Saturday, August 25, 2007

How a community of independent dogwalkers is like the internet

On the Internet, web pages are ranked in credibility by the numbers of other web pages that link to them, therefore indicating that they find those pages credible.

In independent dogwalking, dogwalkers are ranked in credibility (albeit informally), according to the numbers of other dogwalkers who share certain responsibilities with them. – I’ve already discussed that I have a number of mutually supportive relationships with other walkers in the Park Slope area, and the way this often works is interesting.

Most referrals from one dogwalker to another come about because of several circumstances. Of course, we would all ideally like to take whatever work comes out way, but that is not always possible. Sometimes a long-time dogwalker already has too much on his or her plate, sometimes the dog in question is an inconvenient location, and schedules shift from day to day or week to week - so one dogwalker may be able to meet the client’s needs some, but not all of the time. (This often results in time-share arrangements such as I’ve worked out with Maggie). In other instances, a ¬ regular client may need an additional service, which his or her dogwalker does not provide, and will be referred to another who does provide it.

In all of those cases, it still behooves the dogwalker to refer the client to someone else. But here, one must be careful, because if a recommendation is made carelessly it reflects directly on the recommender’s reputation. And reputation is everything in this field! Not to mention that we are all in this business for the long haul (that’s why we don’t work for services who don’t pay enough to sustain dogwalking as a career), and we all care deeply for dogs in our community and wouldn’t dream of putting them in hands with which we are less than comfortable. As well, a certain amount of training is always featured in these transfers, because no matter how much one may know about dogs in general, it’s always important to learn about a new dog in particular.

In none of these cases have I ever seen the element of competition displayed, at least in the capitalist model of securing as much market share as possible. After all, there’s only so much a body can do! Instead, the whole process seems to be aimed – almost subconsciously – at shoring up the foundation of our sector of the animal care business. Rather than fight over the proverbial pie, we seek to grow the pie through responsible, sustainable means.

I think that our practice is a marked contrast with the centrally controlled service model of dogwalking (where the walkers themselves are sometimes not as motivated as one who runs his or her own business) and in many ways exceeds the protections offered by certificates or newspaper mentions that such services may receive.

And I also think it would be interesting to start an online representation of the connections that are made in the independent dogwalking world. It may prove useful to dog owners (and potential owners) in deciding how to best provide a structure for their pets and companions, and may even convince folks that help is out there to make it easier to rescue animals from shelters.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I don't much care for pet-boarding facilities.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, especially in reaction to this article in yesterday's Post. For most dogs, having their owner(s) go away can be a traumatic experience if not handled carefully. This means - in most cases - maintaining as much as possible the routine they are accustomed to. Routine really is a source of comfort to a dog; they depend on predictability and can develop mental and physical health problems if not provided with a sound structure in their lives. This goes triply for rescued dogs or others who have had traumatic formative experiences.

Kennels often sell themselves on the luxury factor, but the facts often tell a much different story. I've known dogs to come back from area establishments with kennel cough in the past, as well as prolific diarrhea. At the Brooklyn Dog House (mentioned in the article) they do not get walked or go outside at all, (for safety's sake, apparently). The indoor playgrounds are only used by your dog for only part of the time during the day, and the rest of the time (as well as for 9 or 10 hours overnight) the dogs are crated, whether or not this is part of their training and routine at home. Overnight, all the dogs are placed in individual crates and, according to several of my colleagues and other pet owners, there is no staff to supervise them. I wish I could believe that conditions such as this are the exception rather than the rule, but it doesn't seem like any of this disqualifies a kennel from membership in the American Boarding Kennels Association.

So why do people board their dogs rather than finding a petsitter? I really wish I knew, but can only make a few informed guesses based on talking to folks who've made that decision in the past. It is somewhat less expensive, but this doesn't seem to be the driving factor. Many cite the ability to have their dog spend more time with other dogs. And some also cite privacy or security concerns about having someone stay in their home.

As a service to all dogs out there, let me attempt to address some of those issues. Most dogwalkers and petsitters, myself included, have a steady clientele within a relatively small geographic area. Therefore we can (and do, as a matter of course) schedule time for your dog to socialize with other dogs with whom they are familiar. This is done on walks, in dog runs, and sometimes in familiar indoor areas. While this canine socialization is not constant (unless you have more than 1 dog!) it is part of an integrated whole; and there's also a lot more individualized human attention for your dog. If you use your regular dogwalker as your petsitter, then it's also someone your dog already has a relationship with, which is incredibly valuable to him or her. Plus, your dog will never be left alone overnight!

If or when people have security concerns about having someone (even someone they trust) stay at home with their dog for an extended period, I think those are pretty easy to address. Beyond the typical insurance of fantastic references, if you're already trusting someone with your dog, it's pretty unthinkable that anything else in your home could be more valuable. In addition, having a constant presence there has been shown to deter crime. But privacy issues are different, more touchy, and undoubtedly more varied. I can't hope to, nor do I wish to, fully understand them, probably because I was raised in and live my life in a very communal fashion. Whether or not I'm in my home, someone else that I trust is always there! That being said, however, I can say that I (and my Park Slope dogwalking colleagues) abide by the time honored code of household staff everywhere, and realize that it is in the interest of both client and professional to respect the privacy of the home and its occupants. Never mind that it's highly unlikely I'll see anything weirder than what I'm prone to run into on the streets of Brooklyn any given day or night!

I still don't understand why some dog owners view boarding facilities favorably, although I'd like to think a large part of it is simply a lack of understanding about what these places are really like. However, I'm also aware that sometimes the logistics of a situation make it impossible to find a trusted petsitter. In fact I was recently faced with that situation with Bella, and as a result I am, for the first time, boarding a dog in my own home. She will have all the advantages of a petsitter outlined above, with the exception of her familiar environment. Since I've walked her since she was a puppy, and stayed in her home several times, (and also because if she suffers from anything it's an excess of confidence!) I expect smooth sailing, and I'll let you all know how it goes!

Bella rules the roost

Sunday, August 5, 2007


Ok, yeah, it's been a while since I've written anything here, and admittedly this blog is not my top priority -- especially when I'm as busy as I've been lately. Dogwalkers live mostly in three dimensions, and the last day off I had was June 8th. Not that I'm complaining (alright, not much!); I'll be grateful when I hit the inevitable dry spell.

I have been doing a lot of petsits lately, starting with Lucky, Ali and Mooschi.

These are three former hard-luck cases who have found a wonderful and loving home in Park Slope, with the support of each other and their 2 legged caretaker.

Lucky is a former racing greyhound who had the fortune of a relatively low prey drive. Since he showed less interest than the other greyhounds in chasing the stuffed rabbit around the track, he made it out of that racket at about 2 and a half years old, instead of suffering for another 2 or 3 years. At 13 years old, he has developed some fairly serious health issues; lumbosacral stenosis (which is a narrowing of the end of the spinal canal, which compresses the nerves found there); laryngeal paralysis, which makes it difficult for him to breathe sometimes and causes him to become overheated; and irritable bowel syndrome (basically a very sensitive digestive system -- he's on a prescription diet and could have epic diahrea otherwise). He also has only four teeth remaining (but they're the ones that count!) and his laryngeal paralysis is probably the result of an oversized tube inserted into his throat during dental surgery a few years ago.

All that said though, Lucky is in excellent emotional health and not in nearly as much pain as he could be given all of his ailments. Despite LS, he has a very healthy appetite, and he is incredibly social, both with his poodle and his human friends. He loves to go on walks, although he doesn't go very far anymore, and he's even been known to do the occasional sprint. At 13 he's doing pretty darn well, I'd say!

Ali (pronounced Allie) and Mooschi are both also rescued dogs. Ali came to her present home when she was just 21 weeks old, but still shows signs from her early traumas. She was sickly and emaciated when she arrived, and she often won't eat unless fed by hand. She's also rather wary of strangers and quick to warn of danger. Mooschi was obtained through a poodle rescue service in order to give Ali some canine company (they both have seniority on Lucky), and although she is very warm and loving towards all people (she's actually a therapy dog!) she's also picked up the habit of eating by hand at times.

Following my stay in residence with those three, I spent a few days with Ralph. As you might recall his mother, Riko, passed away recently. Ralph doesn't seem to have changed all that much, with one notable exception. At 14 years old, he's finally becoming socialized with other dogs! At the moment, that seems to be restricted to dogs about his size who are not too playful - he still gets nervous and defensive sometimes - but it's still a monumental step for him. And physically, Ralph is still in the prime of his life.

Another dog who's been showing signs that he can be socialized is Igwe. You'll recall that he was trained for fighting, and that I've managed to communicate to him that that is not what to do with other dogs. He recently met my friends puppy in a controlled situation, and while he showed no real signs of aggression he didn't know quite what he should do. He was very interested and excited, and with a lot of time, work and attention I'm convinced he can be helped along. Sadly though, I'm not sure that's an investment his owner is willing to make.

I'm currently staying with Kenny and Joya, which is old hat by now, and also watching a new dog for part of that time, named Duke.

Duke is a 7 year old mixed breed dog (pit bull and boxer, maybe?) with a happy-go-lucky approach to the world. He gets along with everybody as far as I can tell - canine, feline, simian - and lives for the simple pleasures in life - playing, food and company.

Next week I'm back to my full schedule but I'll try to check in here as much as I can. And, oh, if you've been reading along with me this long, you might want to check out my new flickr page. Most of my dogs are on there, as well as whatever else catches my eye. Just what I need -- something else to update rarely!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Growing and Growing

It's always a pleasure to watch a puppy mature into a dog (I prefer dogs and that's why I'm good at training puppies). Since I only walk Bruno once a week that observation becomes much more dramatic. In just the last seven days I'm sure he's undergone quite a growth spurt: Bella had better watch out!

He's also become much more confident and comfortable in his skin on walks, partly no doubt because his owners have been taking advantage of off-leash hours in Fort Greene Park. And he's shown improvement in working through his separation anxiety; he no longer seems to be chewing on his feet when alone.

Still, this is a dog who, even more than a typical puppy, needs his people around; as evidenced by his excitement at my arrival and his extreme reluctance to stay behind when I leave. Luckily his student owners have a schedule such that he need never be alone for too long, and he's maturing very, very nicely.

Bruno will be away for the summer and back in the fall. I can't wait to see what he looks and acts like then!

Season of Terror

No, I'm not talking about the color coded system of threats made by (ahem, assessed by) the Department of Homeland Security; but events some of our canine friends find much more immediate, such as this morning's intense thunderstorm and the sporadic bursts of fireworks left over from the 4th of July.

A particularly loud burst of thunder woke me up early this morning and I found Aberdeen cowering in a corner.

He shares this reaction with Joya, Igwe and Ralph -- all four of them rescued dogs -- and with Bella, who while not rescued did have a very jittery puppyhood.

I long ago learned that the worst thing you can do for a dog like this is what most people would do intuitively: providing physical comfort or speaking in soothing terms. The dog will almost always react by trembling even more and trying to get into an even smaller space. Instead it seems that a quick return to a normal routine does a lot more for his peace of mind. In a mild case this can mean playing with a toy or going for a walk (they usually won't eat food) but in a more frightened dog any form of attention seems to validate and increase the fear. It's best in those cases to completely ignore here and go about your routine, showing the dog that things are normal as far as you're concerned.

Sooner or later they'll return to this kind of behavior:

Monday, July 16, 2007

Riko -- 1990-2007 -- RIP

Riko passed away yesterday after a long illness, the details of which I've gone into elsewhere. Knowing her these past several years has been a gift and an honor, and while her death does not come as a surprise it brings with it quite a bit of sadness.

After the onset of SARD 2 years ago, she put up quite a fight and coped with her condition amazingly well. At some points she even seemed to be almost her old self again, but her last year became progressively more difficult. Her quality of life was impacted not only by her blindness, but by deteriorating arthritis and advancing senility. Her tumors, though benign, made it difficult for her to lie down comfortably even as she needed more and more sleep and rest. She dealt with all this with typical canine stoicism but one could not help but see how much she was suffering. Her owners handled the situation with a great deal of compassion and dedication right up until the end. I don't know how difficult it was for them but I can only hope that we would all be able to summon such reserves of strength and heart were we to be faced with a similar situation.

Riko thoroughly enjoyed her life, and leaves behind a loving human and canine family, including her son Ralph, now 14.

Friday, July 6, 2007

So that every mouth can be fed

That's two petsits done and one to go. I miss my home but love all my dogs (not to mention that fish -- gorgeous!).

We have what is potentially New York's first heat wave of the year, starting, oh, right about now. Make sure to keep your animals hydrated, and follow these other safety tips too!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Don't let the TV be your only petsitter!

I'm doing quite a lot of petsitting these days, spending more time in Park Slope then in my own home, most of it with dogs with serious psychological and physical health conditions. As you know I'm spending time with Riko and Ralph, and also in the schedule is Kenny and Joya; and Lucky, Ali and Mooschi, to whom I'll introduce you later.

When dog owners go on vacation we're usually presented with the choice of boarding our pets or having a trusted person stay with them in our homes. For some dogs it may not make a whole lot of difference, but for most of the ones I've been familiar with in my life it's a lot more comfortable to stay in a familiar environment and follow the routine they are used to. For rescued dogs it can even be an imperative, and besides Kenny all of the dogs I'll be staying with have had some sort of traumatizing experience.

It's been really hard with Riko especially, this time around. I've mentioned how she lost her sight and her health deteriorated subsequently, but I think that now advanced senility has come into the picture. Most of the day and night she just sleeps, but she'll struggle to her feet in search of food or the yard from time to time. She doesn't respond to her own name anymore, let alone any commands or other words she used to know, and she doesn't even respond to being pet. She was always very intelligent and affectionate, and for a time after losing her sight became even more so, but now she doesn't seem to even be in her body anymore. There were signs of this when I walked her and Ralph for a week a few months back, but I was in denial of it then. Now, I miss her and I feel like I lost my chance to say goodbye.

Kenny and Joya are up next, and after Joya's recent cancer scare (long story short, there was no cancer - maybe I'll tell the whole story another time), I feel confident that they are both still in the prime of their lives.

By the way, the dog in the first picture is Brixton, a 9 year old boxer who I walk from time to time.

And here is Riko, as she spends most of her time these days, sleeping.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Unsafe to Breathe"

That's what they were saying on the radio this morning about the air, due to 94 degree temperatures, high humidity and dangerous ozone levels. There was no suggestion of what to breathe instead of the air, so I went ahead and sucked it up anyway, which always makes me feel a little hard core.

But seriously, these conditions do require a change in routine for many of my older dogs, as well as Stanley, whose unique physiology puts him in the same breathing category as, say, 13 year old Billie. I kept the walks casual and shaded and sprayed the dogs' underbellies to keep their organs from getting overheated, as well as keeping plenty of drinking water on hand.

And for myself (some of you may know I'm fighting off a bacterial infection and going in for a dreaded round of antibiotics tonight) I also made sure to drink plenty of water, and took breaks in between walks. I got started as early as possible (while making sure not to come too early for the dogs' comfort), thus avoiding the worst parts of the mid-afternoon, and I'm proud to say we all made it through the day unscathed!

Tomorrow the forecast calls for thunderstorms with small hail(!!! - hail! - in late June!!) ahead of dropping temperatures, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Assuming it's safe to breathe by then.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Doggy Daisy Chains

Two of 'em:

These guys know how to stay entertained!