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It's no Walk in the Park

The humans are scarce – it's the middle of the day after all – but those in attendance have a job to do. The rank-and-file dog walkers who live and work in Toronto frequent the city's 25 off-leash areas open to dog walkers, offering advice on everything from canine nutrition and health to discipline and exercise. According to the city's bylaw department, only 209 of them have permits, though. And Jenny Wisenberg, owner of Toronto dog walking company The Bark Zone, guesstimates the real number is at least double that.

The rest are either walking the required three dogs or less, or taking their chances with a $365 fine.

In 2009, animal services enforcement officers handed out 67 tickets. The city's main aim for policing dog walkers is less about revenue and more about ensuring adequate insurance, says Bruce Hawkins, media relations officer for the dog/bylaw department.

The annual licence is $200, but to get one you must have insurance (about $600 a year) for third-party liability, in case your dog bites someone, gets into an accident or the client's keys are lost. To get insurance, you must be a registered business and file income tax.

For serious dog walkers it's a business – and at $16 a pop for an hour's walk, and 15 to 20 dogs five days a week, quite a lucrative one, too.

But like any business, there's outlay, like a vehicle to pick up the dogs, start-up costs and months of no income while building clientele.

There are obstacles, too. Of the city's 37 designated off-leash areas, only 25 permit commercial dog walkers. So if you're not living in Forest Hill, Riverdale, the Beach or High Park where parks, lakeshore and ravines are natural terrain for dogs, it's drover time as you herd canines down city side streets.

Space is an issue – and the phrase "off leash" is the proverbial red flag.

"Don't get me started," says Wisenberg. "Dogs need to be off-leash so they can socialize, but most parks are congested and don't contribute to healthy dog development. Sherwood Park, for example, is more a trail where dogs can walk along but not play. Cedarvale and Winston Churchill are like dust bowls filled with dogs so bored they dig and fight."

A walker is responsible for controlling the dogs and grouping dogs is a skill, developed once you walk them and learn their temperament, says Wisenberg.

Even so, some dogs don't make the grade and aggression will get them banished from groups and into "specialized services" – private walks at $25 for half an hour.

It takes a special personality to walk dogs, says Dianne Eibner, who has been walking dogs in Toronto for two decades.

"You need to be calm, confident, have lots of energy and the commitment to stick with it through rain and sleet and ice," she says.

People skills come in handy, too.

"These people aren't just trusting you with their pets, they're also giving you the key to their house," Eibner adds. "More than friendly, you need to be reliable."

That goes for the public. In the '90s, she founded the Professional Dog Walkers Association, partly to ensure better conditions for walkers, like being able to get insurance, but also to improve public perception. Things have improved since then (the association merged in 2007 with the American Canine Professional Association), but some negative perceptions persist.

"We can get blamed for poo in a park," Eibner says. "But the reality is, dog walkers often pick up everyone else's poop so the park is clean. And when we arrive the next morning, it's often dirty again."

No doubt, poo is probably the worst part of the job, Wisenberg says. Picking it up is one thing, but "it's the poo eating that's really gross." While the jury's out on why dogs eat feces, the ones who do "have to be muzzled."

Add that to the occasional projectile vomit, rolling in dead fish or animals, or plunging through muddy puddles. It's no wonder dog walkers never look their best.

"Definitely not sexy," laughs Alexa Doran, who started in the business last summer. "On top of the seven layers of clothing and big fuzzy hat, I'm covered in dog drool most of the time."

But she's having too much fun to complain. "If it's a nice day, we stay out longer. The dogs love it. I love it. And it beats a desk job."

After university, Doran worked in a bank. When she and her actor husband moved to the Beach and couldn't find a dog walker, A Dog Day at the Beach was born.

For a while, her little Honda Civic was pressed into service, but that defeated the purpose. "I was spending all my time behind a wheel."

Now that she picks up on foot, those hour-long walks turn into three hours or more. Seven dogs need walking in two groups, so at $80 a week per dog she's working almost full time, but not exactly getting rich.

The pros and cons are described in Eibner's book, The Face in the Window.

Meant as a deterrent – "if you still want to be a dog walker after reading my book, you have what it takes" – it also lays out pluses.

"There is nothing like pulling up in a driveway and seeing that eager face in the window waiting for you."

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