the secret life of dog walkers

buenos aires, argentina

 

 

 

 

Pamela Clemente with her charges in a park in Buenos Aires.

This Job Gives Her Paws

 

* Up to 72 of them, in fact. Pamela Clemente is one of Buenos Aires' legion of paseaperros, or dog walkers. She must be alpha and analyst.

 

BUENOS AIRES -- Homero is a working dog, a Labrador retriever with a lot on his mind.

 

Five days a week his job takes him up and down the streets of this dog-crazy city, past cafes and apartment towers, around angry doormen and reckless cabdrivers. The responsibility, added to a personal trauma or two, may be what's caused a few of the light-brown hairs on his head to turn prematurely gray.

 

Homero belongs to Pamela Clemente, a 22-year-old part-time ballerina and full-time dog walker. With Homero as her escort, Clemente walks as many as 17 other dogs, all at once, gripping a clutch of leashes in her hand, tying the rest to her waist, guiding her charges through this city's ritzy Palermo district.

 

That a petite woman such as Clemente can control several hundred pounds of anxious, barking, full-bladdered canine mass is a testament to her mastery of the art of the paseaperro, as dog walkers here are known.

 

The paseaperro is a Buenos Aires fixture often photographed by awe-struck American and European tourists who can't fathom how one person can keep so many dogs moving obediently along. The secret, Clemente says, is understanding dog psychology. And having a dog on your side. That's where Homero comes in.

 

"Homero is 5 years old and he's already starting to look old," Clemente says as she walks from one apartment building to the next, picking up her clients.

 

"Poor guy. It's the work. You see this other dog over here," she says, pointing to another Lab in her group. "He's 5 too. And not a single gray hair."

 

On one cool day during the Southern Hemisphere autumn, Homero floats freely around the group of 13 leashed dogs Clemente leads in a harried dash along the sidewalks of Palermo. (Three of her regulars are in heat and can't go out; a fourth is expecting puppies.) Their destination is the relative bliss of Las Heras Park.

 

Human and animals walk together in a rugby-like scrum of 58 legs moving forward in something resembling synchronicity.

 

One of the keys to staying untangled, Clemente says, is organization. So she keeps the smaller dogs to her left, attached to the rope that wraps around her waist. "Come on, midgets! Let's go, midgets!" she calls out more than once.

 

A beagle named Pam squishes in between a pair of cocker spaniels. When the pack stops, Pam gives the nearest human a sad, worried stare. She doesn't seem the least bit excited to be going for a walk with a bunch of dogs that are bigger than her. Her brown eyes seem to ask, "Are we going to make it through this?"

 

The bigger dogs are on Clemente's right, including an Irish setter named Icarus and a collie grandfather named Bamboo with abundant (and exquisitely groomed) white and caramel hair.

 

"If you're not careful, the smaller ones will get scared and try to hide underneath the others, and then they'll all get tangled up and start pulling backward," Clemente says. "If people see a dog walker with the dogs all smashed up, they'll start cussing you out. They'll say: 'What are you doing to those poor dogs! Go get a real job!' "

 

Buenos Aires residents indulge and pamper their dogs perhaps more than any other Latin Americans. In many better-off neighborhoods, there are more veterinary offices and pet supply stores than pharmacies. Local radio and television air several weekly programs for dog aficionados.

 

An estimated half a million dogs live among the 14 million humans in greater Buenos Aires -- a canine population roughly equal to that of New York City, home to 100,000 licensed dogs and an estimated 400,000 unlicensed ones. As in New York, most dogs here are owned by apartment dwellers. With labor relatively cheap in the Argentine capital, a dog walker can be had for as little as a dollar a day, and the ranks of the paseaperros have increased dramatically in recent years.

 

The walkers can talk for hours about canine psychology, and how the paseaperro helps even the most domesticated cur get in touch with his inner wolf. They will tell you that Irish setters, with instincts honed on the meadows of the Emerald Isle, and retrievers bred to frolic in marshes, were simply not meant to live in spaces designed for nothing more strenuous than afternoon tea.

 

"On Mondays the dogs wake up at 7 in the morning," said Gabriel Arrieta, a dog walker and a friend of Clemente's. "They know what day it is and know we're coming. They've been inside all weekend and they're ready."

 

The owners know that keeping a dog shut in too long makes the animal neurotico.

 

Clemente and other high-end dog walkers charge about $35 per month per dog. The consensus among them is that 24 or so is the limit on how many dogs one person can control.

 

The law establishes an eight-dog limit per walker, and also a fine (about $70) for those who fail to curb their animals. But like so many other laws here, the canine code is rarely enforced.

 

"I used to have 24 [dogs], but I didn't have the training I have now and I lost some customers because people saw me screaming at the dogs," said Clemente's ex-boyfriend and fellow dog walker Leonel Echenique, who now has 14 customers.

 

Every morning, the paseaperros pick up their hounds from Palermo's apartment buildings and make for the local park, navigating several blocks of city streets to get there -- by far the most stressful part of the job.

 

"If you're not careful, one of your dogs might jump in front of a bus," Clemente says. In Buenos Aires, drivers rarely defer to pedestrians. You can never be certain if that next car coming around the corner will stop for humans and animals crossing the street.

 

On the sidewalks, the paseaperros are often vilified.

 

"People curse at me all the time," Clemente says. "The doormen cuss and say they're going to throw poop at my back. Their whole life is cleaning and waxing those sidewalk tiles in front of their buildings. They get obsessed with it. Then a dog walker comes along.... We're the enemy to them."

 

It only takes a quick glance at the sidewalks of Palermo to see that, in the daily war between the doormen and the paseaperros, the doormen are getting clobbered. There's hardly a stretch of sidewalk that isn't peppered with the foul-smelling memory of a dog's visit.

 

Local lore has it that stepping in dog excrement brings good luck. Not everyone believes it.

 

"That's something some politician made up to keep from cleaning the sidewalk," says La Nelly, the title character in a popular Buenos Aires comic strip.

 

In a series of recent strips, La Nelly becomes so frustrated with the bad habits of the neighborhood dogs that she decides to defend her stretch of sidewalk with a chain saw. She charges pedestrians a toll for the pleasure of a feces-free walk.

 

Clemente carries several plastic bags in her pockets to pick up her dogs' droppings. If there's a trash can nearby, she'll toss them inside. If there isn't, she'll toss them into the street. Sometimes, she doesn't bother to do anything at all.

 

One of her dogs, a Labrador puppy coincidentally named Homero (he's "Little Homero" to Clemente) has relieved himself in the middle of a crosswalk on busy Coronel Diaz Avenue. Clemente keeps moving forward. She guides her dogs around schoolchildren and past police and newspaper vendors.

 

As long as Clemente is around and holding the leashes, the dogs don't fight.

 

"In this group, I'm the alpha" dog, Clemente explains. "There's no hierarchy among them because I'm the highest and they pay attention to me."

 

Homero may not be an alpha dog, but he is a respected leader whose calm demeanor mellows the rest of the pack. When Clemente leaves small groups of dogs tied to a lamppost so she can pick up others from the high-rise apartment buildings, Homero is in charge.

 

But when they arrive at the park, Homero suddenly sprints away. "He's going to see his father," Clemente says. That's Clemente's ex, Echenique.

 

Homero is still feeling the effects of the breakup of his "parents," who raised him from puppyhood. "Poor guy, it's caused him a lot of stress," Clemente says.

 

The split, she believes, is another source of Homero's prematurely gray hair.

 

She ties three dogs to the iron fence that surrounds a jungle gym and lets the other 10 run loose. As she joins two other paseaperros on a bench for some human socializing, her dogs begin two hours of snuggling, sniffing, barking, snarling, running, jumping and wrestling.

 

Spreading out over about 40 acres, the park's paths, benches and lawns offer ample room for the hundreds of dogs who gather there every morning, along with a small number of hardy people without mutts who don't mind the nonstop barking. The park becomes a kind of extended dog village. Canine friendships are renewed -- as are old, cross-breed enmities. When things get out of hand, a near riot can ensue.

 

One side of the park holds a fenced-in area just for dogs, "but only bad dogs go there," Clemente explains. If two dogs start fighting there, "in a moment there could be 80 dogs fighting. And then the fights spread to the rest of the park."

 

Keeping order in her own small group is the reason she's tied the three dogs to the fence.

 

The first is Diogenes, a bad-tempered Skye terrier who has been ostracized by the rest of the group. "He's neurotic and a little aggressive," Clemente says. "The other dogs hate him. If I let him go, the other dogs will bite his ears."

 

The second is a black cocker spaniel named Tucho, who lets out a long, slow wail.

 

"Tucho sounds sad," a visitor offers.

 

"No, he's just craving attention," Clemente says. "He wants the other dogs to come to him, but they ignore him. He barks so much at the other dogs that they just say, "You don't want to play, so get lost.' "

 

And Nala, a beagle, is tied up for the simple reason that she lives in a building across the street from the unfenced park: If set loose, she'll take off running for home, and could head straight into traffic.

 

The other dogs are free to indulge their canine passions.

 

Pancho, a cocker spaniel, runs in circles with another cocker whose owner brings him to the park every day so the two can play together.

 

There's a lot of "dominant-passive" behavior involving simple wrestling on the grass. The passive dogs throw themselves on their backs, which means "I surrender" in dog.

 

Sometimes Clemente picks up an old plastic bottle and throws it, and half a dozen canines attempt to fetch it.

 

"People think this is easy work, but you have to be constantly vigilant," Clemente says. "I'm always looking around to count how many dogs there are."

 

Every paseaperro in Buenos Aires fears the notorious dog thieves who snatch valuable breeds for ransom or resale.

 

Just before noon, it's time for the dogs to go home. Even before they leave, the animals look worn out.

 

"As soon as they get home they fall down and sleep for five hours," Clemente says.

 

They doze off in living rooms next to sofas and on the tile floors of bathrooms. No one can say where the hounds of Buenos Aires roam in their dog dreams. Perhaps they howl at the moon like wolves, or simply lie on their backs as their masters rub their tummies and coo "Good boy!"

 

Or perhaps they are thinking of tomorrow, of Homero and Clemente, and of running through the open lawns again without their leashes