by Tim Dawe
If you don’t know how to do it…I’ll show you how to walk the dog – Rolling Stones
“Argentines are Latin Americans who speak like Italians, act like the English, admire the Germans and think they live in Paris.”…yes, it’s another well-worn stereotype but there is a bit to it.
I’m in Buenos Aires, known as the Paris of the South, with time to observe the natives, up close and personal. In this crowded city where the upwardly mobile live in high-rise apartments, owning a dog is de rigueur. Even when their apartment is hardly big enough to swing a cat.
And for the fashionable porteño, or resident of this port city, size matters. Not for them the chic Parisian poodle in a handbag. The breeds I see are Great Danes, Irish Wolf Hounds and St Bernards, better suited to a saddle than a collar. I am not sure whether this style-driven behaviour is Parisian panache, or English eccentricity, or both.
Which brings me to the question: how do you exercise a large dog when you live in a 90m², two-bedroom apartment on the fifteenth floor and your backyard is a 5x1m balcony? It would not be South America if the middle-class could not offload those can’t-do or won’t-do tasks to a fixer.
Enter the paseaperro – the dog walker!
All over the world there are people who walk dogs – some are even paid to do it – but the hundreds of distinctive paseaperros of Buenos Aires are an institution. They make for a fine photo too.
Australians might conclude these dog walkers are fit young university students looking for a few bob between lectures but, in under-employed Argentina, being a paseaperro is a career option. Working 20 or more hours a week, walkers can earn about $40 per dog, per month – tax free within the ‘informal’ economy.
They take up to twenty dogs at a time. That takes some handling. Each dog’s leash is colourfully distinctive, ending in a knot anchored by a strong and steady arm. A combination of routine and skill means the mass of floating fur flows along city streets without much fuss. Most paseaperros have a better rapport with the dogs than their sedentary or absent owner.
Near Buenos Aires’s famous Teatro Colon I chance upon five paseaperros leaving Plaza Lavalle via a crosswalk with possibly 80 dogs in steady procession – and not a woof or bark among them, let alone a cocked leg.
A canine convention perhaps?
The dog route criss-crosses the grid-like city streets beset with stalls, pedestrians, traffic lights and other obstacles ending at the nearest well-worn plaza where authorities provide a special iron-railed enclosure of shaded black earth.
A paseaperro job description does not call for particular exercise so dogs are simply untethered and turned out for an hour or so, usually to flop. Often they get as much exercise as their walkers who lounge around on benches drinking mate and yarning with their mates.
So many dogs! It raises the inevitable issue of…er, doggie deposits – I prefer the sweeter sounding Spanish, soretes – all 68 tonnes, by one estimate, to hit the Buenos Aires pavement each day.
I wonder about that backpack.
Following close behind one day I realise its purpose. Not for them Australia’s local government-issue plastic doggy-do bags; no, that’s too passé for our paseaperro! The backpack contains several newspapers torn into 50 cm squares. And each offending deposit is dealt with swiftly and skilfully; with a deft scoop both newspaper and excrement are thrown just one unsuspecting pedestrian-step away – in the gutter!
Not all paseaperros are so obliging and hygienic.
I’ve had to watch my step on the footpaths of Amsterdam and New Delhi (although less so in New Delhi following a clean-up by the redoubtable Chief Minister, the wonderfully named Sheila Dikshit) but never have I seen a scene like Avenida Republica de la India bordering Buenos Aires’s zoo.
Perhaps the residents of the expensive apartments overlooking the greenery of Jardin Zoologico only drive rather than walk on a footpath. I swear – paving slabs are cracked under the weight!
Despite the need for vigilance when stepping out, this Buenos Aires dog-walking institution is a colourful sight that charms and delights the tourist exploring the streets of this fascinating city.
Compared with cities where residents turn out neglected and diseased dogs onto the street to die in a ditch, Buenos Aires is lucky to be so well served by their paseaperro “just-a walking the dog”.