Dog care as ancestral healing: Hear me out
My side job as a dog caregiver has revealed another side of Austin and of myself.
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a little series about losing our dog during the pandemic and turning to pet care as a source of both income and healing in the wake of our loss. To read the first post, click here.
Losing an animal is a life-changing moment for most of us.
Whether it’s a goldfish or a golden retriever, the death of something we love is a painful loss and a reminder that we all die, two tough blows, no matter if you’re 5 or 55.
When our 17-year-old blue heeler died in 2020, I wrote about how the pandemic shaped her last few years. We haven’t added a new dog to our family, but we almost always have a dog at our house, thanks to the wonderful family side gig that is Rover.
After Shiva died, we didn’t plan on getting a pet anytime soon — our farm animals are plenty — but in the fall of 2021, we started watching and caring for dogs (and cats) as a way to bring in some extra income and to let the boys help me earn extra money by walking and feeding our furry guests.
It was Avery’s suggestion: “Hey, Mom, isn’t there a website where we can get paid to walk dogs?”
Fast forward more than a year, and dog-watching has become one of the true joys and sources of satisfaction in my life. I’ve met some of the most interesting people and dropped off dogs in neighborhoods from Far East Austin to Steiner Ranch. After the first few weeks of feeding, walking, and cleaning up after these treasured companions, it started to settle in: I am doing a really important job.
Harnessing the energy needed to deal with all these different canines has been a skill I’ve had to develop, and more often than not, I think about how my dad interacted with dogs. He was the one who showed up one school night with a long-haired Sheltie-Collie mix that loved to eat carrots. We kept the name from the shelter, Bernie.
As I write this column today, I have another pup by my side: Sita. I’d call her a four-legged friend, but she only has three legs. She is the first and (so far) only tripod dog we have cared for.
Sita’s owners are two of the most amazing women I’ve ever met, and I wouldn’t have crossed paths with them without this dog-watching business.
Within a minute or two of meeting, one of her moms held my gaze and said, “Thank you for being the kind of person who can hold space for a dog like Sita. We appreciate you.”
On the first day they brought Sita over, we sat in the backyard, talking in soft voices and giving her plenty of space to warm up to us. I was amazed at how quickly these strangers and I could, by opening up and talking gently about ourselves, create a space where Sita could feel utterly and totally safe. Like that radical care, I felt at the Billie Eilish concert.
Losing a leg gives a dog a certain kind of trauma, and even today, each time I see her, it takes a few minutes for her to remember that I am here to take good care of her while her moms are away.
We watch plenty of dogs that don’t need that kind of TLC. Their parents drop them off and they roll over on their belly, ready for a good scratch and a nuzzle.
It’s amazing what you can learn about someone in a 10-minute chat while dropping off a pet or picking one up.
Another of my favorite clients has two dogs, who I have grown to adore, just like their mother. My other regular dog-walking client just welcomed a new baby into its home, and when I’m lucky, I get to catch a glimpse at that baby, still fresh as warm laundry, when I pick up Buddie. “It’s so good to see you,” I tell his owner. And I mean it.
One of my most memorable dog moments of the past year came last fall when I surprised a groom at his wedding with his dog. The bride had arranged with me beforehand so the dog could be part of their ceremony. I swept in with the pooch, watched a grown man cry at the sight of his best friend, and then whisked the not-so-little-guy back to my house so the newlywed couple could enjoy their night without worrying about their baby.
These tiny moments are when I realize this dog walking business is so much more than a side hustle. The caretaking of the dogs is special on its own, but it’s these unexpected conversations — about travel and holiday traditions and grief and grandparents and the butter chicken recipes they love — with the dog owners that catapults my dog work into another stratosphere.
We are all spiritual beings having a human experience, and dogs tend to bring out the best in people, that softer, playful side. For many people, it’s the only way they know how to express care or vulnerability, especially around strangers.
And for us, these dogs have brought laughter and lots of hair and left scratches on the couch and an imprint on our hearts. I still don’t think we’re ready to commit to having our own dog, but we’ve become as much of a dog family as ever.
To think that all of this came into our lives because of grief. We acknowledged how sad we were after Shiva died and used our imaginations to find a way to open our hearts to dogs without signing the dotted line that says we have to be with them until their final days.
I’m not ready for that again. Not yet.
One last note about Sita’s moms. They are moving this year, so this month’s visits will probably be my last with Sita for now. We’ve all been a little sad about it. “It’s like we just figured out our caregiving team,” one of them told me earlier in the week. It can take years to find the right support team, she was saying, from doctors to dog sitters. And sometimes you still have to move on, in this case, to help her parents in California.
Last month, they delivered a care package when they found out I had COVID during the week Sita was with it that included this orange clove tea I enjoyed this morning. Today, they gave me a book with a note that was signed, “May you know and cherish your worthiness to life.”
What a gift, Rover. What a gift.
Happy new year! As we roll into 2023, I have been looking back and looking ahead and I wanted to share a couple of updates about the newsletter.
First, I’ve hired a copy editor! On one of those media trips last fall, I met a wonderful writer and editor in Houston, Chris Becker, whom I’ve hired for a few hours a month to help me stay on top of my copy. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and the time felt right. I’m grateful for the second set of eyes and for his keen writing sense — and to all of you whose subscriptions allow me to pay other artists for their talent and time. Thank you, thank you!
Second, with Chris’ help, I’m going through the back catalog of Feminist Kitchen posts to find our favorites from the past nearly two years of doing this Substack. Do you have a favorite post, a subject that got you thinking about your own experiences? I’d love to hear about it. (You can reply to this email or shoot me a note at email@example.com!)
Lastly, can you share that newsletter/post with someone you think would like it? I am excited to watch The Feminist Kitchen grow in 2023 so I can keep paying folks to help me make it better and donating some of the proceeds to local organizations whose work is worth highlighting here. This month’s donation is going to Emancipet, a low-cost and equity-centered vet clinic that helps folks across Austin care for their pets.
Thank you for reading! Back with a story next week about full moon dinners and the coolest art residency in Texas.