Gone to the dogs

We sit in the van outside No. 19. The two red setters are safely stowed in the back, and Gaynor is about to drive off. Her phone rings. "Some days I could throw that thing out the window!"

It's just Emma touching base. Emma's the other half of Gaynor's Reliable Daily Dog Walking and Pet Sitting Service. Gaynor uses the white van, Emma the yellow. Both vans proclaim: "Paws4Walks" and are decorated with paw-print stickers.

Gaynor tells Emma: "Just picked up Dillon and Connor and Christopher." Pause. "Christopher's in the front."

We head off to collect Rankie, a border collie living in a bungalow. "Rankie's hyper," Gaynor tells me.

Nobody's home at Rankie's (except Rankie), but Gaynor has keys. Rankie leaps into the back. The setters thump the van sides in welcome. It's a routine.

Next, Kira. "A big donut of a German shepherd. Likes carrying stones. Tries to dig up boulders out of the ground."

"Now for Moto. Moto's a Japanese Akita. A wanderer. But a big teddy bear." Gaynor encourages Moto into the van. "Up you go, sweet pea!"

Soon we have a canine vanful. "Oh, Kira, shush!" Gaynor yells, ineffectually. "She knows all the noises."

Then we are suddenly parking in a high, wide-open rural part of Glasgow called Cathkin Braes. It's always windy up here. But it's public parkland, ideal for dog walkers. Gaynor's is a bracing job. "People tell me I have great color in the cheeks."

A dozen dogs spill out of the vans and rush off in all directions. You feel like crying "Heathcliff! Heathcliff!" - except none of the dogs is named Heathcliff. "Dillon! Dillon!" (which Gaynor often does cry) doesn't have quite the same resonance.

Dogs are pack animals, I know. And this disparate bunch obviously knows it. You expect pack members to have a similar appearance. But not one dog (except the two setters) in this "pack" bears the slightest resemblance to any other. It's the same in the afternoon with the second run.

Each dog is known to Gaynor and Emma for its quirks. These two young women are dog-lovers as well as dog-walkers. Ironically, Gaynor's own dog has to be looked after by her mum and dad while she's looking after other people's dogs.

Gaynor and Emma know that non-dog-lovers will think they are crazy. They don't care. Without embarrassment they talk sweet nothings to the dogs, and address them as if they are unruly human infants.

Before she was laid off, Gaynor was a swimming instructor. You can tell by her voice. It carries well. Now she's using it to keep Tyler and others out of the water. She fails, of course. There are one or two infamously muddy patches up here, and the dogs go to them like bears to honey.

Other dogs have other quirks. Seamus is a digger-up of grass tufts. He is also, Gaynor says, "always last." When we turn for home, one by one the dogs are put on leashes, and a degree of order returns to the braes. But Seamus is 100 yards away. "Come on, Seamus!" yells Gaynor-the-Trainer (as her friends call her). "Sometime today would be good."

Chancer, a speckly mutt, must forever be told "Down! Down! Down!" Jess keeps a motherly eye on her older pal, Lucy, who is like a small black bear and takes her time going anywhere. Dodger is "a big hooligan." At the moment, he also has bad breath from eating something he shouldn't have. Gaynor isn't polite to him on the subject. He is not bothered.

Flinty the Lurcher barks and squeaks all the time, just because he barks and squeaks all the time. He means no harm.

Moll, the dalmatian, "bosses the boys." Mikey the retriever likes to roll in the mud. And then there's Beck. If Gaynor has a favorite, it's Beck. Beck has melting eyes and "is a total 'blowse' - a drama queen." She has more pet names for Beck than for any of the others. He is "Becks," "Becky Boy," "Beck Baby," or "Fluffy Bum" - a name derived from unavoidable observation.

I find it exhilarating in an exhausting sort of way, this day of going with the dogs. Gaynor and Emma are not so sure I'd enjoy it five days a week.

It all takes some organizing, but sometimes things do not go according to plan. Once Gaynor left all the keys at home. Another time she locked herself out of a client's house and had to climb in through a window.

And today contains its own little mistake. When we are back at Rankie's house, Gaynor suddenly exclaims in horror: "Oh! It's Wednesday! I don't pick up Rankie on Wednesdays!! What was I thinking?"

It doesn't matter. The owner's parents have arrived to dog-sit. When they found no dog to sit, they immediately assumed Gaynor had it. Nobody panicked.

Gaynor thinks of her service as rather like a school bus. On their first day, some owners "wave their dogs off." They ask Gaynor to phone in the evening to let them know how their dog "got on."

Does she miss swimming? Yes, she admits, she does. This new profession is no soft option. "I work sometimes till 9 at night. I'm shattered when the day ends. Fit only for the remote!"

But I'd say going to the dogs suits her swimmingly.

First in an occasional series observing people doing their jobs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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