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She Can Fetch $150,000

Annie Lever makes a great living walking dogs -- lots of dogs -- for upscale clients. The job requires both people and pooch skills.

August 21, 2003|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

As Annie Lever padded along a sun-scorched trail at Runyon Canyon, a yellow Labrador, a Gordon setter and a golden retriever sprinted ahead. A 5-pound Maltese dashed in the dust by Lever's sneakers, and two chocolate Labradors and a pit bull mix plodded behind.

"Are they all yours?" one hiker gulped.

Not exactly.

Lever, 46, is a professional dog walker who earns $150,000 a year -- enough to buy a Brentwood condominium, decorated in tones of taupe, green and cream, and a Steinway piano.

"I still wake up, look at my place and say, 'This is the house the dogs bought me,' " said Lever, a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in fine arts. "Who knew?"

Most dog walkers don't do as well. Lever's clients, who live in Santa Monica, Brentwood and Bel-Air, include Hollywood moguls and movie stars.

She used to walk Jim Belushi's shepherds but decided they were too aggressive. She tended Mike Myers' two yellow Labradors and mutt for three years, until he assigned the task to his cook. She also exercised Steven Spielberg's golden retriever and his daughter's chocolate Lab, but it turned out to be too much of a hassle -- between the security on his estate and the fact that the dogs periodically boarded with a trainer.

Lever is every pooch's best pal. She romps with Ruby, throws the ball for Jake and coddles Coco Chanel. If a dog misbehaves, he gets a timeout. When he shows self-restraint, he gets patted and praised. She alerts owners to behavioral and medical problems. (The dog that ate the candle, leaving the wick on the floor of his owner's home, went straight to the vet.)

The job of dog walker requires attributes of a kindergarten teacher, drill instructor and chauffeur. It's like being the mother of 10 2-year-olds, said one Westside walker.

"You spend your day saying, 'No humping. Don't pee on your brother,' " said Lever, who has walked dogs for 10 years.

Sure, she cleans up after dogs, but she has higher social standing than the nanny. She's invited to some of the most desirable parties. She gets fabulous presents: cashmere sweaters, diamond earrings, gift certificates for Burke-Williams massages. She has an insider's view -- she knew Reese Witherspoon was pregnant long before the paparazzi. And she is her own boss.

Lever takes anywhere from six to 12 dogs at a time, three groups a day. During the summer, the first group hikes in Runyon Canyon, the next two hit the dog park in Brentwood. For most of the year, every group goes on hikes. Rain or shine, the dogs go out.

And Lever likes variety. One day she called Courtney Thorne-Smith about her basenji, a brown and white dog named Ed, and asked: "We're at the beach. Can Ed stay out a little longer?"

"I hate to admit it, but Ed is much more excited to see Annie than me," the actress said. "She does different stuff all the time."

Lever picks up and delivers each dog. By the end of the day, she has driven about 100 miles. She charges $25 per dog -- a high rate for the industry. Most Manhattan dog walkers get $15, but they don't drive their charges.

Lever must remember which owners want security alarms activated, mail taken inside, television or lights turned on, as well as where to leave Fido. She also knows which dogs eat raw chicken hearts and gizzards, a new trend, and which ones get ice water. She jokes that the two Australian shepherd mixes eat better than she does, because their owner feeds them boneless chicken breasts cooked at Whole Foods. And she rolls her eyes at the owners who serve bottled water.

After all, she says, "dogs lick their own" bottoms.

Dog-walking is not for the squeamish. When duty calls, so to speak, it cannot be ignored. Lever is prepared. She favors baby powder-scented plastic bags, coiled in a tiny dispenser.

Horror stories abound: snakebites, dog bites and locking keys in a home (Lever is slender enough to wiggle through a doggy door to retrieve them). Once, another walker's dog attacked Lever's charge, peeling the fur off its back. Another time, one of Lever's dogs collided with another chasing a ball, knocking out three teeth in the smaller dog, which belonged to a different walker. Or there was the time Lever stopped at a light and her wagon's back door flipped open, allowing 10 dogs to hop out into the street.

Lever drives a gray Mitsubishi Montero. No one ever asks for a lift. A yellow leaf-shaped car deodorizer dangles from the rearview mirror; it is as effective as a beaver dam facing a tsunami. The heavy canine scent permeates the air even when the dogs are gone. Dog hair clings to the interior. Lever's car doesn't just reek; it sheds.

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