March 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Pack mentality

By Natasha May
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The ‘dog philosopher-king’ who teaches the owners rather than training the pets

You hear Robert’s group before you see them: the cacophony of barking rings out through Sydney’s Centennial Park. If you follow the sound, past the willow fronds on the lake, up the sandy dunes towards the pine grove, you find his swarm of canines chasing one another with primeval zeal. And amid the apparent pandemonium stands Robert Zarauz, serene, like the dog philosopher-king that he is.

Robert has a waitlist of clients for dog walking and training, but also provides casual on-the-spot guidance. “If I see people who need help with their dogs, I’m happy to offer advice,” he says. “But most people think they know better.”

He is dressed as usual in a collared shirt, khaki shorts, a well-worn orange baseball cap on his salt-and-pepper head and woollen socks poking out of hiking boots. I used to avoid him, thinking I was protecting my miniature schnauzer, Laska, from his big bounding hounds, until Robert explained that dogs don’t care about each other’s size. “It’s about the energy a dog brings,” he says. “Your energy is her energy. If she thinks you – who are supposed to be looking after her – you’re afraid, what is going to happen to her? She’s terrified.”

Leroy, the world’s friendliest golden retriever, pads over to greet me, tail wagging, eyes brimming with affection.

“Leroy’s running for mayor of Centennial Park,” Robert jests. “Vote 1: Leroy. Party of Off-Leash Dog Walking.”

I ask Robert if he’s alright to do the interview while he works, and he explains that the job of dog walking is not dissimilar to an air traffic controller. “You’ve got to be able to be distracted, come back to the screen and remember where all those aeroplanes were.” He pauses, then provides another comparison. “It’s like a mother. A mother always knows where all her children are.”

Robert’s week is divided between dog walking on weekdays and training on weekends, which he separates because he believes it’s necessary to have the whole household present at his training sessions, so that everyone deals with the dog in a consistent way. “I use the word training because the perception out there is that we are training the dog, but training’s really not what I do.” The way he sees it, he helps owners build a better relationship by teaching them how to communicate effectively with the dog.

“That’s the problem: people speak to their dogs like you and I communicating now. You see owners in the park having long conversations with the dog because the dog’s done something they don’t like. I have long conversations with my dogs – they don’t know what I’m talking about.” His voice goes up in pitch as he addresses the German pointer near his feet. “My Lulu, I’d trade you in for a cat. What do you think, hey?” Robert looks back at me. “She couldn’t care less, wouldn’t understand a word. But she understands my energy is good. Dogs communicate via body language and energy. If you learn to read that, then you know what your dog is going to do.”

Robert says the most common story he hears from owners is, “Oh, just out of the blue, Buddy turned around and bit my little boy.” Yet he knows dogs never do anything out of the blue. “What’s happened is that Buddy for a period of time has been telling that child, ‘What you’re doing is bothering me.’ When the child has continually ignored those warnings, the dog has done what is the next step up for a dog.”

Has Robert ever been bitten?

“Look at my hands! Look at the scratches.” There is a network of thin white scars on his skin made less noticeable by its consistent pattern. “Does that answer your question?”

Robert believes most bites are out of frustration, not aggression. He says that a dog has a list – “think of it like a little black book”– of all the things that have worked on their owner to avoid what they don’t want to do. “Often, I will deliberately get bitten because I want to say to the dog, ‘It’s not going to work.’”

Robert pauses. George, nose in the air, has leapt ahead of the group.

“George, Georgie – hey!” Robert calls the Hungarian vizsla back and he comes. Robert says that was an example of being proactive rather than reactive. “Seeing his body language – say, there’s a nice sausage smell – if I wait ’til George has made up his mind to go, I’m not getting George back.”

It’s hard to imagine Robert as anything other than the nucleus of this atomic cluster of furry bodies. Yet he wasn’t always a dog walker. He’s run a flyfishing business and a newsagency, and worked for other companies in between. He bought his newsagency after being fired and rehired five times in three years. He thought to himself, If I’m going to have a lunatic for an employer it might as well be me.

His dog-walking business evolved out of happenstance more than design. Robert’s neighbour got a new dog, Louis, who was soon barking all day, “carrying on like he was possessed by seven demons” because he wasn’t getting walked. Robert offered to take Louis when he walked his own dog, Lola. In the park, he ran into a lady on leave from work with a German shorthaired pointer. Impressed by Robert’s obvious affinity with dogs, she asked him if he could walk her dog when she went back to work. By the end of that year, he had a full-time dog-walking business “just from referrals and bumping into people in the park” and decided to sell the newsagency. “This is just getting to do what I love most and getting paid for it, essentially.”

He finds that the dogs understand him really quickly. “Dogs get it. Most of it is not about the dog; most of my time is spent teaching the owner how to correctly manage their dog.”

Robert describes an encounter with a particularly frustrating client, who was surprised when told a training session would take two to three hours.

“Oh, that long? That’s really tiring,” the guy said.

“Yeah, for you and the dog.”

“Oh, we have to be there?”

“No, if you want to arrange a Skype conference, you know, I can have a chat to your dog over the phone…”

I ask Robert if he’s ever come across people he thinks shouldn’t own a dog. He stops and looks me in the eye. “Every day. Every day. I do training, go to houses, and if I could pick up their puppy and carry it out, I would.”

We’ve walked around the perimeter of the park and come back to the pine grove where we started. When Robert has spotted other dogs’ mess, he’s bagged it and thrown it out himself. “Most people seem to think that off-leash means the dog can do what it likes. And for a lot of dog walkers, it’s just a business to them.”

As well as droppings, discarded batteries and miscellaneous rubbish, Robert also picks up any glass fragments or sharp objects he finds on the park grounds. The most common injury dogs suffer in the park is cuts to their paws.

Our conversation goes in a new direction when he admits worry about the dog-buying fad that emerged during the pandemic. The average price for a dog before coronavirus was $3000, he tells me, and now it’s $5000. “This coronavirus has bred an industry of puppy farming. I’m feeling for a lot of those dogs. And then when these people go back to work, what happens?”

Too often, he says, he sees owners thinking of themselves before the dog. “Humans rescue a dog, and it’s all about them. How often do you hear people tell you, ‘Oh, we rescued him, oh, the poor thing’? It’s almost to me like it’s an ego thing: I’m giving myself a pat on the back because look at what I’ve done for that poor unfortunate dog.” But Robert sees the sort of coddling that sometimes comes with rescue pets – “Careful, give him space, he’s a rescue. Poor darling, poor darling” – as taking the dog out of one form of torture and putting it in another. “Dogs just want to get out and play. They don’t feel sorry for themselves. Humans feel sorry for dogs.”

The way Robert sees it, his job isn’t about showing a client he’s good with their dog, he wants to teach them to be the best person they can be with their pet. “It’s not a matter of being the resident authority, it’s a matter of being able to share that knowledge. If you haven’t understood what I’ve taught, then I’ve failed. And the one that suffers is your dog.”

Natasha May

Natasha May is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald and Michael West Media.

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