Outward Bound

Lucky dogs

It's midday at the Genesee off-leash area—otherwise known as the dog park—and 40 or so dogs are sprinting after tennis balls, roughhousing in the sand, and generally chasing around like kids at a playground.

But the humans aren't lavishing much attention on these happy pooches. For the most part at this time of day, this place is strictly for professionals: the dog walkers.

How do you tell a dog walker? Look for the tools of the trade: cell phone; pooper-scooper; and a Chuckit!--a labor-saving plastic contraption for slinging tennis balls.

The Genesee dog park plays host to approximately 10 professional dog walker companies—Slobbering Hearts, Tailwag Services, Pup's Play, and Animal Junction, to name a few—who offer pickup and return service from the park. The term dog walker is a misnomer since most don't do leash walks; instead, they visit one of Seattle's nine off-leash areas, which offer much better exercise and socializing opportunities for dogs.

A van emanating muffled barking pulls up, and all ears and noses in the dog park point in rapt attention. A moment later, a pack of excited dogs storms through the double gate, followed closely by their walker. "It's like a tornado entering the dog park," says Lisa Decker, here with eight dogs, about the brief commotion. Much sniffing and tail wagging ensue as newcomers are greeted.

Like a neighborhood dry cleaner or grocery, dog walking is a steady and serious business. Many dog walkers are trained in dog CPR, carry first-aid kits, and are well versed in appropriate discipline and training.

"Most dog owners who hire us feel about their dogs like they would about children," says Decker. Many of her clients are young couples who work long hours. When the economy took a dive, Decker expected to lose clients who wouldn't be able to afford her services ($15 per day, twice a week). Instead, she found that her dog owners weren't about to skip having their dogs exercised. "These dogs have great lives," she says.

Decker, 25, a dog owner herself, worked as a costume designer for stage and film before starting her dog walking business. "I remember thinking, 'I'm spending more on my dog than on food!'" Now she handles about 30 dogs per week, giving her a comfortable income and a fun job.

"I have a couple dogs that can jump the fence," she says. "But who wants to leave the dog park?"

Dog walkers post ads at the dog parks. For information on dog parks, check the Citizens for Off-Leash Areas Web site, www.coladog.org.

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