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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Walkers

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Dog walking is more than just exercise and picking up after your pet. The people who walk your pup are masters at multitasking: while holding a bunch of leashes, they maneuver multiple dogs around a city block or park, checking for danger and making sure the dogs are having a good time. Check out these insights for a glimpse into the lives of professional dog walkers, who routinely deal with everything from canine clothing to random dogs suddenly befriending them.

1. THEY KNOW HOW TO ROCK A FANNY PACK.

Dog walkers need their hands free to hold leashes, open doors, and sometimes control a pack of dogs. That means their tools need to be readily accessible, and a fanny pack is often their tool belt of choice. The gear stashed inside usually includes keys, a phone, plastic bags, extra leashes, treats, collapsible water bowls, and citronella spray (to deter coyotes or aggressive stray dogs).

2. SOME OF THEM ARE ACTUALLY DOG CHAUFFEURS.

Although most dog walkers pick up your dog for a walk, some are more properly referred to as dog drivers. “People call me a dog walker, but because I’m in Los Angeles, I’m really a dog chauffeur,” says Chris Franciosa, the owner of dog walking and pet care company Weezie’s Walkies. “I pick up dogs all over the Westside, drive them to an amazing dog park, and let them frolic and socialize and have a ball.”

3. YOU MIGHT SEE YOUR DOG WALKER ON TV …

Law student Rachel Russell worked as a dog walker in Brooklyn before starting law school. “Many creative people (writers and actors) have day jobs as dog walkers,” she tells mental_floss. Because of the flexible hours and potentially temporary nature of the job, dog walking appeals to creative types who have an irregular schedule or regularly audition for gigs.

4. … BUT DOG WALKING CAN BE A SOLID, FULL-TIME JOB.

“People are usually surprised to hear that dog-walking can be a full-time job that one can make a good living doing,” Christine Neely, the owner of San Diego’s Have a Ball Pet Sitting & Dog Walking, says. Although not all dog walkers are able to earn enough income to make it their full-time job, many dog walkers in larger metropolitan areas can make it work. “I make a living, support my family of four, and even bought a house in Los Angeles while putting my wife through graduate school,” Franciosa says.

5. SOME OF THEIR CLIENTS TRY TO GET AWAY WITH NOT PAYING.

Although dog walkers have big responsibilities, some clients see them more as friends than employees. “People will sometimes try to get away with not paying their dog walkers, viewing the dog walkers as their friends,” Russell says. It should go without saying, but even if your dog walker clearly loves their job and your dog, they need to earn money just like any other worker, so don’t stiff them.

6. THEY CAN SPOT EARLY SIGNS OF ILL HEALTH.

Because dog walkers spend time with your dog on a daily basis, they can quickly spot unusual behaviors. Jordan Kaplan, the owner of New York City’s Petaholics, explains to mental_floss that dog walkers may be the first to spot ticks, rashes, or unusual spots on a dog. “Often we see things before their parents do. Diarrhea is common, whether they ate something or picked up something,” Kaplan says. And if your dog develops a limp that slowly gets worse or has difficulty urinating, your dog walker can tell you and suggest that you bring your dog to a veterinarian.

7. THEY’RE PROBABLY FAMILIAR WITH CANINE CLOTHING.

Some dog owners have specific sartorial requirements for their dogs, depending on the weather or the season. Before taking these dogs on a walk, dog walkers may have to spend extra time fitting four little boots onto a dog’s paws or maneuvering a doggie sweater onto a pooch. It can be time-consuming, but the results are usually pretty cute.

8. THEY APPRECIATE HOW MUCH YOU TRUST THEM.

“The amount of trust given to dog walkers is impressive: you’re giving a stranger your key and entrusting them with your beloved pet,” Russell says. Dog owners entrust dog walkers with their pet's health, safety, and security, which is already a lot of responsibility. Additionally, most dog walkers keep a copy of their clients’ house keys so they can pick up and drop off each dog at home. That’s a lot of trust, and dog walkers know (and appreciate) it.

9. THEY MIGHT AVOID WALKING CERTAIN BREEDS.

According to Kaplan, most dog walkers will work with any breed, but some petite dog walkers ask for smaller breeds so they don’t have to handle a dog that’s larger than they are.

But size isn’t the only thing that matters. Dog trainer Ted Terroux tells Care.com that dog walkers should consider how their temperament meshes with certain dog breeds. “Some breeds tend to be territorial and some are predatory, while others are adventurous or independent,” he says. A laid-back, passive person might not be best suited to walk an aggressive guard dog, for example.

10. RANDOM DOGS BEFRIEND THEM WHEN THEY’RE OFF THE CLOCK.

One dog walker in San Francisco reveals that dogs often approach dog walkers when they’re off-duty, treating them as if they’re another dog. Whether these dogs are responding to scent on the dog walker’s clothing or intuitively sense the presence of a dog lover, most dog walkers don’t mind being one of the pack.

11. THEY TAKE PHOTOS OF YOUR DOG.

You might have a ton of photos of your dog stored on your phone, but your dog walker most likely has some too. When they’re out and about with your dog, some dog walkers can’t resist the urge to take a selfie with your pup. As dog walker Nicole Zalat writes, dog walkers enjoy sharing photos of their day with their friends and family: “Your dog gave me a high five? Shared ... I love walking your dog, and I love telling everyone about her.”

12. THEY’RE EXPERTS AT READING CANINE BODY LANGUAGE.

Dog walkers are always on alert for potential dangers—coyotes, stray dogs, or kids who might run up and startle their charges. Good dog walkers are also highly attuned to canine body language and can tell when a dog is frightened or ready to bite. When something goes awry, they know to walk quickly to the other side of the street or distract their dogs.

13. THEY CARE DEEPLY ABOUT YOUR DOG’S SAFETY AND HAPPINESS.

Most dog walkers truly love animals, and they care very much about your dog’s quality of life. Dog walkers may sing to your dog, hug and kiss it, or call it special nicknames. Frankly, dog walkers may even enjoy spending time with your dog as much as you do.

All photos via iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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