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This Job Gives Her Paws

Up to 72 of them, in fact. Pamela Clemente is one of Buenos Aires' legion of paseaperros, or dog walkers. She must be alpha and analyst.

June 11, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Homero is a working dog, a Labrador retriever with a lot on his mind.

Five days a week his job takes him up and down the streets of this dog-crazy city, past cafes and apartment towers, around angry doormen and reckless cabdrivers. The responsibility, added to a personal trauma or two, may be what's caused a few of the light-brown hairs on his head to turn prematurely gray.

Homero belongs to Pamela Clemente, a 22-year-old part-time ballerina and full-time dog walker. With Homero as her escort, Clemente walks as many as 17 other dogs, all at once, gripping a clutch of leashes in her hand, tying the rest to her waist, guiding her charges through this city's ritzy Palermo district.

That a petite woman such as Clemente can control several hundred pounds of anxious, barking, full-bladdered canine mass is a testament to her mastery of the art of the paseaperro, as dog walkers here are known.

The paseaperro is a Buenos Aires fixture often photographed by awe-struck American and European tourists who can't fathom how one person can keep so many dogs moving obediently along. The secret, Clemente says, is understanding dog psychology. And having a dog on your side. That's where Homero comes in.

"Homero is 5 years old and he's already starting to look old," Clemente says as she walks from one apartment building to the next, picking up her clients.

"Poor guy. It's the work. You see this other dog over here," she says, pointing to another Lab in her group. "He's 5 too. And not a single gray hair."

On one cool day during the Southern Hemisphere autumn, Homero floats freely around the group of 13 leashed dogs Clemente leads in a harried dash along the sidewalks of Palermo. (Three of her regulars are in heat and can't go out; a fourth is expecting puppies.) Their destination is the relative bliss of Las Heras Park.

Human and animals walk together in a rugby-like scrum of 58 legs moving forward in something resembling synchronicity.

One of the keys to staying untangled, Clemente says, is organization. So she keeps the smaller dogs to her left, attached to the rope that wraps around her waist. "Come on, midgets! Let's go, midgets!" she calls out more than once.

A beagle named Pam squishes in between a pair of cocker spaniels. When the pack stops, Pam gives the nearest human a sad, worried stare. She doesn't seem the least bit excited to be going for a walk with a bunch of dogs that are bigger than her. Her brown eyes seem to ask, "Are we going to make it through this?"

The bigger dogs are on Clemente's right, including an Irish setter named Icarus and a collie grandfather named Bamboo with abundant (and exquisitely groomed) white and caramel hair.

"If you're not careful, the smaller ones will get scared and try to hide underneath the others, and then they'll all get tangled up and start pulling backward," Clemente says. "If people see a dog walker with the dogs all smashed up, they'll start cussing you out. They'll say: 'What are you doing to those poor dogs! Go get a real job!' "

Buenos Aires residents indulge and pamper their dogs perhaps more than any other Latin Americans. In many better-off neighborhoods, there are more veterinary offices and pet supply stores than pharmacies. Local radio and television air several weekly programs for dog aficionados.

An estimated half a million dogs live among the 14 million humans in greater Buenos Aires -- a canine population roughly equal to that of New York City, home to 100,000 licensed dogs and an estimated 400,000 unlicensed ones. As in New York, most dogs here are owned by apartment dwellers. With labor relatively cheap in the Argentine capital, a dog walker can be had for as little as a dollar a day, and the ranks of the paseaperros have increased dramatically in recent years.

The walkers can talk for hours about canine psychology, and how the paseaperro helps even the most domesticated cur get in touch with his inner wolf. They will tell you that Irish setters, with instincts honed on the meadows of the Emerald Isle, and retrievers bred to frolic in marshes, were simply not meant to live in spaces designed for nothing more strenuous than afternoon tea.

"On Mondays the dogs wake up at 7 in the morning," said Gabriel Arrieta, a dog walker and a friend of Clemente's. "They know what day it is and know we're coming. They've been inside all weekend and they're ready."

The owners know that keeping a dog shut in too long makes the animal neurotico.

Clemente and other high-end dog walkers charge about $35 per month per dog. The consensus among them is that 24 or so is the limit on how many dogs one person can control.

The law establishes an eight-dog limit per walker, and also a fine (about $70) for those who fail to curb their animals. But like so many other laws here, the canine code is rarely enforced.

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