Jim Buck, Who Made Walking Dogs a Job, Dies at 81
Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: July 12, 2013
There are eight million occupational stories in New York City, and none cries Gotham louder than that of the professional surrogate — the shrewd city dweller who spies a void that other New Yorkers are too hurried, harried or hard-pressed to fill and rushes enterprisingly in.
Over time, the city has spawned professional car-movers and professional line-standers, but its most visible — and audible — paid surrogates are indisputably its professional dog walkers.
By all accounts, Jim Buck was the first of them.
Mr. Buck, who died on July 4 at 81, is widely described as the first person to professionalize dog walking in New York City and, by extension, in the United States.
Starting in the early 1960s, Mr. Buck, the scion of a patrician Upper East Side family, rose each morning at dawn to walk passels of clients’ dogs, eventually presiding over a business in which he and two dozen assistants walked more than 150 dogs a day.
When he began that business, Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, it was the only one of its kind in New York. Today, the city has scores of professional dog walkers.
During the 40 years Mr. Buck ran his school, he was an eminently recognizable figure: an elegantly turned out, borzoi-thin man of 145 pounds, he commanded the leashes of a half-dozen or more dogs at a time — a good 500 pounds of dog in all — which fanned out before him like the spokes of a wheel.
He walked in sun; he walked in rain. In wintertime, his charges might be clad in small sweaters bearing the logos of the European resorts where their masters skied.
Jim Buck’s School for Dogs was equal parts exclusive preparatory academy, exercise class and reform school. In a 1964 profile of Mr. Buck in The New York Times, Gay Talese described him, plying his trade, as looking “like Charlton Heston in the chariot-racing scene in ‘Ben-Hur.’ ”
But with hindsight, it is more apt to liken Mr. Buck to Lee Marvin in the 1967 film “The Dirty Dozen.”
Mr. Buck’s clients were refined. Their dogs were less so.
The clients, mostly Upper East Siders, included some of the city’s most prominent names in the arts, government, finance and industry. (Continuing the tradition of walker-client confidentiality to which Mr. Buck long hewed, his family declined to name them. It did confirm Mr. Buck’s death, at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan, apparently of complications of emphysema and cancer.)
The dogs included the intractable, the obstinate and the profoundly pampered.
One, an otterhound known to Mr. Buck’s staff as Oliver the Awful, was used for some years to audition prospective employees.
“Oliver knows when he’s testing someone new, and he can be counted on to leap into the first phone booth along the way and slam the door and wedge himself against it,” Mr. Buck told The New Yorker in 1965. “Brute force is of no avail; the only way to get him out is to remain poised and quietly talk him out.”
James Augustine Farrell Buck was born in Manhattan on Nov. 28, 1931. His family, socially prominent, had prospered in steel and shipping. As a youth, Jim showed dogs; he also trained horses at the Connecticut country homes of his uncles.
Footloose, determined and eager to flout convention, Mr. Buck bypassed college.
But by the early ’60s he was leading the sort of gray-flannel life of which he despaired, chafing in New York as a salesman for an electronics concern.
Mr. Buck knew dogs — as a young man, he bred Great Danes. He also knew New Yorkers. Before long, a void was filled.
By 1964, The Times reported, he was making $500 a week, more than his electronics job paid.
His cobbler enjoyed a regular cut: Mr. Buck wore through the soles of his shoes every two weeks.
Mr. Buck’s marriage to Ann Sage ended in divorce. A resident of Manhattan, he is survived by three sons, Jonathan, Christopher and Graham; two sisters, Mother Debra Joseph, a Benedictine nun, and Connie Buck; and a brother, Richard.
Jim Buck’s School for Dogs is gone now, closed a decade ago when Mr. Buck retired. But its legacy endures: some of the city’s professional dog walkers are his former employees.
As the city changes, so too does their work. There are no more telephone booths for latter-day Olivers to barricade themselves in. Few cobblers remain.
And in years to come, in perhaps the keenest loss of all, there may well be no more newsprint. A 20th-century artifact increasingly deemed redundant in the electronic age, it remains, for New York’s dog walkers, a vital, and indispensable, means of upholding the law.