WAYLAND — After shattering her ankle in a tangled-leash accident last spring, dog walker Noreen Carson thought she knew the worst thing that could happen to her on the job. That was until Wednesday, when a rival dog walker allegedly pummeled her and tried to choke her with a leg lock around her neck.
In a turf war over a canine client, the other walker, Maria Podolskaya, allegedly grabbed Carson by the hair, punched her, and clinched her with the kind of holds rarely seen outside the Ultimate Fighting octagon, according to Carson and Wayland police.
“You’ll never walk a dog again!” Carson said Podolskaya screamed at her, while allegedly kicking Carson’s still-fragile right ankle.
Police charged the 23-year-old Podolskaya with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a shod foot. She was arraigned Thursday at Framingham District Court and released on $710 bail, with an order to keep away from both Carson and the conservation land where she was arrested.
Officers said Podolskaya admitted to “scratching and strangling” Carson but claimed self-defense, alleging the other woman punched her, according to the report. Carson said she never punched Podolskaya and merely flailed while trying to escape; police found no injuries on Podolskaya and did not charge Carson.
Podolskaya stands just 5 feet tall and weighs 100 pounds, according to police, but she is a former gymnast and gymnastics coach in top shape. Carson, at 5 feet 3 inches, is a 50-year-old single mother of two with arthritis and one good ankle.
“She was tossing me around like a rag doll,” said Carson, who had bruises on the bridge of her nose, scratches across both sides of her neck, and an ankle wrapped in gauze, after treatment at Newton-Wellesley Hospital following the altercation.
“I thought she was going to kill me,” said Carson, who described how her own dogs stayed by her side while Podolskaya’s scattered through the woods during the struggle. “I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.”
Carson and police said the fight grew out of a misunderstanding after Carson appeared at Wayland’s Loker Conservation Area with two dogs that were once clients of Podolskaya’s employer, Wags 4 Walks. Carson had worked for the same Newton agency prior to her injury.
Podolskaya’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
At the end of the Framingham cul-de-sac where Podolskaya lives with her parents, her mother indicated that there was more to the story. But she said they would avoid commenting until after they could confer with her lawyer and take Podolskaya to the hospital for treatment for “some pains and aches.”
Always an animal lover, Carson said that as a child she buried dead creatures she found on the road and worked at a pet store as a teen.
After trying her hand as a medical secretary and pet groomer, she discovered her calling in her 40s as a dog walker, smitten by the thrill of being greeted like a returning hero by 10 different dogs each day.
“You’re not making a ton of money, you’ve got to pick up poop. But it’s knowing that when you go to a dog’s house and they’re waiting,” Carson said, her voice trailing off, a far-away look in her eyes.
Her accident last May — which fractured her right ankle in three places, and required pins and plates to hold the bones together — caused months of pain and rehabilitation and kept her from working. By July, Wags 4 Walks had replaced her with Podolskaya.
Because Wags 4 Walks had failed to provide the required workers’ compensation insurance, Carson successfully petitioned the state for lost wages, winning a $22,500 judgment, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Accidents.
While she healed, Carson sometimes returned to the Wayland park with best friend Deidra Martino, an independent dog walker, and they said occasional brushes with Podolskaya could be tense.
The two veterans thought the younger walker was trying to maximize time and profit at the expense of the animals by bringing up to 13 dogs out at once.
Feeling a personal connection to the pets she had walked, Carson reached out to one owner — a Newton man who is often on the road — after noticing a melon-sized “hot spot,” or wound, on the man’s beloved golden retriever, Tucker. She said that led the man to invite her to walk Tucker again once she was well enough.
Six weeks ago, Carson had the pins removed from her ankle. Soon after, she ran into another former client, Wellesley lawyer Trish Farnsworth, at a local bakery. Carson was just beginning to think about restarting dog walking on her own, and Farnsworth volunteered to be her second client, knowing how much her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sydney, adored the woman.
So when Carson — still walking gingerly — returned to the park with both dogs Wednesday, Podolskaya confronted her and “accused Carson of having no morals” and poaching clients, according to the police report.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing this, Maria, I’m leaving,’ ” Carson said, recalling that she tried to explain the owners had come to her voluntarily. “I had Sydney in my hand, and before I knew it, I don’t know what happened — she just, like, grabbed me.”
Carson remembers a blur of punches and kicks and a suffocating pretzel hold, and said the young woman threw her cellphone across the field at the Loker trailhead. After police arrived and questioned the women, they handcuffed Podolskaya and retrieved her scattered dogs from the woods, corralling them in her Honda sport utility vehicle until Wags 4 Walks owner Kimberly Katz arrived.
Katz said by phone Thursday that Podolskaya no longer worked for her but otherwise declined to comment. “I wasn’t there,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Beyond the criminal charges, Podolskaya received a $100 fine for walking too many dogs at once. Wayland allows two dogs off-leash or three on-leash along Loker’s wooded trails, though many walk more, said conservation administrator Brian J. Monahan, adding that signage there will soon become clearer.
Podolskaya’s Facebook page shows her to be a lover of animals, surrounded by dogs and colorful birds in profile photos. Earlier this week, she posted sharp criticism of a kennel owner who abused a dog.
Friend Cassandra Kelley said she was stunned by the news, describing Podolskaya as a gentle soul who volunteers with shelter dogs on weekends. “This is her life. All she does is walk animals, and she honestly is the most lovable person,” said Kelley, a dog trainer who encouraged her younger friend to become a professional dog walker when they were working side-by-side as pharmacy technicians a few years ago. “She weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. I call her my little toddler child.”