Featured in Capital #88. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
What has 26 legs and wanders Wellington’s wilderness?
“You’ve got your hands full!” is a groan-worthy line dog handler Izzy Baarspul has grown used to hearing. But with up to nine well-behaved dogs by her side, it’s hardly surprising passers-by have something to say.
While she’s comfortable with a big canine crew, Izzy says her “sweet spot is around six” – but it’s not the same for everyone. “Some people are capable of managing large numbers, while others may struggle with one or two. We all have our own niche talents!”
Izzy wasn’t always a dog whisperer. As a tween she regularly walked (“was dragged”) around the block with her neighbour’s dog Woofa for a couple of dollars, but that was it, for a long time.
Petone-born, Izzy moved into Wellington city for university, to study Educational Psychology. After completing her degree in 2017 she felt a little lost. “I thought I would end up in teaching, but I’d had enough of student life, and didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.”
A friend of a friend offered her a casual dog-walking job and reluctantly she accepted. “Much to my dismay I was dragged around the block again – this time by a great dane-boxer cross and a Hairy Maclary lookalike.”
However, she soon met others in the dog community, who passed on their wisdom, and her confidence grew. She discovered the joy of building relationships with the dogs, overcoming training challenges, and spending her days exploring. Within the year Izzy set up The Happy Dog NZ, and the pack’s been expanding ever since.
Now, rain or shine, armed with eight different house keys, treats, and a roll of poop bags, she chauffeurs a van of excited pooches to a walking destination. Preferring walks with plenty of shade, she lists the Botanic Garden and Mount Victoria among regular routes; but the group’s energy levels and the weather have to be assessed before deciding the best spot. “I also have to consider the impact of a bouquet of dogs on shared public tracks. Nobody should be squeezed off the path.”
While they are enjoying their stroll, the dogs are taught leash skills, and how to sit, stay, improve their recall, and socialise calmly with their packmates. “These basic skills are a critical part of setting a dog up for success in a busy human world.”
Spending each day with lovable pups has its challenges. Cleaning up after them is a major party pooper, along with people who incautiously pat the dogs before asking her. “I know it is tempting, but not all dogs are friendly.”, she explains.
And of course, the job can be short of human interaction, so, whenever possible, Izzy joins forces with fellow dog handlers to chinwag, share training tips, and give the dogs a welcome break. “If we’ve planned ahead, one of us might pick up a donut and have a thermos of tea or coffee to share.”
Currently Izzy is “Aunty of many, owner of none” when it comes to dogs, but an Italian greyhound, Border terrier, or shiba inu would be among her top choices if one were to join her family. For now, as many, many people tell her – she’s got her hands full.