I answered a post on a local Facebook group looking for a part-time dog walker in New York City. I wanted a side hustle, and I was trying to stem my heartache after a recent failure to get pregnant with in vitro fertilization. I needed to make money to fund more treatments, and I was trying to find a way to stop crying away half the day.
My once thriving nanny job was no longer in the cards. I held back tears as I walked to meet my first client – a one-year-old male English cream golden retriever named Sonny, after Sonny Corleone. Within ten blocks, I was talking to him in a subdued, soft voice. I even looked down at him and smiled.
A week after that, I found my next assignment. A Dalmatian puppy, straight out of a Disney movie. I never cried once when I was walking him. I quickly built a small, steady circle of clients, and with every step in my $30 dog walks, I was closer to the next $30,000 fertility treatment.
At first, it was merely for money.
As a freelance writer my monthly intake was inconsistent. My husband’s corporate sales job funded just one round of IVF before maxing out. I knew I was privileged to have even that, but affording each subsequent treatment required both a percentage of my husband’s salary, and a deep dive into our savings. Walking dogs added a few thousand dollars to our family fund each month.
Every morning, I’d enter someone else’s apartment door, and hear the sound of galloping feet. Two big paws would charge at me and wrap around my neck – usually a toy would be hanging from a wet mouth. Sonny was always eager with his daily offering.
I’d put the tethered leash around his soft, white neck and he’d follow me out the door.
Growing up with my single mom in New York City, we were cat people. Her own gray cat, Valentino died before I was old enough to really remember. At nine years old, I got Paisley. Long before cats ruled the internet, I subscribed to Cat Fancy, and gave her homemade spa days. Later, I had Fred, a white cat who thought he was a dog. When my mom died in 2010, with my asthma and allergies having worsened over time, I was unable to keep him, so I gave him away to her old work colleague.
Over the next five years, I enjoyed my relationship with a new boyfriend and didn’t think much about pet ownership – or motherhood. In 2017, ten months after my wedding, I decided to bring a new member into our home as a birthday present – a dog. As two lovers of the movie Jaws, (I’d even walked down the aisle to John Williams famous theme song), we named our goldendoodle puppy Chief Brody. He brought my husband and I closer, and instilled a level of compassion in myself I didn’t know was there.
Life seemed perfect, for a while, in our family of three. When I got pregnant in 2018, our family joked that Brody wouldn’t take well to it after so much individual adoration. Sadly, he never needed to adjust. We didn’t bring that baby home. A second trimester loss seemed then like a blip of tragedy in an otherwise picturesque story. I didn’t realize it would catapult me into a seemingly endless, ongoing chapter of sadness.
The past five years have included miscarriages, surgeries and many failed IVF treatments. They’ve been filled with grief and perpetual waiting. All the love I had to offer a baby was bestowed upon our now five-year-old dog. It didn’t take away my heartache, but Brody welcomed the attention.
I had always considered walking my own dog a precious part of my day. But once I started walking other people’s dogs, it grew into something else altogether.
My daily canine adventures – usually five to six a day – benefited my mind and my body. During bouts of feeling depressed, my usual workout or yoga class was easily ignored. But a dog walk was daily exercise that also kept me healthy. I treated each time like a privilege.
It was a half-hour (or hour) where my mind could wander, or dream. Sometimes I’d listen to music or a podcast. Other times I could think through writing projects in ways I might not otherwise if I was sitting at my desk in my apartment.
It required me to be focused on the task at hand, with a certain responsibility I’d never had before. When I walked, my attention was on the dogs – they needed me fully present. It helped remind me to stay in the moment, something that wasn’t easy for me, as I often obsess over the past, or stress about the future. I began to think of my dog walks as my new mindfulness practice, which served me well, long after the half-hour ended. No meditation or yoga I’d tried gave me as much peace as exploring the city with Sonny, Tula, Poppy, Maverick and Wynston the bulldog.
The times I was grieving and wanted to disappear into my room, I forced myself out of my apartment and into the fresh air. Someone else was depending on me for comfort, love and exercise. I wasn’t yet a parent to a human baby, but I felt a new sense of purpose.
I shocked myself by becoming a morning person, up before dawn – a far contrast from the night owl I’d always been. And I loved it. Being a dog caretaker also made me friendlier. My typical native New York attitude was to stay in my own, quiet zone. But with a dog by my side – no matter which one – I regularly engaged with people who wanted to say hi to my furry friends, or ask about a harness they were wearing.
About 65 million households in the U.S. have dogs, and about 46.5 million households have cats. There are more dog owners than ever, and I bet a lot of them don’t consider taking out the dog as self care.
The idea of self-care is often equated with spending money on spas or beauty products, but I discovered a dog walk has done more for my mental health than anything else around. If it’s true you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, then at this point, (assuming we can all agree dogs are people) I’m in good company.
Each walk now provides a small step toward another attempt at motherhood – our next one’s coming up this fall. Whatever happens, I’m going to be okay. And for that, some of the credit must go where it is due: my four-legged friends.
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