Walking the Dog

In the long ago years when Robert Wagner was the mayor of New York City, well before reality television’s Dogs in the City, and the current proliferation of dog walkers seen in and around Central Park, one man’s name was synonymous with the profession: Jim Buck.

In those days, when you could still see uniformed nannies with proper prams strolling in Central Park, a profile in “The Talk of the Town” of the New Yorker of February 6, 1965 reported that at that time Buck’s dog-walking, exercising, and training service was the only such enterprise in the city that was locally and federally registered and that he employed a dozen young assistants who took out packs of five to seven dogs through Central Park and home again.

When that profile was written, Buck was thirty-three years old and worked from his apartment in a brownstone on 80th Street off Madison Avenue where he lived with his wife Ann, three young sons, and three dogs: two champion-bred Great Danes and Lisa, a mixed breed.

Just over twenty years later, Buck had achieved almost celebrity status.

In a New York Times article of July 1987, he was referred to as the man who defined the profession, “the grandmaster of New York dog walkers . . . believed to have invented the idea.”

Later still, Buck, a self-described “Park Avenue brat,” was the subject of a Seattle Times profile published in 1996. It reported that although he was the descendant of leading banking and shipping families, dog handling was a “birthright” for him. It seems that his patrician family members bred and showed a wide variety of breeds and that Buck himself entered the dog-show circuit at age six.

A former Navy man, the slender and athletic Buck ran his business like a military operation and often treated the dogs like recalcitrant recruits. A far cry from the lackadaisical style exhibited by most practitioners of the trade seen around today, he and his employees speed-walked their packs with strong discipline and those who worked for him sported matching yellow corduroy trousers and forest green hunting coats with crests that said “Jim Buck’s Dogs—Fitness First.”

Today, at the other end of the spectrum from Jim Buck and his spiritual successor (a laconic woman of late middle age who marches large groups of perfectly behaved canines up and down Fifth Avenue with a riding crop firmly held in her hand) are many inattentive walkers, clearly more interested in their own cell phones, private concerns, and daydreams than in the well-being of their charges. Worse still are the clusters of disinterested practitioners who lounge on park benches, chatting with each other while their canine wards wait patiently for a little more robust activity.

Is there a middle ground between the rigid discipline of Buck and the sometimes sloppy practitioners around today? And how do you go about selecting an appropriate walker for your particular dog?

The answer to the first question is “Yes, there is certainly a middle ground.” There are dog walkers who maintain discipline but do it in a more gentle manner. After all, those of us who tend to anthropomorphize our pets are generally uncomfortable with the boot camp idea.

And the answer to the second question is that selecting a dog walker takes some serious research and a good deal of observation.

Go to the park around eight or nine in the morning and again in the late afternoon. Watch. The best dog walkers are those who aren’t immediately recognizable as dog walkers—they look like owners out on their daily routine. There’s the grey haired lady with the Scottie, the pretty blond with the pair of jolly and slightly rambunctious Golden Retrievers, the earnest young man dutifully keeping up with Sherlock (small white dog) and Watson (big white dog). They, and others of their ilk, clearly love their charges and enjoy their jobs. They talk to the dogs, play with them, discipline them if necessary, and have special treats in their pockets for rewards when deserved.

Almost without exception, these four-star walkers work independently and are not part of any large company. Their services are advertised pretty much entirely by word of mouth and they are generally quite good friends with the families for whom they work.

There are also certainly some excellent dog walkers who do work for agencies, but the rule of thumb is that if you can find someone you’ve gotten to know, you’re in better hands. It seems that in this business as in child care, the better you know somebody the better off you are.

Fabio Conceicao, one of the very best of all the dog walkers I’ve known over the years (and the only one I’ve ever personally hired), offers some additional advice.

“Start by talking to other dog owners. See what they have to say, what they’ve heard. Then, when you’ve narrowed your search, make sure you get references from several clients of the walker you are considering. And beyond that, stay home for a while when the walker is there. Notice how he or she interacts with your pet. It should be easy to tell if the rapport is genuine. And if your dog is a type that needs plenty of exercise, make sure that the potential walker is capable and willing to give it.”

Born in the ancient and beautiful city of Ilheus in northeastern Brazil, Fabio is understandably popular.

“I always loved dogs,” he recalls. “And my father did as well. We had a Mini Pinscher and there was also a beautiful German Shepard called Delilah who, sadly, died young. When I was little I had resolved to have ten or more dogs in my home when I grew up!”

And in an unexpected turn, he has had his dream come true in a way.

Arriving in New York to study English as a second language in 1995, Fabio expected to stay only a few months. In order to help with his expenses, he was able to get part time work with the K-9 Club, a Manhattan dog walking service, on his student visa and through a Brazilian friend. The arrangement seemed satisfactory and continued longer than he expected—long enough for him to apply for and get a green card.

Once he had the green card, Fabio decided to go to work for himself.

“I never thought I’d stay in New York for such a long time,” he says like so many others before him. “I expected to return to Brazil. But the longer I stayed, the more New York became my home.”

An American citizen since 2009, Fabio now looks back on his career and the experiences he has had with affection.

“I’ve enjoyed the connections I’ve made both with people and with their dogs. Some of the people I work for are second or third generation and they are as much friends as clients.

“Looking back there are many dogs of which I’ve grown particularly fond. Madison was a chocolate Lab I first met when he was a tiny puppy and was with for many years. I felt he was almost as much my dog as he was his owners. And there was a Beagle called Charlie who stayed with me in my home when his owner traveled. When I returned him to her, he started barking. He wanted to stay with me!”

Have there been any experiences with bad or unruly dogs?

Fabio sighs and considers the question. In addition to the mixed breeds and Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Collies, he has walked Pit Bulls and Dobermans, Rottweilers, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks—all of which caused no problems. Then he stretches out his hand.

“There was this Wheaton Terrier,” he explains.

“His family loved him but with me he was very erratic. Sometimes he was quite an affectionate dog but he was quite hostile at other times. One day, while I was trying to put on his leash, he attacked me and I ended up with stitches all over my hand.”

Fabio no longer walks that dog, clearly one which might have benefited from Jim Buck’s boot camp.

Issue Twenty Two