CONFESSIONS OF A DOG WALKER
A deer had bolted to the right of the path, and Tasha, one of two skittish and perpetually frightened Belgian Shepherds, had given chase as if it had been her calling from the day she was born. I was entrusted to exercise the dogs, off leash whenever possible. And now I had lost one. The mule deer doe had pranced, stiff-legged and leaping, up and over the mountain in moments. Tasha was just gone, last seen taking the same general trajectory, bursting through the brush instead of over it, heedless of my shouts, my whistles, my curses. Below was a stretch of the Pacific hugging the Malibu coast. Above, despite the development of homes and streets and traffic nearby, were the Santa Monica Mountains, rugged, hard scrabble desert terrain – a place where deer still thrive. The second dog, Ginger, had not run. We had nearly reached the truck, and she was already constrained by the leash. In a few seconds, Tasha would have been as well. I put Ginger in the back of the truck, closed the camper top, and drove to her home a short distance away. If I caught a break, Tasha would be in the driveway waiting for us.
She was not there.
Still holding out for a hint of luck, I dropped Ginger into her fenced yard without informing the owner of the circumstances. I returned to the trail and hiked its entirety a second time, and then a third. Tasha had been missing an hour. My whistles and calls literally echoed in the canyons. Steady traffic roared along the Pacific Coast Highway. Desolation loomed in the mountains. Of the two directions, I hoped Tasha continued onto high ground.
Another dog vanished from my sight on a regular basis. It was Harry’s routine to leave the trail where we walked in Topanga, only to rendezvous now and then, touch base, and torpedo his way into the undergrowth once again. Harry, a mixed breed whose background is open to interpretation, is a boisterous and goodhearted jester belonging to my neighbor. Harry frequently accompanies me with the other dogs I exercise. A handsome Great Dane head with ears straight up in the air sits atop a tan and black brindle barrel-chested torso the general size of a big spaniel. Other hikers invariably want to know Harry’s heritage. The shelter from which he was adopted hadn’t a clue. Is he Dingo? Pit bull? Small children have mistaken him for a hyena. I once spotted Harry galloping across a ridge in the company of two coyotes, one ahead of him on the run, one behind. Certainly he would be gone for good this day, devoured or run to the point of exhaustion. But like in a clever cartoon, the lead coyote ducked suddenly behind a bush. Harry continued straight ahead, and the wild animal doubled back, taking his cohort with him. Wildlife could one day be Harry’s downfall. He has charged into the ocean at the sight of a sea lion, and chased a bobcat up a tree. But he so loves to run, it is a risk taken by dog and owner. Harry possesses a keen sense of direction. When he disappears, he is not lost. He always returns. I had no confidence in Tasha’s knowledge of the geography.
If Tasha encountered a coyote on her trail, they would eat her on the spot. She is a dog that whimpers and cries in alarm when you reach out a hand to pat her gently on the head. Coyote droppings, black, entwined with the fur of their prey and encrusted with seeds, peppered the length of the trail. Tasha was bound to meet one.
I have learned to be alert to the dogs as I walk them. Like driving a car, the immediate area is the biggest threat of hazards, but the distance should be scanned constantly as well. Surprises along the trail are rarely pleasant. It pays to know the path -the patches of poison oak, the steep drop-offs into dry creek beds, the encounters with rattlesnakes and other dogs of unknown temperament. (I have found the Napoleonic Jack Russell terrier to be particularly aggressive.) If nothing else, taking care when placing one’s steps can prevent a twisted ankle. Harry, well behaved and leashed, was bitten on a street in Topanga by a dog charging out of a yard. The owner tried to explain that her dog considered the street its territory. I told her that her dog could think he was Queen Victoria for all I cared. He simply could not be allowed to attack other dogs.
Another thing to keep in mind while in the company of dogs, is that, to a dog, the trail is a grocery aisle with free samples all along the way. The dog eats whatever interests him, and rarely rolls in the aromatic and abundant rosemary and fennel when enticed by mud, fresh feces, and the decaying carcasses of dead animals. The dog’s perks are the walker’s nuisances.
It is easy to think about things other than the task at hand. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining. You’re at the beach with three retrievers who love the water. They are no longer bound by the confines of their yard, playing with tennis balls. The dogs have discovered their element, fetching sticks as Nature intended. Jagger the weimeraner is especially proficient. If intelligence were measured solely on the ability to retrieve, and the tenacity to continue beyond any expectation, this particular animal should be given Einstein’s notebooks to decipher in his spare time. Jagger’s companions, Walter and Lizzie, are two genial white labs, twelve year old litter mates nearly the size of polar bears. We had played for an hour or more, in the water and out. Walter and Lizzie insisted on rescuing me each time I ventured into the ocean. They were not satisfied until I seized one of them by the tail, to be towed to the safety of the shore. I was giving us all a break. Absently, I threw a rock as far into the Pacific as I could. Instantly, Jagger was in the surf, swimming away toward the horizon. He spotted a piece of floating kelp some forty yards out, seized it in his mouth, and whipped around for the return to the beach.
Beyond the dog, a single wave made an appearance, cresting, six feet in height as it rolled toward the beach. I called and encouraged Jagger to outrace it, but he couldn’t. The water enveloped him in a crash of foam. The weimeraner completely disappeared. I thought of the William Wegman photos of weimeraners as blushing brides or bicyclists. Jagger was a Wegman nightmare – the weimeraner as ocean daredevil.
I had found the easiest job in the world, and I had managed to screw it up.
The white water subsided, and there was Jagger, making a beeline toward shore. Even Walter and Lizzie were encouraged by his appearance. They ran to greet him. Jagger never slowed. He dropped the kelp at my feet, and waited for the next throw. This particular incident was a lesson for me. I’ve kept a close eye on my dogs ever since.
I broke the news to Tasha’s owner. The woman was very understanding. She told me that Tasha had done this a year or two in the past. She would have run off if the owner herself had been with her on the trail. I had to leave, but promised to be back in the afternoon to continue the search. The owner herself is too weak from treatments of an illness to walk out and about in the brush. Locating Tasha would be up to me, and to Tasha.
I am cautious of the next pair of dogs. Bear is completely white, and close to a hundred pounds. Betsy is somewhat smaller, with tan and gray markings. They are half wolf. The female is especially affectionate. But she has torn into him on more than one occasion for no apparent reason. And Bear is so protective of his sister that he can be beyond reason. Harry knows the wolf dogs. He is fond of Betsy. He once clowned with her on a beach walk. Bear attacked in an instant. I knew that Harry’s playful chase and leaps at the female were not threatening. They were to Bear. I intervened, and Bear showed his teeth and snarled at me.
What does he think? How does he interpret me? When the wolf dog looks upon you, head lowered, eyes raised, you have been gazed upon by centuries of predators. Can he know that he is only a dog? The more I am around these two, snapping on the leash whenever we’re in the company of another dog, I can find no rationale for their existence. People purposely continue to breed dogs with wolves. To do so is playing with dynamite. And yet these two magnificent creatures are as enthusiastic as any of my dogs at the approach of my truck. The highlight of their day is to run in my company. I sit on the ground with them, between them, and they are all over me, leaping, begging to have their bellies rubbed. If only I were so appealing to women. Betsy and Bear are good dogs. I simply do not trust them.
I had been taking them into a piece of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, a patchwork of tracts that allow the hiker more than twenty undisturbed miles on foot or mountain bike. Betsy and Bear have explored only the initial three miles with me. There isn’t sufficient time to go farther. The area remains wild. The Johnnie Weismueller Tarzan movies were filmed near here, as were all the exteriors for MASH. The terrain can still fool you into thinking you’re in the middle of nowhere - deep gorges, steep cliffs, waterfalls tumbling out of mountains when it rains. I had developed the habit of picking up litter as I walked, emptying my pockets in the can at the parking area. This was my park, and I didn’t want anyone fouling it.
When we returned to the truck, a ranger awaited me. I had encountered the man the previous week. He had spotted me with the dogs, and had seen the sign advertising my services on the truck. At that time, he had told me I would need a permit to operate a commercial business on federal land. I had called his office about the permit, and had left a message on a voice mail. The ranger now had an answer for me. The government had declared an indefinite moratorium on the type of permit I needed.
“So I don’t need a permit?”
“No. You still need the permit.”
“But I can’t have one?”
“Correct. You are no longer allowed to walk dogs in any of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area.”
This was turning into quite a day. I had already lost a dog. Now I had been evicted from Tarzan’s escarpment. It wasn’t as if I had wanted to strip mine Yellowstone. I was walking two dogs outside of Malibu. Yet the sanction made no distinction. I wondered how many dog walkers were serving hard time in Leavenworth.
I still had the California state park system. Leo Carrilllo State Park occupies a canyon and a stretch of the coast farther up the highway. The park bears the name of the actor best known as The Cisco Kid’s sidekick Pancho. But Carrillo was the state parks commissioner for nearly twenty years as well. His foresight in purchasing and developing parkland for California was responsible for a wonderful legacy of unspoiled land. It would cost me time to reach the park, but it was a viable alternative, and a beautiful one. (I had purchased an annual pass, which allows unlimited access for the day use of any park within the system – a bargain at seventy-five dollars when an individual entry costs six.) Many of the state parks allow dogs. Weekdays find Leo Carrillo virtually empty. Although Jagger, Walter, and Lizzie must be leashed here, they move along the packed sand at such a clip that they do not object to the restriction.
My preference with the dog leash is the extendable cord type that retracts into a plastic handle in the manner of a metal tape measure. After the initial excitement of being free of the truck, the dogs rarely tangle themselves. The two labs share one line with a tandem snap on its end. The weimeraner trots on the second leash. If Harry is along for the hike, he is tied to my belt on a third leash. Any additional dogs and leashes become unmanageable. I once encountered another dog walking service. Four walkers marginally controlled a group of twenty dogs in a tangle of leashes. None of the people or the animals seemed to be enjoying the outing a great deal. They resembled a forced march or a manhunt more than a stroll in the outdoors. I work alone. Four dogs, four very agreeable dogs, are my capacity for a single walk. During the transport of the animals, I segregate groups by use of a kennel crate in the back, plus the front seat. If the dogs do not live in the same home, they do not ride openly together packed inside the camper.
Checking my answering machine, I found no news of Tasha. But there was a call from an occasional customer of mine in Santa Monica. She wanted to know whether I could squeeze her dog into that morning’s schedule. The owner is a young actress who just landed a recurring role in her first TV series. So the dog is walked two or three days in succession, and then not at all while the actress remains at home with her. Barrow is a beautiful golden retriever. She is just about as pretty a dog as you’ll see anywhere. A focused, nearly perpetually wrinkled brow suggests a curiosity, intelligence and enthusiasm that I find appealing. However, she can be stubborn. I let myself into the condominium where Barrow lives. For close to a minute, I am invariably a foreign intruder to her. She won’t have anything to do with me. If she could speak, her words would be, “I won’t go. I won’t go. I won’t go. I won’t.” Then she runs to me, and races me to the front door. Outside, she looks in the back of the truck, then at me. “You want me in there? Is that the deal?” I have to pick her up off the ground and place her on the tailgate of the truck. Then she settles in, her face at the camper’s cracked air vent as we ride.
I remained concerned about Tasha, but at the moment felt absolutely helpless in tracking her down. Yet, giving her time to return home on her own could mean her doom.
We arrived at Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades. Barrow and I made a lap around the perimeter of the polo field, beneath the enormous eucalyptus trees there, and approached the Will Rogers home. I would like to turn her loose there in the acres of open ground, but such freewheeling shenanigans are not allowed. It’s an urban state park, surrounded by homes. Yet even on a leash, Barrow moves at a strenuous and athletic pace. She is not trained in any particular method, and tugs hard on her restraint. We ended up by the stables, and admired the polo ponies boarded there. The walk was perfectly pleasant and uneventful, as each of them should be.
For a time, when a couple of customers had dropped my services, I walked only one dog each day. This was an Old English Sheepdog that spun in a tight circle and barked constantly the entire time she rode in the rear of the truck, as excited as a man about to be shot out of a cannon. Daisy was difficult to read, to know where her excitement ended and her madness began. I would love to be possessed by the mind of a dog, just to experience its world. With Daisy, I would take a pass on the opportunity. To compensate for the drop in income with only a large spinning dog to support me, I took on a second job, using my truck to make deliveries for a florist in Malibu. I still had the job, and headed in that direction after taking Barrow home.
Luckily, the delivery day was light, and I finished by four in the afternoon. I had no responsibility for the dogs I encountered now. I was in and out of the customer’s doorway in moments. If a dog greeted me, it was usually with a wagging tail. Pierce Brosnan’s friendly Doberman gladly took a biscuit from my fingers. Barbra Streisand’s German Shepherd mix barked ferociously at my arrival, sounding off until I left the premises. I have been bitten on this job, when I once turned my back on a sneaky little boxer. When encountering dogs I do not know, I find the best advice is a Jamaican proverb. “When a dog is facing you, he is Mister Dog.”
I swung by Tasha’s home. The dog’s owner told me she had been praying for her return, but there had been no sign of her throughout the day. Plenty of daylight remained. I suggested that I go to the exact spot Tasha was last seen. I would take a climb up the mountain in the general direction in which she had chased the deer.
I snapped a bottle of water to my belt, and brought along a leash, a police whistle, and binoculars from the truck. The day had remained overcast. The cooler temperature must have been easier on a dog in the open country, especially if she couldn’t find a drink. Still, I pictured her immobile somewhere, her collar snagged to a bush. And I couldn’t keep thinking of an article about mountain lions from the Topanga paper some months ago. A woman found one of the big cats in her back yard, stretched out on the roof of her rabbit hutch, making itself very much at home. The mountain lion isn’t plentiful in these mountains, yet it does remain. I was not optimistic about Tasha surviving the night.
I began the climb. The footing was slippery with loose gravel, and so steep that I had to pull myself along on shrubbery, and zigzag back and forth in order to make any progress at all. The peak was probably no more than a hundred and fifty feet above me, yet it took an hour to reach it. Tasha had covered the ground in less than a minute, the deer in the blink of an eye. I had already walked eleven or twelve miles before beginning the climb. I could feel the distance now in my knees, in my calf and thigh muscles. On the top, I scanned the other side with the binoculars. The canyon revealed no movement. The sound of the whistle was merely lost in the atmosphere. Somewhere along the climb, I had begun to carry a stick. I swore if I found the dog, I would snap the leash onto her collar, and beat her soundly with the stick. I made one strike against the palm of my hand, judged it to be too severe, and threw the stick away.
This was desolate territory. The coast above and below Malibu is a series of canyons leading to the ocean, with names like Topanga, Tuna, Encinal, and Solstice. Last year, hikers in Decker Canyon found a wrecked van with the skeletal remains of its driver inside. The victim, the bass player for the music group Iron Butterfly, had been missing four years. That’s how rugged and isolated this land could be. How could I expect to find one dog lying low somewhere in all of that?
I traversed the length of the ridge and found a place to sit at the end of it, remaining motionless, scanning the ground, blowing the whistle. All I had accomplished was the elimination one small patch of ground from the search area. Circling the far side of the ridge I had climbed proved much quicker than the upward ascent. I meandered back to the truck and drove to Tasha’s house. I told the dog’s owner that I would drive up and down a couple of nearby canyons before darkness descended. At night, there would be nothing any of us could do.
I ended up miles from where Tasha had disappeared, accomplishing little more than resting my knees from the climb. I called in from home, not surprised that the dog was still missing. Again, the owner stressed that I was not to blame. I still felt lousy about the circumstances.
Undressing, I pulled off three ticks attached to my waist. I took three ibuprofen tablets, climbed into a hot bath, and drank a beer.
At five in the morning, the telephone rang. Tasha’s owner was on the line, She told me that the dog had just found her way home. She was very thirsty, and covered with briars. Otherwise, she appeared to be unharmed.
I could have waited a couple of hours to hear it, but it was still great news.
Later in the week, I had stopped with the weimeraner and two labs on the bluff above El Pescador Beach. A sign in the lot had read NO DOGS ALLOWED ON BEACH. Someone had vandalized it to read 10 DOGS ALLOWED ON BEACH. Still, I stayed in the meadow above where I knew we were legal. Activity offshore had caught my eye, and I put the binoculars on the spot to see what might be going on. It was a feeding frenzy, from pelicans above, and dolphins below. I judged that ten dolphins were having their meal. I scanned to the left and right – ten more, and ten more. My final estimate numbered three hundred dolphins, an army sweeping through. I’ve seen a dozen gray whales this season as well, sea lions, golden eagles, hummingbirds by the score, cobalt blue scrub jays warming their breasts in the morning sun, California quail ushering their chicks to safety, and a tundra swan. I’ve done office work in the past, but can’t imagine returning to a fifteen-minute break twice a day, shuffling papers.
Lizzie the white lab nuzzled my hand, ready to run. I haven’t had a dog of my own since my spirited Irish Setter Stormfield died just shy of his thirteenth birthday. In the past year, I’ve lost another to old age, and one to a speeding car. But even though they weren’t mine, and I learned of their demise from their real owners, a sadness lingers at the thought of them. I am not responsible for people’s most valuable possessions, just their most valued.
© Michael Zagst