Leader of the Pack
I am standing in the loading dock parking lot of Sports Basement at Crissy Field. It’s 9:30 in the morning on a perfectly foggy San Franciscan day. The bridge is peeking blearily through the mist. A few everyday “civilians” are out walking their dogs. And I’m waiting for Wild Bill Peacock. He’s going to take me on the canine adventure of a lifetime.
The idea of owning a dog in the city — walking it several times a day, staring idly into apartment
windows while it urinates, breaking up brawls in doggie parks, picking up steaming heaps of doo in little plastic baggies, and having to come home to the sad face of an animal that has spent the entire day waiting for me — goes against every rural-animal-owning instinct with which I was brought up.
I grew up in a cat-centric household. Our dog was there to bark at upstate New York coyotes,
be a scapegoat for our bad gas, and wreck the screen door every time there was a thunderstorm.
We didn’t walk him. We chased him — away from skunks, porcupines, deer carcasses, and the dinner table. So it’s time for a country boy to learn about city dog life. And the man to show me is coming across Doyle Drive right now. He’s just finished his morning walk and he’s right, I know him when I see him.
He who was born to a venture capitalist father and a mother who redesigned part of her Montana house to mimic the halls of Rohan. He who is inked with barbed wire, cow skulls, the insignia of his other hometown’s hockey team — the St. Louis Blues — and two peacock feathers in the crooks of his elbows. And he who speeds through the city, trusty canine Gunner by his side, in a dog-hair-plastered, low-riding truck with giant cow horns that have drawn the ire of the city’s PETA members (of which there are many). With a giant “B” belt buckle, a bundle of 20 leashes strapped like ammo across his chest, a ball of keys from rich dog-parents across the city, and a permanently affixed cowboy hat, he can be no one else but Wild Bill Peacock: Dog Wrangler.
There’s also the fact that he’s surrounded by a large pack of dogs. And they, plus me, are about to pile into the wrangler’s well-worn truck. Our task — to drop off the morning round and pick up the second wave: small dogs.
I grew up riding around in messy construction trucks, I say, as Bill shuffles around his tools — a high-powered air sprayer (for bad dog behavior), leashes, and tennis balls — and spreads out a dirty towel. And I know, if there is any quick way to understand a man, it’s through his truck.
The Wrangler-mobile is as unmistakable as the driver. It’s all part of the theme: a combination of Western, animal adoration, and just plain weird (he’s got a PA system on the truck that makes quacking noises). There’s a truck mustache in the front grill, the tailgate only closes on one side, and he’s got a decal reading: “Ex Plures Dogs, Unus.” Inside “his office” there are Post-its with lists of dogs and scattered notes with curlicued script from his over-caring clientele.
The signature truck is more than just an advertising scheme — it’s also some extra insurance that someone doesn’t nab his truck. Since speed is essential to maximizing the number of rounds in a day, walkers leave their trucks on when they stop to pick up and drop off dogs. He knows two fellow walkers who had their vehicles full of dogs stolen. That’s the first of the job’s many pitfalls.
Two months ago, Bill moved in with his girlfriend of two months. They live in an Upper Haight studio with an astronomically high number of boarded dogs. She’s a woman named Jan who used to board dogs on a houseboat moored in Emeryville. Now, they’re going to go into business together. Think Wild Bill Peacock and Calamity Jan. It’s just too perfect, he says.
We pick up a shivering chihuahua and a long note from the owner explaining the pet’s current condition. On the community board inside the sprawling apartment complex, the live-in walker has torn down Bill’s cards again. Another walker has taken it upon herself to post Bill’s cards along with her own once she realized their cards were getting taken down. Friendships are tight and rivalries bitter. It’s a little like high school, he says.
The city has five hundred dog walkers, and they claim there are more dogs than children within the city limits. Bill got his start (along with a relationship entanglement worthy of a Mexican soap) walking for an online venture. Those are the corporate walkers; i.e., any outfit with an employee. After the bad breakup, Bill joined the ranks of the independents — one-man and one-woman operations. Below that are people like you and me — civilian walkers.
Neighborhood parks like Buena Vista and Alta Plaza have been claimed by veteran walkers. There is such a need for space to exercise canines that walkers have taken to playing cops and robbers with horse-mounted police in the off-limits parts of the Presidio. Cops, Bill complains, issue $1500 fines and ride around startling dogs. Bill had to defend himself in court against accusations of assaulting a cop when one of his dogs caused the officer to fall off her horse.
New walkers bring their charges to chase tennis balls on Crissy Field. They swap clients and occasionally walk in packs. There is John of “Johnny Walker;” Mike, a lanky Mission dweller; and a “365-days-a-year boxer-wearing” lesbian who Bill assured me hates balls. As I soon find out, Bill’s not a big fan of balls either. Balls start fights, and dog brawls are bad news. The only thing worse is a lost dog. Or assaulting a police officer.
We pick up a 12-year-old wheezing pug named Pixie who immediately licks me in the mouth and settles awkwardly on my crotch. Next is a rodential golden panter named Blueberry who runs back and forth over my knees in the front seat, and a bunch more big dogs in the back. We’re almost at full capacity when we make a quick pit stop at Bill’s abode.
Bill wears the last 15 years of San Francisco history in his crinkly blue eyes and pearl snap flannel. He’s an animal lover with a Western drawl and a winning smile. He’s a self-described neo-luddite with a text addiction. His Montana accent landed him a dot-com job working as the official telephone voice of a predominantly gay start-up tech company. He needed money for overdue vet bills. When the company was bought out, he spiraled into depression, grew a beard, developed a drinking problem, and generally lost interest. A back injury from his hockey days dissuaded him from a desk job, and envy of the tan and the pick-up prowess his roommate had acquired as a dog walker led him to the trade.
It’s been five years, and he’s now looking to hire his first employees. He makes three runs a day, seven days a week. It’s what gets him up in the morning, and it has helped him overcome depression and the drinking problem. When he was a child, his mother put down his animals as punishment for his misbehavior. The dog he left in Montana when he moved to San Francisco got killed chasing a deer across the highway. “What else do you need to know?”
We rush out of the apartment and down the stairs — the wrangler’s button-snapped flannel body jumps around as frenetically as the quips fly out of his overactive mind. I feel like an out-of-shape stunt-double sidekick. As we hop back into the truck, two hipsters with bad mustaches, skateboards, and floppy hats smirk on the corner. The wrangler is in full character and pretends not to notice, but he’s the kind of guy who notices everything. And takes it all to heart. In the elevator of the Fillmore Center near one of our last stops, he tells me he often fires his clients. He let a client go once because she didn’t lavish enough praise on his services.
With the last dogs collected, we are finally ready to hit the beach and the “fun part.” The dogs get unleashed and wildly run after balls, into the frothy water, and to the freedom of the great outdoors. Everyone is taking their stored-up morning craps. Bill and Gunner lead the way down the beach.
This is my first official dog walk. I still don’t scoop poop or throw a saliva-coated tennis ball, but I’ll say there isn’t a much better day-starter than a walk along the beach with a liberated pack of panting tongue-waggers.
Got a bored, lonely dog? Call Wild Bill Peacock. His rates vary depending on walks and budget. He accepts barter, and offers one free walk for the unemployed. One of his new employees, Sarah Zemunski , can even snap your pet’s photo.