Brooklyn emerges triumphantly from the undergrowth, with yet another tennis ball clasped firmly in her jaws. This is the third one she has found today. The routine is familiar by now: she drops the drool-covered ball at my feet, I send it flying, she brings it back. Then, after the third throw or so, Brooklyn tears the ball into tiny slobbery pieces, before trotting off in search of her next felt-covered victim.
Tom Senior is Brooklyn’s dog-walker, and has been taking the Dalmatian-Pointer cross out for walkies – and watching her savage tennis balls – three times a week since the start of the summer. But in the cold November air, and with the grass wet under foot in London’s Primrose Hill, surely this is a day best spent inside, clutching a warm cup of tea.
As a dog-walker, though, Tom takes the weather in his stride. He is certainly well equipped, wearing layered hooded tops, waterproof trousers and heavy-duty hiking boots. “The dogs need to go out,” says Tom, “and they rely on you. Otherwise, they’d just be at home all day. No wind or rain will stop me getting there.”
Tom, still only 22 years old, joined the Lancashire Police part-time while studying at the University of Lancaster. He soon became the only Special Constable assigned to the county’s dog squad, spending his spare time going on drugs raids, searching for illegal weapons and responding to cross-county 999 calls at 130 miles per hour. By comparison, his current job is a walk in the park…
But when his long-term girlfriend was offered a teaching job at a primary school in Warwick Avenue, Tom decided to join her in making the move from Lancaster, even though it meant leaving the force.
When he arrived in London, his plan was to set up an online business selling tickets to events, and he only started walking dogs to make a bit of cash on the side. But he soon found himself earning far more from the dog-walking than he had anticipated. “I never really thought I’d be able to make it into a viable business, but I’m in a position now where I’m getting paid as much as, if not more, than some of my mates on graduate schemes.”
Tom belongs to a new breed of professionalised dog-walker. He is self-employed and runs his fledgling dog-walking company, City Pups, alone. New clients are given a pack containing a photocopy of his passport, a full set of references and details of his CRB check. And not content to collect babysitter-style cash-in-hand payments for the occasional walk, he is adamant that his business operates entirely above board. “I invoice at the end of every week, and I declare everything.”
He enjoys the same working hours as the dog-owners who seek out his services, and I do mean “enjoys” – it is as if the wind changed suddenly one day, leaving an expression of glee etched permanently onto his face.
His first walk of the day – a “bouncy” Golden Retriever called Winston – starts at 8.30am every weekday morning, and he drops his last dog home at 6.30pm. He currently walks around 10 dogs a day, and a maximum of four together at any one time.
“I know dog-walkers that walk up to nine dogs at a time, but if you have that many you just can’t give them all the attention they need.” To grow his business, he is looking to buy a van which, when fitted out with eight comfortable cages, will allow him to take on both more dogs and a second walker.
Tech-savvy Tom has adopted an online marketing strategy. “There are a lot of dog-walkers out there who just have a phone number and operate by word of mouth.” In contrast, Tom has created a website – ostensibly in collaboration with his four-month-old Australian Shepherd puppy, Roxy – and even keeps clients updated using Twitter.
“I post updates on the dogs I walk throughout the day so people who are sat at work can see that their dog is having a good time.” He might upload a picture of a dog playing with a toy, or hiding under some leaves, much to the owner’s delight. “People do feel connected with their dogs, so to see them on their computer at work is really nice for them.”
Seeing as he spends all day surrounded by dogs, I wonder whether Tom misses contact of the human variety. Not at all, he says, assuring me that the dog-walking world has its own social bubble: “I think dogs bring people together. You see the same people every day and you get to know them.” He pauses. “Well, I say that, you get to know the dogs. I speak to people that I’ve spoken to every day for the last two months and I don’t know their name, I just know their dog’s name!”
But that doesn’t seem to bother him. As the dogs potter along around us, sniffing the ground (and each other) as they go, Tom watches over them with that unfaltering smile, and says: “It’s amazing how many people I walk for, whether they’re traders in the City or they work in TV, who say to me: ‘I wish I had your job.’” And right now, I can’t say that I blame them.
Best thing about the job: “If it’s a sunny day, I stand in the park and go, ‘I’m walking 3 or 4 dogs, chucking tennis balls around, having the best time ever – and I’m getting paid for this!’”
Worst thing about the job: “The fact that people just cancel you at quite short notice. To them it’s just cancelling a walk – to you it’s your living. That, and picking up the poo.”
Tom lives in Queen’s Park with his girlfriend, and 4-month-old bundle of fluff Roxy. He currently walks in Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park, Green Park and Hampstead Heath. For more details about City Pups, or to get in touch with Tom, click here – or follow Tom on Twitter.