I'll admit it. My dog was an impulse buy. I woke up on November 10, 2001, and decided it was time to get the puppy I'd always talked about wanting. I had to have him immediately -- no time to go through the bureaucracy of the adoption process -- so I walked over to Parrots & Pups on Christopher Street. Within an hour, I walked out of the shop with a pound of dog food, a couple of chew toys, a leash, a harness, and a four-month-old Yorkshire terrier I named Kiddo. That's what my dad had called me from the time I was born until he died, just three weeks earlier.
On my first day as a parent, I was meeting friends at Man Ray for drinks, so I put Kiddo in the bathroom, played with him for a few minutes, gave him a big kiss, and told him I'd be back soon. I brought along a Polaroid and showed everyone my new "baby." I came home to a mess on the floor -- and on the tub, the toilet, the walls, and every other available surface. He clearly didn't know what the wee-wee pads were for, because he had chewed them to shreds.
That night, I let Kiddo sleep in my bed. I woke up at about five in the morning to find a smelly deposit on my comforter. I spent the next day curled up in bed with my obviously un-housebroken charge. A friend in publishing brought over about a dozen books his company had put out on dog care.
I called my friend Jeff, who'd invited me over for dinner to introduce me to a guy he thought I'd like. I said I'd have to pass because of Kiddo, but he insisted I bring the culprit along. Within minutes, my unruly youngster had left his mark all over Jeff's kitchen, living room, and dining room. I was so embarrassed -- and distracted by worrying where he would "go" next -- that I barely noticed the guy Jeff was trying to set me up with.
Jeff asked me who would be walking Kiddo while I was at work. I hadn't even thought about it. I ran to a local pet-supply store and picked up a card for a dog walker I'll call Debra.
Ask any dog walker how to find one, and he'll tell you to get referrals from friends, neighbors, and veterinarians. Like baby-sitters, walkers aren't regulated. Anyone can do it. Owners complain about shady characters who steal, don't walk their dogs, or, worse, actively mistreat them. Dog walkers counter that owners often don't take choosing a walker seriously enough.
"There are screwed-up people in every industry," says Nina Munk, founder of urbanhound.com. "Most dog walkers are terrific at what they do. But people tend to be so cavalier. You need to spend as much time hiring a dog walker as you would finding someone to take care of your kid."
When Leah Stern moved to New York from Miami Beach for a job in publicity, she needed someone to walk her dachshund, Chester. On the recommendation of a friend, she hired the first person to apply. Mary, an art student, seemed perfect. She walked Chester once a day but was always up for last-minute duty when Leah got tied up.
Then one day, Leah was walking through Washington Square Park on her lunch break. There, sitting on a bench, were Mary and Chester, dressed in identical Mexican-style costumes, complete with ponchos and sombreros. Mary was strumming on a guitar and singing in Spanish.
For about fifteen minutes, Leah stood and watched as a small crowd gathered. Some threw money into a cup, a few snapped pictures. "She had a piece of cardboard that said something like juanita and juan carlos's traveling circus," Leah remembers. "When she saw me, she just stopped playing and looked at me. I was like, 'What are you doing?' She said, 'I'm walking your dog.' "
Before firing Mary, Leah could not resist one question: "I asked her how much she made. She was like, 'On a good day, about 50 bucks.' "
Debra and I met on Monday, my third day as a parent. Kiddo ran to her. He wagged his tail. He licked her face. It appeared to be a perfect match. We agreed she'd walk him twice a day, which, at $15 per 30-minute walk, would cost me $150 a week.
Within a few days, Debra had insinuated herself into my life -- as well as Kiddo's -- with heartbreaking effectiveness. She'd call me after each walk and tell me exactly what he did, where he did it, and at what times. Some nights, she'd call me to discuss how I could train Kiddo more efficiently -- offering such tidbits as the best kind of liver treat to use as a reward for good behavior. I'll admit it: It was the kind of direction I craved. But her constant harping was getting to me. After one walk, she called from my apartment to say she couldn't leave because Kiddo would start barking as soon as she closed the door behind her. I insisted he'd eventually get used to being left alone, as I'd been told by everyone knowledgeable about dogs. The next day, she called again, saying she just didn't have the heart to leave. I told her she had to, and she promised to go immediately. I could hear Kiddo making a racket in the background. I felt guilty. That night, I left all my neighbors -- downstairs, upstairs, across the hall -- a note saying they should call me if the barking ever disturbed them. No one said a word.
Debra instructed me to keep a chart showing when and where Kiddo relieved himself. Despite my better judgment, I found myself reaching for a piece of paper in the middle of the night: "2 a.m., poop in crate, pee outside crate." Next, she suggested that I walk Kiddo every two hours around the clock, reasoning that the more he was walked, the sooner he'd learn not to go in the house. When I told her this went against everything I had read or heard about training your pooch to "hold it in," she continued to insist I set my alarm in the middle of the night. I refused.
One afternoon, she called me for no reason other than to say that she suspected Kiddo was younger -- a lot younger -- than the four months I'd been told. She just couldn't understand why a four-month-old would need so much attention. "Debra," I said, "he's a puppy. What do you expect?"
About a week after she began, I had my usual therapy appointment. I spent the entire session talking about Debra. She was making me feel like shit. Every time she called with another suggestion, I felt it was her way of telling me I wasn't a good parent. "How can I take care of a dog when I can't even take care of myself?" I asked pathetically.
"You can take care of yourself," my therapist oozed soothingly. "And yes, you can take care of Kiddo. He's the best thing that's happened to you in a very long time."
I spent the entire therapy session talking about Debra. Every time she called with a suggestion, I felt like it was her way of telling me I wasn't a good parent.
If one of the risks with dog walkers is that they are pet-obsessed, as mine obviously was, there's another risk, which I hadn't contemplated: that their visits to your apartment are in service of some other obsession. When Charlotte Reed moved to the city, she hired a guy to walk her two dogs, Katie and Kidder. Soon, Charlotte started to notice that things were a bit askew. A closet door would be ajar; her clothes weren't as neat as she usually left them. Sometimes, her makeup appeared to have been picked through. Lacking a good explanation, she shrugged it off.
Then one day, she left work early. Walking up the stairs to her apartment, she heard music blasting from her floor. By the time she reached her landing, it was clear that the "Madonna-ish dance music" was emanating from her apartment. Quietly stepping inside, she found her dog walker dancing in front of her full-length antique mirror, wearing the $700 floral-print dress she'd just bought. At first, he didn't notice her, but then he twirled around.
"I was like, 'What are you doing?' " Charlotte remembers. "His clothes were on the floor, and he just stood there going, 'Uh, uh, uh.' All I said was, 'I don't want to know anything. I'm going to come back in fifteen minutes, and you and all your shit better be gone. And you know what? Take the dress with you. I never want to see you or the dress again.' "
For weeks, Charlotte found herself cringing every time she got dressed. She'd changed the locks, but, she says, "every time I took something out of the closet, I'd sniff it. I wanted to make sure he hadn't tried it on." Shortly thereafter, Charlotte left Wall Street and opened Two Dogs & a Goat, a dog walking and grooming service.
Joanne, a 30-year-old stockbroker, learned six months after hiring David to walk Lucky, her cocker spaniel, that she didn't need to worry about his touching anything in her apartment.
A neighbor who also employed David was the first to become suspicious. His dog had been acting peculiar lately, messing in the crate and howling uncontrollably when he came home. And Lucky was suddenly greeting Joanne at her door rather than at the top of the stairs in her duplex: "It was like she was sitting there, crossing her legs because she had to go so badly." One day, she draped Lucky's leash just so on the staircase banister; when she came home, it was exactly as she'd left it.
Joanne's neighbors began their own dragnet. First, they tied a strand of hair around the door of their dog's crate. When they got home, the hair was still in place. Then they set up a nanny cam. For a week, they filmed David walking into their apartment, scooping up his money, and walking out without so much as petting their pooch. When confronted, David was utterly unapologetic. "He just said, 'I don't feel like doing it anymore. Dog walking isn't for me,' " Joanne remembers. "He was so nonchalant about it."
Joanne fired David, but once again, her neighbors are taking things a step further. "They're thinking about suing him," she says. "They don't want the money. They just want to put him through hell."
There was a mess on the floor -- and on the tub, the toilet, the walls, and every other available surface. He obviously didn't know what the wee-wee pads were for, because he had chewed them to shreds.
It was about the tenth day I'd had kiddo when I called my therapist from home. I was on the bathroom floor in tears; Kiddo was staring at me. "I can't do it," I cried. "I'm going to give him up for adoption. Maybe I can return him."
"Marc," he said, "Kiddo's great for you. You can do it."
"But he won't go on the wee-wee pads," I moaned. "Debra says she needs to come four times a day if he's ever going to be trained."
My therapist insisted I fire Debra. And I did -- sort of. I told her I had arranged to work at home most of the day. Debra was disappointed, she said, because not only was she making progress with Kiddo, but she had started dreaming about him, too.
Holly, a 35-year-old music publicist, found that getting rid of her dog walker wasn't so easy. Holly hired Diane because she already walked a neighbor's dog -- one of the few that got along with her Rocco, a 65-pound terrier. After five months, Holly came home early from a trip. Walking into her Upper East Side apartment, she heard the shower running and assumed it was her house sitter, Bob. But when she called out to him, a woman's voice shouted that she'd be out in a minute. "It was my dog walker!" Holly says. "She walked out of the bathroom wrapped in my towels -- one around her body and another on her head. When I asked what she was doing, she said, 'My water wasn't working, and you weren't home, so I didn't think it would be a problem.' "
Holly fired her on the spot. Her neighbor followed suit. Soon, word spread through the neighborhood, and several of Diane's other clients also let her go.
That's when the daily phone calls began. "She was leaving me messages, demanding that I put up a sign in my building saying she was a good dog walker," Holly remembers. She filed a complaint with the police, and the calls stopped -- Holly assumes the cops paid Diane a visit -- but then the mail started coming. "She was writing me really long psycho letters, repeating over and over that I had taken away her livelihood." Holly called the police again. She says that finally got rid of Diane, "but then I would see her in the neighborhood, and I would have to duck and hide."
If you think showering is crossing the line, how about a dog walker getting into your bed? Mike, who walks dogs to supplement his artist's income, says clients shouldn't be too surprised to learn that dog walkers often make your apartment their own -- especially if they're spending the night on dog-sitting duty. "I'm not sure why I'm admitting this, but years ago -- before I was married -- I went on a date with someone, and she came back to my client's place," Mike tells me. "In the morning, I just rolled up the sheets and put them in the hamper." Mike made the bed with fresh linens, left, and never heard anything about it. In fact, the client later referred him to several of her friends.
Another time, Mike got a call from a client who'd been out of town. She wanted to know about the used condoms she'd found in her trash can. "Luckily," he says, "we were friendly enough that she just laughed it off."
Apparently, some people don't care if a dog walker makes them feel uncomfortable. It's all about the dog. Samantha, a fashion executive, tells me that she and her lawyer husband have come home from work to find their dog walker on their couch, snuggling with their 85-pound yellow Lab, Brandy, and watching television (usually Seinfeld). "Once, he actually asked if we wanted to order take-out," Samantha says. "It's weird, but we can't get rid of him. Our dog loves him too much."
They filmed David walking into their apartment, scooping up his money, and walking out the door without so much as petting their pooch.
I found my present dog walker the day after I let Debra go. Her name is Gloria. She's been with me and Kiddo more than a year now. She doesn't hassle me but leaves sweet notes saying, for instance, that they spent extra time outside so he could play. Before writing this story, I told Gloria that I wouldn't use her last name if she didn't want me to. She laughed: "I don't think you even know my last name."
A few weeks ago, a friend called to say he'd adopted a four-month-old mutt named Skipper. I asked if he had a dog walker. "Yes," he said. "Her name is Debra."
I asked if Debra called him several times a day. Did she make him keep a chart of his pees and poops? And did she happen to insist that Skipper be walked every two hours around the clock?
"Yes!" he said. "Do you know Debra?"
I said I did and that I had to fire her.
"Yeah," my friend said. "She calls me a little too much, but she's what I need right now. She makes me feel really secure."