Gone Walkabout: Confessions of a New York City Dog Walker

An interview with Michael Brandow, author of a new and very insightful book.

Posted May 28, 2019

"Dog walking is the best gig in town. Imagine, getting to hang out with these wonderful creatures all day, and then getting paid for the privilege! I’ve shared the sadness of having to let them go."

I've spent countless hours watching dogs and their humans at various venues, including on the streets of places I called home, at a good number of dog parks, and on hiking trails. In addition to learning a lot about the behavior of dogs and the nature of dog<-->human interactions, I've also learned a lot about the people themselves. (See Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.) I recently read an extremely interesting and insightful book by Michael Brandow called Gone Walkabout: Confessions of a New York City Dog Walker that will be of interest to a broad audience of people, especially perhaps to those who have or have had the good fortune of sharing their lives with a canine companion. The book's description aptly tells us what Mr. Brandow's latest book is all about. It reads, "Pounding the pavements of downtown Manhattan for twenty years and always on the move, a gnarly, scruffy-faced dog walker took time at the end of each day to keep a journal...Woven with endearing accounts of the antics of his canine wards, this meandering stroll is as much about their humans. A voyeuristic look into the private lives of clients, an urban navigation manual, a playful social critique—all is exposed from this unique sidewalk perspective. A walk-and-tell story. The Nanny Diaries of a New York dog walker."

I wanted to know more about Gone Walkabout and was pleased that Mr. Brandow could take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you write Gone Walkabout?

This is a short book but the observations have been in the works for about twenty years. It’s more personal than the others I’ve written, a memoir about spending most of my adult life in New York and working here as a dog walker. I’ve had the honor of getting to know so many dogs, hundreds of them, probably thousands, every imaginable kind. I get nostalgic looking through my old client books and recalling each dog’s personality and antics, the bizarre situations they’ve led me into, the things they’ve taught me. Dog walking is the best gig in town. Imagine, getting to hang out with these wonderful creatures all day, and then getting paid for the privilege! I’ve shared the sadness of having to let them go.

Michael Brandow
Source: Michael Brandow

This is also about rebellion and freedom. Dropping out of middle-class society to go into a line of work many people consider one step up the curb from street cleaner or garbage collector, this comes with a price. People who’ve made other choices in life often can’t handle hearing some of us say we just weren’t born with the gene for caring what others think, that being happy, or less unhappy, matters more than money, comfort, or anyone’s approval. But I guess if I really didn’t care what society thought then I wouldn’t bother writing about all this.

Gone Walkabout is a sort of social study that reads like fiction. Digging up the notes I kept during my years of pounding the pavements, I hit upon the usual demons treated differently in other books I’ve written: wealth, social status, conformity, vanity (with a spotlight on my own), popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Guiding a pack of dogs through a mob of humans, you can learn as much about people, that is, if you have your eyes and ears open and aren’t staring into some mobile device all the time and wearing earbuds. Being out in public and drawing attention, whether you want it or not, is an experience in itself. Then there’s the very personal business of tending to the centers of people’s lives when they can’t, their beloved dogs, their reasons for coming home from work at night. Private lives can be strange and fascinating places to visit.

How does this book follow up on your general interests in the lives of dogs?

I’ve collected many sweet dog tales over the years, but not everything is cute and fluffy. I suppose my other two books, the first a sort of public policy study on how canine waste laws came about, the second a critical history of dog snobbery and the unkind things the quest for status does to dogs, were inspired and informed by working as a dog walker. (See "A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs.") I revisit some themes but in a more accessible and I hope entertaining and empathetic way, trying to express my awe over dogs and their intelligence, their sensitivity. I look at the intricate ways in which people (my clients) use money, how they lavish it on dogs, how most everyone on the sidewalk carries the “dog lover” card, not always convincingly. I suggest ways we might improve life for dogs in the city by focusing on their needs, not on our whims.

Michael Brandow
Source: Michael Brandow

What are some of your major findings and messages? 

Dogs add so much to city life, and we owe them more than money can buy, but this is also a story about loss. I don’t think most people realize what’s been happening to New York lately, how radically it’s been changing, and not for the better. Many of my dog stories are set against a New York that’s gone forever.  Unlike anything in recent history, obscene wealth has descended on the city and is destroying the heart and soul of a diverse, vibrant, edgy culture that drew me here in the first place, almost forty years ago. Already, entire neighborhoods have been homogenized by this new “hyper-gentrification,” even the people. Patti Smith warns artists to stay away. Fran Lebowitz says you can’t expect a place to be interesting when everyone living there is rich. I’ve watched it happen, a mass eviction, real estate madness. I’m only still here, surrounded by people with whom I share very little, thanks to old rent laws, and I’m not sure I want to stay, though I’d miss the dogs.

Obscene wealth isn’t good for anyone, not for us or for dogs. People with too much money for anyone’s wellness have twisted values, misplaced priorities, and perception problems. Rich people, even famous people whose dogs I’ve known, can be just as human as anyone, and in the best and worst ways. They may love their dogs and take good care of them, but they do tend to go for the status breeds, no matter how inbred, sickly and deformed, or just plain silly some of these fashionable types are. While high rents are forcing out businesses everywhere you look, shiny new state-of-the-art veterinary hospitals are thriving, largely thanks to the techies who need everything in their lives designed to death and are mad about Frenchies, a breed that needs lots of expensive medical care. To be fair, not all wealthy people are totally self-absorbed but have some redeeming qualities. Even if they’re snobbish about everything else, they’ll often make an exception for dogs and are glad to rescue any old mutt needing a home. That being said, I’m not seeing so many pit bulls these days in the East Village where they used to rule. Call me a breed basher, but it’s springtime, and if I see another “-doodle” puppy on the sidewalk I may have to pull over and puke in the gutter.

In many ways, obscene wealth and its related “improvements” have worked against the welfare of dogs living in these times of hollow prosperity. One example I discuss in the book: How much salt is enough for people to walk on sidewalks comfortably in the winter months while their pups scream in agony? This really is about quality of life. It’s also become hard for small-time independents like me, the old pros, to survive when everything’s corporate. We’re going the way of taxi drivers pushed out by Uber, and all the local, family-owned businesses replaced by dreary chain stores that make the tourists feel at home. Most dog walkers have to commute to walk dogs in the Village because they can no longer afford the rents, unlike before when your dog walker was your friend and neighbor. The new New Yorkers are very liquid when it comes to spending needlessly on status and conforming to the latest fads, but they want to save a dime on dog walking and are more impressed by insurance, bonding, and T-shirts with company logos than the informal, personal care of olden days. I would never hand a leash to some inexperienced kid walking dogs as a temporary thing and earning minimum wage. The city’s a dangerous place for dogs. You really must know what you’re doing. A leash is a dog’s lifeline.

4) Were there any surprises?

I guess there are always surprises with dogs. They can be the best trained pups on the planet, but if your back is turned and there’s food involved, they can be quite naughty and all that education is for naught. I go into the difficulties of keeping dogs safe from harmful influences they can’t possibly fathom, no matter how intelligent or devoted they are to you. It’s important not to take their abuse of your trust too personally. In a big, dirty city like this, there’s a tempting smorgasbord of disgusting and sometimes life-threatening items they should not be eating, and it’s a constant struggle. Dogs are always reading us, often trying to be good, but they can be crafty when we’re not looking. Luckily, all my sidewalk scarfing stories have ended on a funny note, never tragic.

5) Are you hopeful people will treat dogs better in the future?

This isn’t so much an agenda-driven book, not like the last one. I’m not going to save New York, obviously, but it’s important to record what I’ve seen. Apart from a personal memoir, I consider this good old-fashioned social criticism, the kind I like to read. I try to share my amusement, bewilderment, sadness, disgust.

Dogs have been an important part of my whole New York experience. In a way, they’ve been my guides, rather than the other way around. Ideally, dogs bring us back down to earth, teach us what’s essential. This I need. But as I’ve learned from my last book, consumerism and hardwired beliefs are powerful, and dogs are often used to support what’s least noble in us. You can serve all the facts and figures in the world on a silver platter, and even the best educated people can be quite stubborn. Here I’m keeping it light, for the most part, by sharing firsthand, believe-it-or-not accounts of dogs and the peculiarities of their humans.

6) What are some of your current projects?

I’m working on some essays on politics and the arts, which is where I began before writing about dogs.

7) Is there anything you'd like to share with readers?

It’s very important to hug your dog.

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Thank you Michael for such an informative, insightful, and frank interview. I couldn't agree more; if your dog likes to be hugged, hug them as much and as often as you can. I'm always amazed at how much I can learn about dogs and their humans when I just sit back and watch them in various venues. I hope your book will enjoy a broad global audience, because we really need to know more not only about how dogs behave in the presence of their and other humans, but also about the humans who walk our canine companions.