When I first started out walking dogs in New York City, it was hard. Not the dog part, but the walking part. During my training, I logged almost 25 miles of walking in two and a half days (the third abruptly cut short by a poorly planned for snow storm). The following week, my first real week, I walked at least 14 miles a day because I had my regular dogs and a handful of dogs I stupidly volunteered to help out with. I refused to acknowledge the idea that I might have a physical limit., but after getting fired from my retail job I had spent a good two months sitting on my butt in my room watching television. 14 miles a day was a lot.
At almost thirty pounds, Milo is pretty big for a Boston Terrier. People comment on it all the time when we’re walking. During the winter, he wore a fuzzy red puffer coat and blue snow boots, which only drew more attention to the utter adorableness that is him. In the beginning of our time together, Milo would bark at every single dog he saw, almost to the point of being uncontrollable. He’s gotten a lot better; I like to think of myself as a bit of a dog whisperer. With Milo, it’s all about the bonding.
I get to his building and get the key from the doorman, and then I head upstairs. I whistle when I step off the elevator, because Milo likes to know I’m coming—and he definitely knows. When I stick the key in the lock, I can hear him panting and scratching on the other side of the door. As I carefully open the door, he spins around and dances on his hind legs. I sit down on the brown rug just inside the door, and Milo runs away further into the apartment. He digs around in his oversized bed until he comes up with a stuffed red lobster, and then he charges at me like I’m a huge piece of steak. He skids to a stop and the game begins—he offers me the lobster, and then snatches it away from me. Again and again, he prances just out of reach, and I play like I want that lobster more than anything else in the world. Sometimes, I get a hand on it—and when I do, I throw it. Milo always brings it back. I have affectionately named the toy Mr. Lobster. Playing keep away is one of the highlights of my day, and the more we play, the less Milo reacts to other dogs.
One day, I came to the apartment to pick up Milo and Mr. Lobster wasn’t there. Milo was frantic. He ran in circles all over the apartment, digging in his bed, between the cushions on the couch, and under the dining table. He didn’t want to go outside; he didn’t want to walk around other dogs, and he didn’t want to listen. All because we didn’t spend three minutes playing a simple game with a stuffed toy before we left.
14 miles a day was a lot, but it was an exciting lot. I got my first unlimited subway pass, and I got to see parts of New York I hadn’t even known were there. I found Foley Square. I walked along the piers of East River. I took a selfie in front of the New York Stock Exchange. I breathed in fresh air; I was out of the house. It was a glorious feeling, and one that hasn’t gone away these last three months of walking dogs. My enjoyment of the outdoors, of being in the city, has only grown. And I’m not exhausted at the end of the day anymore—my stamina has increased. I’m getting into shape again.
With Teddy and Missy, the focus comes from a physical bond. Teddy and I play a game where I count down from three as I undo the latches on his kennel, and as soon as the door opens he does a flying leap into my lap and wraps his paws around my neck—a literal doggy hug. After a minute, he falls over baby-style so that I can cradle him and rub his tummy. Another minute, and he stands up to let me put his harness on.
Missy is less exuberant with her affections. I open her kennel door and she leans out. I have to be down on the floor so that she can sniff my hair. Once my hair meets her approval, she has to sniff the rest of me; I believe she gets jealous that she isn’t my only puppy friend. After the big sniff, Missy puts her head on my shoulder for a brief hug and a back scratch. Missy doesn’t like to be harnessed unless this whole process has occurred; she turns her head and tries to wander away to eat the kitty litter from the box in the corner to drown out her pain.
Missy and I walk along the East River in Chinatown. We have a specific route that we take most days so that we can encounter the maximum number of joggers and skateboarders and learn how to not bark at them. Our turn around point is this little section of pier that juts out over the only sandy strip I’ve seen on the East River. There’s a bench at the end of the pier, and we always take a few minutes to sit on it—at Missy’s insistence. If I try to walk past it, Missy stops and jumps on it, sitting down with me. Once I sit down, Missy lays down and presses against me, her two front paws draped across my lap. After a few minutes of bird watching, she takes the loose leash in her mouth and jumps down, as if to say “It’s time to go home now.”
I like to take new routes when I walk the dogs. It varies things up for them and for me. Sometimes I’ll go down one pier, sometimes another. One day I’ll go to the seaport, and the next day I’ll go to the stock exchange. Now that it’s spring, I see a lot of tv and movie crews filming. I saw the cast of “Law and Order: SVU” over by the courthouse, and Debra Messing from “Mysteries of Laura” picking through a staged mountain of garbage in her beige detective coat looking for clues. My life is different every day, when it used to be the same. Just like the dogs have different needs for being happy, I too have needs.
I went to the doggy spa to pick up Buddy the beagle puppy, my last walk on a very long Friday. He came out of the back area with one of the workers, all prancing and cute on the end of his leash. But then I took the leash, and he promptly sat down on the floor. I fumbled in the pocket of my coat and produced a piece of kibble, and moved it forward to try and get him to get up and follow. Which he did, right out the front door, where he promptly sat again. The look on his face said it all: “I’m not going to go with you.” I tried to tug him, but it was a solid no go. Buddy just stared at me with a goofy beagle smile and refused to be dragged. I ended up only making it around the block with him, me half bent over and him chasing the treats I doled out from the palm of my hand the entire way. I imagine I looked like an incredible idiot. But the best part of being a dog walker? No one cares.
Dogs are funny and unique creatures, and I pride myself on my ability to understand them. I was pretty lonely before I started walking dogs, and now I’m not as lonely. It’s not just because I have all these fabulous new puppy friends. It’s that I’m getting out in the world. Shaking up my routines, becoming more flexible. Learning how to make connections, how to adjust my approach for different situations. I am learning to care less, to not worry so much about what people think. And I’m better for it. The most important thing I have learned is that I need to know what my needs are. And I’m learning.
I have the best job in the world.