Remember that joke “How many elephants can you fit into a mini ? - four of course - two in the front and two in the back”. Well, here in North London, if a certain taxi passed you by, you might well find yourself asking ‘How many dogs can you fit into that taxi?”
Whereas in the case of humans, legislation only allows for a maximum of five, there seems to be no legal limit to the amount of dogs one can cram into a cab. So from 8.30 am every morning, Karen Fredman can be seen driving her black cab around metropolitan North London, happily ignoring the frantic waves and desperate shouts of ‘Taxi! ‘ from frustrated commuters. She is on her way to pick up and transport other fare - a motley crew of canines. At the last stop, all shaggy heads counted, they move on to the welcoming open space of Hampstead Heath.
Dog walking has become a serious profession over the last ten years and there are now numerous packs being escorted around the parks and turfs of London. As with most growth industries, procedures get refined by experience and changes in demand, and over the years Karen’s transport system became a real issue. It all began quite humbly. When she only had a few dogs she’d catch the Number 31 bus, and then there was the push bike, which involved more pushing than biking with the dogs walking alongside. As business got better she bought her first dogmobile, a Seat Marbella quickly followed by various secondhand estate cars, but the decision to upgrade to a black cab was an inspired one.
Karen’s previous vehicles had continuously broken down - what was needed was something reliable. Taxis are manufactured to deal happily with all the daily vehicular needs of the dog walker; all that stopping and starting, picking up and dropping off and mileage around town. The myth that cabs go on forever is very seductive or perhaps Karen is just attention seeking. The garage where she bought her secondhand Nissan 2.7 black cab for only £ 2000 is unreservedly male territory. “But they actually quite like the idea of having a girl driving a cab” Karen says “and have a bit of a laugh about it.” They rent out their own cabs and so are pretty hot at getting them back on the road as soon as possible. So any problems, and the dog taxi gets fixed on the spot.” Old taxis have been adapted and customized before, one even having its roof lobbed off to convert it into a pick-up truck, but for novelty value, Karen’s must be first off at the lights.
As for the dogs, most days there’s about eight of them sitting at their individual front doors desperately waiting for that familiar deep purring sound of her diesel engine. Over the next hour, in they pile one by one, finding their favorite spot and flop, as dogs do. The hierarchy in the back of the cab is defined by size. Like circus acrobats performing the standing triangle, big ones are on the floor, medium sized on the seat and the little terriers form a group of nodding dolls on the back ledge. Half way into the pick-up routine, Karen stops for her double-expresso at a cafe in Maida Vale. Not only is the coffee always ready and delicious, but the chef appears on cue with sausages for the animals. Being driven to one’s daily exercise in a taxi has its perks.
The dog owners are elsewhere, busy with their frenetic work schedules. It used to be that owning and so walking a dog was an excuse to take time out, to sample the simpler rhythms of the natural world. But now there’s only time at the weekends (maybe!). Dog walkers fulfill a vital stopgap. Like most things in today’s modern world, dog ownership can be adapted and accommodated. Meanwhile the dogs are having a brilliant time. If you’re not a doggy person you might be excused for feeling intimated by those large groups of hounds out stomping the London parks. But they love being together - they are pack animals after all. Out on Karen’s walk, the barking and growling is just jostle and play, and like kids they vie for attention and cuddles, find their favorite friends and get into scrapes. The Heath becomes one big canine school playground. “The socializing is as important as the exercising. When any of the dogs go on holiday with their owners, they get downright miserable because they miss their friends.”. Karen’s mobile rings. Another dog walker has lost one of her brood, an English Setter called Oscar. Networking between dog walkers is vital to safe practice and any absent pooch will not stay that way for long. Oscar will be spotted and returned to his own pack pretty swiftly.
Walking the dog might seem like a flighty way to make a living but like most things that look easy and are rewarding, it takes total commitment to do it well. It also requires strength of character, a real love of animals, an understanding of animal psychology and leadership skills - the dog walker always has to be leader of the pack. ......... Karen’s lifestyle has always been somewhat alternative. Previously she had been living in Israel, running a small farm and practicing neuromuscular massage therapy, this work experience surprisingly qualifying her for the specialist care she carries out today. Massage treatments can get very challenging as they can involve a fair degree of listening and pseudo counseling ; Karen’s clients included holocaust survivors. After ten years she felt pretty burnt out, so dog care, though not dissimilar in function, is fortunately just that tiny bit more lightweight ! “ When they’re with me, dogs don’t get depressed” she says. And so Karen doesn’t either. However at times some serious psychological support might be called for. Demsey, an Italian Spinoni was so shy at first that Karen had to sit and watch TV with him for half an hour every day for a week before he relaxed enough to leave the house alone with her.
There used to be a dog on the Heath called Taxi. Sometimes he went missing so his owner would stand right in the middle of all that greenery, far away from any roads, shouting “Taxi ,Taxi” much to the bewilderment. of passers by. Today any reference to “Taxi” in the immediate environment would bring all Karen’s dogs reluctantly to heel, somewhat dejected in the knowledge that it’s time once again to clamber back into
their very exclusive doggy transport to be cabbed in the unsatisfactory direction of home.