On Monday morning, the Roadshow made an appearance on CBC’s Early Edition. If you weren’t up Monday morning at 6:21am, have a listen.

Associate Producer Rob Easton tagged along for the Roadshow stop as a dog walker. If you missed the piece on dog walking, you can read it here.

To invite me to work with you, or just say hello, send me an email at helen@unemploymentroadshow.com

Roadshow Stop: Dog Walker
Roadshow Mentor: Laura Davies, Creature Comforts

You only need walk a few blocks on Vancouver’s 4th Ave or in Yaletown to see evidence of our society’s dog devotion–bakeries, spas, stylists, couture–all dedicated to the canine. Dog’s have their own magazines, therapists, accessory lines, portrait artists, gourmet foods, hotels–there’s no shortage of puppy paraphernalia and canine-centric services. Honestly, I find this abundance of doggy swag and pooch pampering all a bit mind-boggling. I understand that people love their pets and want to spoil them. And I get that there’s an element of showboating involved. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that some dog owners who indulge themselves and their pets in this doggy decadence really believe their dogs need this stuff to be happy. (My cynicism may stem from the fact that I have seen perfectly healthy dogs being pushed in baby prams, sans baby, one too many times.)

Don’t get me wrong, I do love a dog in a sweater, and I have what some would describe as puppy fever. I’m known to stop strangers on the street to pet their pooch. I do want, and have always wanted, a dog. (Growing up we were a cat family.) But I refrain from getting myself a “man’s best friend” for a few reasons, the biggest being: commitment. Adopting a dog means (ideally) a minimum ten years together. That’s a long time (especially in dog years). I worry that I’m not responsible enough to provide a stable home for a furry little friend. I especially worry that once I have a job, I would have to leave my dog alone for 8-9 hours a day. That seems like a cruel thing to do.

Our group: Pacey, a black lab mix; Robi, a black lab; Mickey, a sloughi; Kiwi, a duck trolling retriever; Skye, a golden retriever; and Cody, a chocolate lab

Many pet owners find themselves in this dilemma. Some are lucky enough to bring their dogs to work. Others, if they can afford it, hire the services of a dog walker. I always assumed that a dog walker was the neighbourhood kid you paid $20 a week to take your dog around the block after school. Apparently, I still live in the 1980s, because:

1. No one trusts neighbourhood kids anymore.
2. Dog walking is a big, and competitive, business. The Google business directory lists more than 1500 dog walking companies in the greater Vancouver area.

For this stop on the Roadshow, I joined Laura Davies, a dog walker for Creature Comforts. Laura’s relatively new to the dog walking business and had only been at it for two weeks when I joined up with her. But she’s no stranger to animals–she rides horses and has had pets all her life. Like me, Laura is part of the recent economy’s wake of under-employed. She moved to Vancouver just over a year ago from Toronto, where she was an audio engineer for eight years. Unable to find full-time regular work in her field, Laura set up her own company, In Ear Audio, but business is slow. She needs other employment to supplement In Ear Audio’s income.

“I gave retail a try. But I discovered I’m not much of a people person,” she says with a laugh. “So dogs seemed like a better fit.”

I met Laura at the start of her one-hour group hike. She had already done her collection–gone around and picked up six pooches–and brought them to Pacific Spirit Park. When I arrived, the dogs were anxiously awaiting release from the back of the little red pick up truck that caged them. Once each dog’s leash was securely clipped on to Laura’s cross-chest harness, she lowered the tailgate and out they hopped. They were excited to get going and they knew the way. The rushed towards the path entrance with Laura in tow.

With a pack of six large dogs, I expected far more chaos. But Laura somehow managed to keep order. Even though she had only worked with them for a couple of weeks, the dogs knew her and obeyed her. When she commanded they all move to her left, they did it. And it was obvious that although she had only known these dogs a short while, some just a few days, she was already attached to them. She interacted with each dog as we made our way along the path. Mickey, the timid one, she spoke to softly. Cody, Skye, and Robi–the playful dogs who were allowed off leash–she would call to and they would come bounding through the woods at the sound of her voice. Pacey and Kiwi, the mellow and complacent dogs who trotted on-leash beside her, she would murmur to almost subconsciously, as she reached down to stroke their faces.

For the most part, it was a pleasant walk through the woods. We had to occasionally call for the off-leash dogs who had strayed a touch too far. And there was a lot of poo to pick up. It was pouring rain, but the rain forest canopy provided enough shelter that it was barely a drizzle. About halfway through the walk, it was my turn to take the dogs. Laura held the leashes of Pacey, Kiwi, and Mickey and wiggled out of the chest strap. Still keeping a good grip on the leashes, she threw the harness over my head like a lasso. Once I had it snugly secured across my chest, she let go. I wasn’t expecting the dogs to have quite the force that they did. I felt like I had a team of small horses strapped to me and I was simultaneously the stagecoach and driver.

CBC Associate Producer Rob Easton, the dogs, and me

I worried the dogs might realize they had an amateur in control of them, but they continued on their walk as though they were oblivious to the changeover. Until about five minutes into it.

“Uh-oh,” Laura said. “Hold on tight to their leashes. Try to keep them close to you.” Following Laura’s instruction, I saw in the distance what caused her concern. It was another dog walker–her colleague, in fact. And apparently, of the seven dogs he had with him, one of them had the potential to be aggressive. Because he, unlike the five male dogs we had care of, still had his balls.

For about thirty seconds, it was a big mess of humans, leashes, and dogs. And then it was over. Following the loud and firm instruction of Laura and her colleague, the dogs separated themselves from the big dog pile, with not even a growl, and continued on their way–panting, sniffing, running, and chewing.

Before I knew it, the walk was almost done. Laura and I had chatted the whole way (you would never know she’s not a people person from her pleasant and friendly demeanour) and the hour flew by. I gave Laura back the reins, and started the next round of poo pick up. (The dogs knew it was almost time to go home so they made sure to do their business.)

Once the dogs were back in the truck, I gave each one a treat and let them nuzzle my face as I said good bye. I spent only an hour with them, but they nonetheless each doled out a generous amount of love. (It could have been the treats.) There was something so precious about their uncomplicated and unwavering affection. It made me want to take every one of them home. They were so content from the hour walk–and it was hard not to interpret it as gratitude. As they panted happily, and nosed my hand, I realized that there was a big difference between dog walking and the more frivolous dog services. Because dogs need to walk. They may not need their portrait done. And they might not need a designer sweater to be happy (although they look pretty darned cute in them), but they do need to walk. Laura was fulfilling this intrinsically dogly need. And the dogs relied on her and loved her for it.

As Laura unhooked the leashes and gave each dog a pat before closing the tailgate, it was clear she was also content from the hour walk. She was wet, muddy, and cold, but from the big smile on her face as she cooed to each dog, it was clear that a need of hers was also being fulfilled. Although unable to find full time employment as an audio engineer, she had found interim work that engaged her. Dog walking was a long way from manipulating and editing sound, but she had managed to find the enjoyment in spending a few simple hours a day with her six new best friends.

To invite me to work with you, or just say hello, send me an email at helen@unemploymentroadshow.