My once-successful job as a nanny was no longer in the cards. I held back tears as I walked to meet my first client – a one-year-old cream English golden retriever named Sonny, after Sonny Corleone. Ten blocks later, I spoke to him in a soft, low voice. I even looked at him and smiled.
A week later, I found my next mission. A Dalmatian puppy straight out of a Disney movie. I never once cried when I walked him. I quickly built a small, steady circle of clients, and with each step of my $30 dog walks, I got closer to the next $30,000 fertility treatment.
At first it was just for the money.
As a freelance writer, my monthly intake was inconsistent. My husband’s job in corporate sales only funded one cycle of IVF before he maxed out. I knew I was privileged to have this, but being able to pay for each subsequent treatment required both a percentage of my husband’s salary and a deep dive into our savings. Walking dogs adds a few thousand dollars to our family fund each month.
Every morning I walked through the door of someone else’s apartment and heard the sound of galloping footsteps. Two large paws charged at me and wrapped around my neck – usually a toy dangling from a wet mouth. Sonny was always enthusiastic with his daily offering.
I would put the attached leash around his soft, white neck and he would follow me to the door.
Growing up with my single mother in New York, we were cat lovers. His own gray cat, Valentino, died before I was old enough to really remember it. When I was nine, I had Paisley. Long before cats ruled the internet, I subscribed to Cat Fancy and treated her to at-home spa days. Later, I had Fred, a white cat who thought he was a dog. When my mother died in 2010, my asthma and allergies had gotten worse over time, and I couldn’t keep him, so I gave him to his former co-worker.
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 welcome a new member into our home as a birthday present: a dog. As two lovers of the movie Jaws (I even walked down the aisle to the famous John Williams theme song), we named our Goldendoodle puppy Chief Brody. He brought my husband and I closer together and instilled in me a level of compassion I never knew existed.
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Life seemed perfect, for a while, in our family of three. When I got pregnant in 2018, our family joked that Brody wouldn’t like it after so much individual adoration. Unfortunately, he never needed to adapt. We didn’t bring that baby home. A second-quarter loss then seemed like a tragic episode in an otherwise picturesque story. Little did I know it would catapult me into a seemingly endless chapter of sadness.
The last five years have been marked by miscarriages, surgeries and numerous IVF treatment failures. They were filled with sorrow and perpetual waiting. All the love I had to give to a baby was given to our now five-year-old dog. It didn’t take away my grief, but Brody appreciated the attention.
I have always considered walking my own dog to be a valuable part of my day. But once I started walking other people’s dogs, it became something completely different.
My daily dog adventures – usually five to six per day – have benefited my mind and body. During periods of depression, my usual workout or yoga class was easily ignored. But walking my dog was a daily exercise that also kept me healthy. I treated each time as a privilege.
It was a half hour (or an hour) where my mind could wander or dream. Sometimes I listened to music or a podcast. Other times, I could think about writing projects in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise if I was sitting at my desk in my apartment.
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It required me to be focused on the task at hand, with a certain responsibility that I had never had before. When I walked, my attention was on the dogs – they needed my full presence. It helped me remember to stay in the moment, which wasn’t easy for me because I’m often obsessed with the past or stressed about the future. I began to view my dog walks as my new mindfulness practice, which served me well, long after the half hour was over. No meditation or yoga I had tried had brought 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 to get out of my apartment and get some fresh air. Someone else depended on me for comfort, love, and exercise. I wasn’t yet the parent of a human baby, but I felt a new sense of purpose.
I shocked myself into becoming a morning person, up before dawn – a stark contrast to the night owl I had always been. And I loved it. Being a dog sitter has also made me more likable. My typical New York attitude was to stay in my own quiet zone. But with a dog by my side – it didn’t matter which one – I regularly chatted with people who wanted to say hello to my four-legged friends or ask them about a harness they were wearing.
In the United States, approximately 65 million households own dogs and approximately 46.5 million households own cats. There are more dog owners than ever, and I bet many of them don’t consider taking their dog out to take care of themselves.
The dog continued to escape from the shelter to sleep in a retirement home. The staff adopted it.
The idea of self-care is often equated with spending money on spas or beauty products, but I’ve found that walking a dog has done more for my mental health than anything else. If it’s true that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, then at this point (assuming we can all agree that dogs are people) I’m in good company.
Each walk is now a small step toward another attempt at motherhood – our next one will be this fall. Whatever happens, everything will be fine. And for that, part of the credit must go to where it belongs: to my four-legged friends.