Dogwalkers vs. Muggles

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by Erica Browne Grivas, Guest Blogger
January 20, 2016

I’m always surprised by comments from fellow dog owners like: “I like to come early – before the dog walkers get here,” or “I just don’t believe one person can really handle that many dogs.” IMG_2495

Maybe that’s because my dog and I were almost raised by dog walkers, or at least trained. Here’s a little background: Nearly three years ago my husband and I decided to add a dog – our first- to our family.  Somehow, although we were looking for an adolescent dog, we chose an eight-week old, just-spayed puppy from Seattle Humane. That’s another story.

We live in Tangletown, so Woodland Park is our “home” dog park. It’s only one acre – but it has a unique topography in that there is a hill in the center surrounded by a lower path. The tree cover of the maples at the top is perfect to shield all but the most serious downpour, and regular volunteer gravel raking parties keep away the mud. As soon as Mojo was fully vaccinated, we began going to Woodland Park five days a week, usually around 10:30 or 11:00 – primo dog walker time. By noon there may be three or more “packs” in the park, and depending on the energies and personalities involved, the space can feel spacious or crowded.

My perspective was: the more the merrier – more tails to chase, butts to sniff, and muzzles to test with sticks. By and large the packs kep t to themselves.  Mojo loved it. He was a social butterfly, an equal opportunity player.

Of course he was also low dog on the totem pole, and there were a few incidents when he was ganged up on by a mini-pack, or schooled by a senior.

However, when these incidents occurred, I felt safer to be in the company of several “pros”, who had seen it all and then some. Mojo and I were both learning canine social cues, and here were translators at the ready. 

It’s natural for new owners, especially with puppies, to be protective, but it’s equally important to know when to butt in and when to let the dogs work it out, which only comes with experience and observation.  Dog parks offer a level of observation you would have to spend hours of class time to get. I learned to distinguish play growls from challenge growls, to pick a dog up from the hips in a fight, and when to distract Mojo if he was enjoying a chase more that the chasee.  I regularly sought walkers’ advice on training techniques, local resources, and interactions.

IMG_2667Keeping to the same schedule, we ran into the same packs and walkers, which had two benefits. First, the dogs were a known quantity. That meant the packs alreadIMG_2370y had their social order picked out, and Mojo knew where he fit in, which reduced squabbling.

Likewise, the walkers also knew Mojo. When Mojo became an adolescent, and began telling dogs “You’re not the boss of me,” one walker, Gwen Harper, would point out to me when Mojo was giving an appropriate rebuke and when he was pushing it.  Learning to observe his and other dog’s body language as closely as possible has been the greatest addition to my toolkit as an owner.  Online resources abound on this; here is one simple guide to dog gestures from tip to tail:

For input on the divide between walkers and the rest of us muggles, I contacted Charlotte Bontrager, steward of Woodland Park Off-Leash Area since 2012, who although she has no way of tracking attendance, says “I would bet that per square yard, we are the busiest OLA in Seattle.  Asked about what are the main complaints she sees regarding walkers in an emailed Q & A, she wrote:

“The top complaints are: Dog walkers bring too many dogs, there’s no way they can control and look after them all.  Dog walkers don’t clean up their dog waste.  Dog walkers take advantage of the dog parks by using them for free as a place of business.  They don’t give back or show up to work parties.  All they do is stand together and talk while their dogs are left under-attended. Dog walkers are crowding the park with their big packs.”

A walker herself, she sees these as misperceptions.IMG_2598

“Also, I would like those who have judgments to realize that things are not always as they seem.  Most dog walkers are very knowledgeable about the dogs in their pack, as well as dog behavior in general.  Dogs very naturally stick together in a pack, making the management of multiple dogs possible.  Most dog walkers are diligent about picking up poop, be it from their pack or from other dogs.  Just because something looks unmanageable to one person, does not mean that this perception is accurate.

How many is too many?

My opinion is that dog walkers should bring no more than 10 dogs to the park at a time.  I have seen some groups with as many as 17.  I say 10 is a good number simply to reduce overcrowding.

I look at it this way: Many of us cannot fathom being a police officer and successfully managing the general public as they do.  However, with the right experience and training, it is done. Most certainly there are some “bad seeds” in the dog walker line of work, but in general, we are not only capable, but conscientious and good at what we do.IMG_2020

She also thinks the divide is only going to get deeper.

“As for overcrowding, this issue will only become more prominent in time, dog walkers or not.  Seattle has more dogs than children.  Our city is growing rapidly.  Each dog brought by a dog walker represents a tax-paying citizen or family that resides in Seattle who, without our support, can’t exercise and socialize their dog as much as their dog may need.” 

The answer, Bontrager felt, was for “the community to view dog walkers as assets of the park.” To help make that happen, she established WOLF (Walkers are Off Leash Friends), which has dog walkers pay membership dues, work a required number of work parties, and follow best practices training techniques. Signage at the park door describes the funds and efforts contributed by walkers.  Check out more on Woodland Park’s evolution here at Seattle Greenlaker.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Tree Ethington

    Bring 10 dogs? THAT is why not one single person in my street of people who own at least 2 dogs will go to dog parks. There is NO way on this earth a single person can be in CONTROL and responsible for their dogs. That’s really insane. Yah the more the merrier is good, if every dog had a human who was there, really THERE physically, mentally. The dogs brought in by dog herders are not their own dog and often have little voice control. I am speaking from my own experience, I have a nasty scar on my forearm from pushing a dog off me who snapped.
    Anyway, if you TRULY want people to use the parks, they must all feel safe. Our dog parks have merely become a money making venue for dog walkers. There are some very good high quality ones, but they are not the majority. Ten? I read that to my teenager who I begged to take the dogs and he laughed too. No one feels SAFE there these days. I was floored to even hear there was an actual limit. I had knee surgery and hung out in my truck and watched my son play with our dog in a corner. I was there for 2 hours. I watched 3 vans disgorge 14, 11, 9 dogs each. All 3 “professionals” were immediately busy with their cell phones, looking up occasionally as the dogs ran freely. We left.
    Let the city take a real transparent vote and ask the people what they think. I think you will hear the same or like. If you want people to be invested, committed then it has to work for all of them, not just the people mining the public space for profit.

    • Charlotte Bontrager

      Dear Tree,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about dog walkers.

      A lot of change is happening in the dog walker community right now. There are two forces that are working simultaneously to bring about permits for dog walkers. These permits will be in addition to the city business license that most PROFESSIONAL dog walkers currently carry. However, there is no enforcement nor are there any official regulations to operate this business at this time.

      The city and Parks dept are working on the permits. This will include pack size limits and fees for the permits. Animal Control will be in charge of enforcement. We are in the beginning phase of planning for this. Dog walkers are very much addressed in the new city Master Plan: People, Dogs, and Parks.

      WOLF, Walkers are Off-Leash Friends, is in its first year of city-wide membership. There are currently 54 members. WOLF is a new organization that is trying to create a cultural change within the dog walking community. Through its set of best practices and visible member vests, the plan is to separate the PROFESSIONAL dog walkers from the non-professionals. It is also designed to bring new awareness of the need for professionalism within the dog walker community as a whole, WOLF member or not.

      To learn more about WOLF and the Parks dept Master Plan, please visit the COLA website. If you have further questions, please feel free to contact me.

      I’ll end with a little background information about me. I have been a professional dog walker since 2002 when I started by business. For the first 8 years, I primarily worked with dogs 1:1 both on leash and inside the dog parks. For several of these years, I could not fathom how one person could safely and successfully manage a group of 10 dogs off-leash. I felt my hands were full with just one or two. From my outside point of view, I simply did not understand and felt all of the dog walkers were irresponsible and did not give their dogs proper attention.

      While there are plenty of dog walkers out there who give the professionals a bad name, the majority of us operate legitimate businesses and are very serious about providing quality, safe, humane care of our dogs, all while giving back to the park environment. It was not until about 6 years ago that I began to understand the finesse that comes with experience. When I decided to start taking groups of dogs, I grew as my pack size grew. I began to understand the dynamics of group dog behavior. Now, I aim at keeping my dogs active through focused exercise, play, and enforcing good social skills through positive reinforcement. I’m able to achieve this by carefully vetting my pack members. I can tell you that 12 well behaved and socialized dogs can be much easier than managing only one dog who is not.

      When people comment about the dog walkers and how there is no way we do this responsibly, my response is two-fold:

      1) I have no idea how a preschool teacher manages 20 kids. But, they do, and most of them do it very well.

      2) PLEASE, I invite you to watch us. Truly, keep an eye on us, ALL of us. I believe you will find that most of us pick up 5 poops for every one we miss. The whole time I’m at the park, I’m picking up regardless if it came from my pack. I know I miss some, but I’m diligent about making up for it. Ever see a dog fight? Double check to see if it involved a dog walker’s dog. The majority of them do not. Our dogs are regulars. They have a routine and work within it most of the time. This also promotes a safe and fun experience for all. Many non-dog walkers tell me they prefer to be at the park when the professionals are there because we tend to be consistent and safe.

      While WOLF promotes giving back to the community, many dog walkers have been doing it for years. I created WOLF to help get regulation and positive recognition for what we are doing correctly. It’s been 3 years in the process. I became inspired to form an organization like WOLF when I was the Woodland OLA steward for 4 years.

      Thank you for reading my lengthy response. I want you to know your concerns are heard and many of us are working on getting the dog walker profession better regulated. The city needs this desperately as it grows and the dog population soars.

      I hope you will begin to notice a difference in the coming months and years. It will take some time, but change is in the works. If you wish to contact me personally, or wish to accept my invitation for a personalized guided “tour” of what the PROFESSIONALS do, please feel to free email me.

      Charlotte Bontrager
      WOLF Director
      COLA Board Member

    • Patrick O'Hara

      My wife and I go to off-leash areas on a daily basis, mostly Woodland Park, but also others. We go at various hours on both weekdays and weekends. When we rescued our new dog last year, we had memories from a decade ago when we avoided bringing our now deceased dog to Woodland because it was filthy. Because of this, when we started visiting again, we were sensitized to any poop not picked up.

      Before I had enough time to really observe what was going on, I assumed that groups of dogs brought in by professionals bore a disproportionate responsibility for any uncleanliness I observed. So, my initial bias was against the professionals, and I would have agreed with what you wrote. But then I noticed something: the park is by far less clean on weekends and on Monday mornings. What was happening? Well, my assumption was wrong.

      My impression now is that most of the users of Woodland Park off-leash can be roughly grouped into three categories: (1) people who don’t work regularly, sometimes retired people like my wife and I, who usually visit during 9AM-5PM weekdays and weekends, (2) people who do work and visit during lunch break, after 5, and (most frequently) during the weekend, and (3) professional dog walkers, who are there during weekday working hours. Both my wife and I like and enjoy people from each of these groups

      After a while, I noticed that population (2) was more likely than (1) or (3) to just let their dog(s) run around while they chatted or paid attention to their mobile devices. Then I noticed that the dog walkers (3) came in during weekdays, and picked up all the poop they found, regardless of the source. At first, I didn’t believe this, but after a year, I know that it is a fact. The professional walkers go around with bags and scoops and pick up all the poop they find. The reason for the weekend and Monday morning uncleanliness is that the walkers haven’t been around. Also, walkers are prominent among volunteer work parties than maintain the place. My opinion is now that the reason that Woodland off-leash is clean and usable is because of professional dog walkers.

      Also, the quality of the visits is better for us and our dog when the professionals are around. The ONLY problems I have witnessed as far as dog behavior is concerned has been from dogs of individual owners (and BTW, I’m sympathetic with those owners – they do get embarrassed). The professionals won’t keep problem dogs as clients, so when they are around, we and our dog enjoy groups of friendly happy dogs, brought in by a variety of these walkers that use the park. My impression is that these guys can handle at least a dozen dogs. So, now I’m on the side of more the merrier!

  • Rubyred

    My irritation w/dog walkers with 8 or more dogs is, in my experience, they tned to congregate in the middle of the walkway and socialize with other dog walkers. I don’t think they tend to give the dogs very much attention at all and I can’t imagine that they aren’t missing some dropped loads with that number. As for the analogy with preschool teachers and 20 little kids…preschool teacher are not out with a bunch of kids and meeting other teachers for socializing. All that being said, I have see examples of dog walkers with 8 dogs who are totally attentive to their dogs, not stopping to socialize while they’re working and the dogs getting a real workout. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

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