New Yorkers Heart Their Dogs

By Linda Arntzenius

Dogs of every shape and form can be seen on the streets of New York City, where they enjoy superior opportunities for civil society than do their suburban and country cousins. Just watch any of the professional dog walkers and their fan-shaped packs as they go about their daily rounds. In that respect, Manhattan dogs are more like their European counterparts than dogs from other parts of the United States.

On a recent trip to the U.K., my (human) companion and I visited a small bustling town in the North of England where the local dogs habitually roam free. We were amused, and slightly astonished, to see a pack of five mutts walk purposefully along the sidewalk, with not one master in sight. They stopped at the traffic lights, waited for the signal to change, and then crossed to the other side of the street, where they continued their journey, bothering no-one as they maneuvered through the crowds. None of the locals gave them a second glance.

Dogs in pubs and under tables in cafés are a common sight in England. In Paris, even in top restaurants with white table linens and snooty wait staff, you’ll see good dogs at ease at their masters’ feet. Some New York City bars and hotels welcome small dogs; restaurants not so much. Although dogs and their owners may be accommodated in areas where there is outside seating, they are generally not allowed inside; a restaurant can be closed down if it fails to observe this and other New York City Department of Health Guidelines. Nonetheless, some eateries do, but it’s an ever-changing list so, if that’s what you’re looking for, search online for “dog friendly restaurants in NYC.”

City life is bounded by rules, for dogs as well as humans, but it also allows for a great deal of enjoyment. Imagine the scents of the city’s streets to a dog’s nose: food vendors on every street corner and the Central Park Zoo right in the middle of the metropolis. Dogs aren’t allowed in the zoo but the nose knows!

The best part of being a dog, of course, is the chance to run free, to meet and greet other canines as only a dog can. New York City has some 29,000 acres of parkland and 53 off-leash dog parks with fenced-in areas for exercise. Dogs properly attired with license and rabies vaccination tags may be let off the leash in designated areas of Central Park (and other city parks) from park opening until 9 a.m., and again from 9 p.m. until park closing. Until recently this privilege was a “courtesy,” allowing dog owners to exercise and socialize their animals. Now it is enshrined in the rules and regulations of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation Rules. Of course certain standards of dog behavior apply.

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BE A GOOD DOG

Many of the Parks Department’s rules are simply common sense and the usual exemptions apply for seeing-eye and trained service dogs. Dogs must be kept under control. They are not allowed to “go” on newly-seeded lawn, a rule that also applies to their owners. Solid waste must be disposed of in the receptacles provided and dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet, at all times, with the exception of specified areas and dog runs. They should never be left unattended or tied to a bench, fence, or light-pole. And it should go without saying that unsociable or aggressive dogs should always be leashed and kept away from other dogs.

It is verboten for dogs to be in playgrounds, ball-fields, basketball/handball/tennis courts, fountains, swimming pools, and bathing areas/beaches. In the off-season, however, at the discretion of the Parks Commissioner, dogs have been allowed in some bathing areas and on beaches.

Fido mustn’t be allowed to drink from park fountains unless it is one that is marked for dog use and mustn’t be allowed to chase birds, squirrels, or other animals. It’s wise for dog owners always to have proof of current rabies vaccination and licensing to show to a police officer, park ranger, or other Parks Department employee, if asked. You risk a fine if you don’t.

For many New Yorkers, owning a dog means hiring a dog sitter and/or a professional dog walker. Dog walking came into its own on the streets of New York. In fact that’s where it all started in the early 1960s.

JIM BUCK’S SCHOOL FOR DOGS

When Gay Talese, then a New York Times reporter, wrote an article in 1964 about Jim Buck and his unique line of work, Buck had already been earning his living as a dog walker for two years. It was a good living, too better than his former employment selling electronics. “Sometimes he earns $500 a week from dog-walking, dog-training, and dog-sitting. He takes 30 or 40 dogs out for walks, covering 25 miles through the East Side of Manhattan each day, and wearing out the soles of a pair of construction shoes every two weeks,” wrote Talese. At that time, Buck’s $500 a week was more than five times the average American’s salary.

Headlined “145-Pounder Walks 500 Pounds of Dogs,” Talese’s article introduced Buck, who died in 2013, at age 81, as a rather unlikely looking dog handler: six foot tall, pencil thin and elegantly dressed. He became a familiar city sight, with the leashes of half-dozen or more dogs in his charge splayed like the spokes of a wheel, prompting Talese to liken him to Charlton Heston in the Ben Hur chariot-race.

Thought to be the first professional dog walker in the country, Buck knew dogs. He had raised Great Danes in his youth. When observed by Talese, he was handling a 150-pound Great Dane, a Borzoi, and a pair of Labradors, among others. “He inspired smiles from other pedestrians and nods of recognition from doormen. ‘Hook up a sled,’ one doorman on Madison Avenue called with a laugh as Mr. Buck moved by,” wrote Talese. “New Yorkers who use Mr. Buck’s service usually know when he is coming and leave the dogs with the doormen. Some people, however, will wait for Mr. Buck to buzz their bell, then will open their doors and let their dogs loose to run down the steps (or even ride down the elevators) alone: the dogs seem to read the clock and know precisely when to expect Mr. Buck.”

Within a few years, Buck had so many clients he took on extra staff until he had about two dozen, mostly women, exercising hundreds of dogs a day. A 1967 black and white photograph by master photographer Alfred Eisenstadt shows a dog walker in Central Park with five dogs in hand, quite possibly one of Buck’s staffers, framed by the triple arches of a stone bridge. Ahead of her another dog walker is visible.

Eventually Buck founded Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, the first of its kind, offering training, exercise, and a dock walking service. The business closed when Buck retired after 40 years. With insight worthy of Cesar Milan, he once told The New Yorker that the secret of successful multiple-dog walking was psychologically analyzing each pack, with an eye to identifying different canine archetypes: the leader, the wing dog, the shy dog, the aggressive dog, and so on, and managing them so they learned to get along.

He was known to enlist a dog, known as “Oliver the Awful,” when trying out prospective walkers. “Oliver knows when he’s testing someone new, and he can be counted on to leap into the first phone booth along the way and slam the door and wedge himself against it,” he told The New Yorker in 1965. “Brute force is of no avail; the only way to get him out is to remain poised and quietly talk him out.”

Today, dog walkers are a ubiquitous part of city life. People, quite rightly, regard dogs as part of the family and are willing to pay for doggie daycare, grooming, and daily walks. It has been estimated that the cost of owning a dog in Manhattan is comparable to raising a child. But as every dog lover knows, it’s worth it.

BEST FRIEND

A New York City dog walker in charge of a pack is an entrancing sight. And a dog watching expedition to Manhattan never fails to amuse. I’ve had only one dog in my life. But what a dog. My short stocky lab collie mix, Tinker, sadly no longer with us, loved to visit the city. To my mind, she held her own among her cosmopolitan canine cousins. Sensing that something different was expected of a suburban dog in the city, she would adopt a particular heads-up focused demeanor that expressed an air of “having seen it all before.”

Her joy was Central Park and the dog run in Riverside Park, which for old time’s sake, I visit on occasion to see what’s going on, find out where the latest dog-friendly places are, and observe what new breeds are in—there’s always something new following the annual Westminster Dog Show. The 139th annual dog show in February introduced two new breeds: the Coton de Tulear and the Wirehaired Vizsla. It won’t be long before they show up around town. And who can resist the sight of a group of ebullient pugs roaming off-leash at Pug Hill where their enthusiastic owners gather informally every Sunday around noon on a grassy hilltop beside the Alice in Wonderland statue. New York City is a great place for dog watching, even if you have no dog of your own.

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