When I was a kid – the last time I had a dog – exercising your dog meant playing in the backyard or a walk in the park. After adopting Jasmine, I found out that things had changed. Big time. As I walked Jazzy through the neighborhood, other dog owners began telling me about local dog parks and asking me if I had a good dog walker. While I knew about dog parks and dog walkers, I hadn’t realized they were a necessary part of owning a dog in the modern world. Because I work mostly from home, I figured a dog walker wasn’t necessary. Wrong. A four-month-old puppy has no concept of “Mom has to get some writing done,” and I found myself trying to play tug-o-war with one hand and type with the other. Walks around the neighborhood and in the park also weren’t enough – when I watched my first episode of The Dog Whisperer, I learned from Cesar Millan that dogs need to play with other dogs so they become properly socialized. It’s called “pack mentality,” and it’s especially important for pit bulls.
On a warm August day, Jazz and I headed out to the Corona Heights dog park for the first time, a large, enclosed area with beautiful views of The City. The minute I let Jazzy off leash, I understood exactly what Cesar was saying: She joined a big group of dogs chasing each other up and down the hills and around in circles; she tussled with another pit bull mix about her age; she wore herself to a frazzle and had a blast, and I had a blast watching her. That night, she snored louder than any boyfriend I’ve ever had, and the next morning I couldn’t wake her up; she was still wiped out from her amazing time at the dog park. Later, we headed back to Corona Heights. The park was full of dogs, but not their owners. This time the dogs were in the care of professionals.
After several trips to the park, I started to chat with some of the walkers, all of whom saw right away that I was a new dog mom. Most had plenty of dogs, but a few began circling me like sharks smelling chum. They produced business cards from their treat bags and told me that they loved pit bulls. It became clear that I did indeed need a dog walker just so that I could get some work done, so I began interviewing them as they interviewed me. What seemed like an easy task turned out to be as hard as finding good daycare for your children. A fairly large percentage of dog walkers didn’t own their own dogs, which seemed odd to me. If I had a job that allowed me to spend all day at the dog park, I’d want a dog of my own. An equally large percentage of walkers had dogs of their own, but couldn’t bring them to the park because they didn’t play well with others. The ones I liked the best, of course, had a full schedule of clients. My head was spinning.
One day I noticed a beautiful wolf hybrid enter the park, followed by a border collie and an unusual lab-husky mix. Behind them was a woman carrying a Jack Russell terrier on her shoulder and holding the leashes of eight or nine calm, controlled dogs. I watched her with her pack, but especially with the four best-behaved dogs in the park, which happened to be her personal dogs. Using only voice command, she instructed the wolf, the border collie, the mix, and the Jack Russell to come to her side. They did so without treats. All laid beside her calmly. The woman told me that her name was Elisa Baker; she had been walking and training dogs professionally for 10 years, but grew up in Los Angeles working with a neighbor named Rudd Weatherwax to train dogs and horses. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Weatherwax was the trainer of TV’s Lassies.) All of Elisa’s dogs were rescues; the wolf hybrid and the Jack Russell were behavior problem animals nearly euthanized because no one could handle them. Looking at the wolf now, as she basked calmly in the sunshine, it was hard to believe. The Jack Russell was the newest addition to the pack and still a work in progress, but for the breed – which tends to be neurotic and have more juice than the Energizer Bunny – she was amazing.
One of Elisa’s clients had just moved away, so she had room in her pack for one more, and she took Jasmine on three days a week. On the weekends, I would go to the park with Jazz, and a few people pulled me aside and told me that Elisa was the most “controversial dog walker in San Francisco.” I could tell from dealing with her that she was tough and no-nonsense, but she was also very outspoken. Her organization, Defender of Dogs, had renovated the park at Corona Heights when The City wouldn’t, raising funds with an annual “Dog Kabob” party and “Splash and Dash” dog wash. The controversy stemmed from Elisa’s refusal to back down when owners or other walkers couldn’t manage their dogs. Most people using the park appreciated that she did their dirty work for them – demanding that aggressive, unaltered dogs leave the park; filing reports with Animal Care and Control against irresponsible walkers; speaking out at the animal welfare commission meetings; never shying from confrontation when the best interest of animals was at stake – however, the people she clashed with were openly disdainful. Like her or not, Elisa’s best endorsement was her four perfectly behaved, happy, beautiful dogs.
“She’s terrible with people,” the owner of a Boston terrier said one Saturday in the park. “But she’s great with dogs.”
Because she was walking Jasmine and not her mom; that was good enough for me.