Percy, can you find a seat back there? Wilbur, lie down! Lola, do you really need to stand up like that?” As Audra Allen pilots her black Mercedes wagon across 63rd Street, it sounds as if she’s presiding over a group of toddlers. “The kids,” as she calls them, are her clients. And her business, Back to the Country With Audra Allen, is a kind of Fresh Air Fund for the pets of the mostly rich, often famous, and always overscheduled New Yorkers who gladly pay $125 a day to have their pooches shuttled out of the city to frolic in nature, lest they get bored languishing in their CeCe Cord dog beds.
Today’s play group includes Percy and Lola, French bull-dogs who belong to Susan Bloomberg, the mayor’s ex-wife, and Mable, a bull terrier who technically belongs to her daughter Georgina. Kiera, a mild-mannered Tosa whose father is a well-known comedian (“He had a dog stolen,” says Allen, “so I promised I wouldn’t say his name”), is sharing the rear with Ace, a yellow Lab we’ve just picked up from former fashion editor Grace Mirabella. Wilbur, Allen’s own black Frenchie, snores loudly on her lap. Final destination: the beach in Westport, Connecticut.
A biological conservationist with plans to teach African apes how to work digital cameras this spring, Allen is a bit overqualified to be a canine-camp counselor. But as she puts on the Doors – the dogs’ favorite music, not hers – she explains that her charges have become more like her friends. She knows their personalities: Lola loves Madison Avenue and has a thing for the mayor’s pants leg. Percy is a huge fan of the car wash. And everyone likes the movies. In the summer, they go to the drive-in. “We saw Panic Room and Lord of the Rings.” After two hours on the road, Percy hurls himself into the gear shift when the water comes into view. “Okay, okay,” she says, surveying the snow-covered sand. “Any dogs here that don’t look nice?”Even though each dog shows up with a packed gourmet lunch – salmon and hard-boiled eggs for the Bloombergs; filet mignon and Gruyère for two poodles – Allen devises a low-brow treat: Burger King. But when the kids finally tire of playing, Ace isn’t around for the good news. He’s chased down two golden retrievers half a mile away. “Thank you!” she says to their owners who’ve collared him. “Can you say, ‘I’m never getting off my leash again!’? Honestly, Ace,” she gasps, “if your mother only knew!” The responsibility doesn’t faze her. Even with twenty dogs in constant rotation, Allen’s hoping for one more: “Bill Clinton is a good friend of one of my regulars.”
Barking Mad: It’s 10 a.m. Do you know where your dog walker is? Snuggling on your couch? Helping herself to your shower, or even trying on your clothes? A new parent learns not to put anything past his puppy’s other best friend. (January 6, 2003)
Doggie Day-care Centers: If neighbors, your vet, or friends from the dog run haven’t been able to hook you up with a walker, try calling one of these dog-care centers. (January 6, 2003)