Taylor and Courtois just got married. For their honeymoon, they've taken their six dogs with them on the road to tour the South Island. For many, that's their idea of hell. For these two, it's heaven. "I luckily have never had a proper desk job," says Taylor, smiling in the sunlight. "I would not be able to handle it."
* This article was updated to specify that Stick & Bones has been operating for six years, and is therefore not an operator considered by some to be a "cowboy" newcomer.