Dog walking isn’t a job for comfort seekers. And here in Maine, it takes a truly rare breed (pun intended).
Imagine a cold, snowy morning. It could be December, when the drifts are fairly fresh or mid-March, when filthy snowbanks line the roads like monoliths. Either way, the weather is awful. The thermometer reads 6 degrees in the sun and an icy wind is whipping up the coast. Standing on the beach I feel naked, the gale cutting straight through three layers of thermal, fleece, and down. The hat helps, of course, as well as the two hoods. But water is starting to penetrate the tips of my boots, and my once-warm gloves are now soaked from the icy tennis balls I’ve been throwing for the past 20 minutes. WHY must labs love the water so much?
When I started walking dogs in October daytime temps were in the 60s. It was STUNNING. Mother nature was busy donning her autumn attire, the leaves awash in gold and fire. Each day was somehow prettier than the last. And the dogs… ooh! the DOGS! I was falling in love with each of them. The funny mannerisms, furry little quirks, even the irritations, everything was new and wonderful. My devotion to dog walking thus began, built on a bed of beauty. Months passed, and I kept on working, loyal to my boss and dogs, even as the weather turned. What began in the fall as a festive romp through the leaves, morphed into a grueling midwinter march only a viking could love. Thank God for my Scandinavian genes, because I’m not sure how else I could have survived.
My boss’ policy is a bit like a biker gang: RIDE OR DIE. I jest! But unless Portland Public Schools cancel for the day, we walk. Dog walking isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in a frosty clime. I’m not a skier. I don’t long for the snow. I don’t salivate over forecasts and shop for the latest in alpine apparel. HELL no. I’m a former Philadelphian turned Mainer who for the previous nine winters barely tolerated our six (sometimes eight) months of solid cold.
So here I was. A still fairly new dog walker discovering just how routinely and severely uncomfortable I could be, by choice. It’s not like there aren’t other jobs out there. Ones you can do whilst comfortably inside, warm and dry. Ones where you aren’t covered in dog slobber, hair, and YES, sometimes even poo. Where you can look (dare I say it?) CUTE. Instead of constantly bundled up like Frosty the Snowman, eyes peeking out from a fleece wall. I hadn’t previously known how many different types of precipitation there are, but I do now. How rain can sheet sideways so severely that it seeps into seamless waterproof clothing. How ice can be so slippery you’ll fall even while wearing knifelike metal crampons. And how very hard the ground is in winter when you hit it running with a pack of five dogs.
There are reasons folks pay other people to walk their dogs. First and foremost is, of course, work. Many people would love to be at home with their furry best friend all day, every day, but most can’t. Our clients have jobs that keep them very busy, working long and often set hours, and as much as they’d love to pop home during the day to let Otto out, they can’t. Dog walking is a service our clients value because they care about their pets. But THERE’S MORE! Because when you live in a super cold state like Maine where it snows half the year and can be more than miserable outside, you can hire a dog walker so YOU can stay INSIDE!!! WOO!
Before I started dog walking I thought of myself as a decently tough gal, someone who didn’t shirk hard work, but after last winter I am a certified BAD ASS. I was outside taking care of other people’s pets, often 5 days a week, regardless of weather, comfort be DAMNED! For weeks I would rise in the dark, slip into layers of synthetic stretch, yank a hat over my uncombed hair, and say a prayer. All winter I lived in a pair of fleece-lined leggings I found at the thrift shop, their festive snowflake pattern cheering me on whenever I’d look down at my legs. I learned which layers worked, which definitely did NOT, and how many layers I typically need (for me, it’s three!) I developed relationships with certain pairs of socks verging on torrid. Never underestimate the power of a piece of clothing to influence your mood. It’s often the smallest things that mean the most, especially in times of deprivation.
One of the most crucial components of dog walking is maximizing comfort in the very worst weather. Making each day as bearable as possible, when no one sane wants to be outside. I very quickly learned the most important things to me, personally. Number One: WARMTH. Even if I get wet, I’m okay if I am mostly warm. This is especially true as it relates to my feet. Keeping my feet warm and dry is UTMOST. For some reason my feet are wired to my brain. Feet: “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Brain: “YAY!” Feet: “I’m freezing!!” Brain: “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!!” Who knows why it’s my feet that get to decide how the rest of me feels, but honestly where my feet go the rest of me follows. I can take the cold, but if my tootsies start to ache I’m miserable. I would select my socks like other people choose partners. I’d eyeball them first. We’d go out once. If they didn’t live up to my exacting standards, FUCK YOU FOREVER.
I wore my old Bog boots until the seams split in the back and snow started leaching inside. It wasn’t too bad at first, especially while out on the trail, but once the dogs and I would get back in the car and the heat was cranked, my socks would be wet and then HELL NO. I tried patching them several times inside with duct tape, but it’d only last for so long, and once it started coming off on my socks, I knew they were toast. I’ve worn the same coat since 2010. Not some high-end Patagonia job, but a thinly-lined Calvin Klein parka I got from T.J. Maxx. And when its zipper broke last January, I wept. Bottom line: I had to replace them both ASAP. It was February, after all, and I was likely to drop dead if I didn’t. I drove an hour south to the outlet mecca of Kittery. Being late in the season, there were sales on everything, including jackets and boots. I found a waterproof parka at Columbia for a steal, one with a roomy fur-lined hood which wasn’t just warm but so fashionable it made me feel HOT. The kicky belt was an added bonus. Who says dog walkers have to look frumpy!
Next, new boots. Although I already had two lace-up pairs of Sorels at home, they wouldn’t work for dog walking. WHY? Because they’re not easy on and off. You might think warmth would be the greatest factor in such an important clothing decision but it’s not. I needed a pair of pull-on boots because I have to take my shoes off at each and every client’s home. Not once, but often twice; when I pick up a dog and again when I drop it off. Can you imagine how much time and effort it would take wearing a pair of goddamn lace-up boots? HOLY SHIT. And clients homes don’t always have handy chairs. So I’d be bending over, umpteen freaking times per day, tying and untying a pair of wet filthy boots, while wearing gloves, swaddled in layers, socks half soaked, after hours outside with a bunch of dogs? Just kill me. Fortunately I found another pair of Sorels, this pair a PULL ON! They had them on super sale at Kittery Trading Post and they’re not just warm but also (much like the parka) actually attractive! Pale green waterproof suede with black faux fur trim and (best yet!) PRETEND laces! WIN!
No need to tell you when I returned to work the next week I was feeling FINE. And it’s a good thing too because the miserable weather continued for several months more, finally segueing into mud season and then finally, blissfully, spring. If you’re imagining birds singing and flowers blooming and a chorus of angels floating around my head, you wouldn’t be far off. Once it warmed up, I soon quickly forgot just how awful it’d been and began romanticizing my employment once again. WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE WORK AS A DOG WALKER?? This state of perpetual bliss lasted approximately as long as it took for all of the biting insects to reproduce en masse. Soon summer seemed WORSE than winter, and I was a walking blood bag, roaming the fields and vales with a bunch of dogs. I tried every bug spray on the market. EVEN THE BAD ONES WITH EXTRA DEET. The mosquitoes and flies were relentless. I remember texting my boss one particularly torturous Adventure Day practically begging for help. I kept asking myself aloud, swatting flies off the dogs, WHY AM I DOING THIS? WHY?!?
I still often ask myself this very same question. Why am I a dog walker? I have a masters degree; I am capable of finding other employment. Yet something keeps me keeping on. Mostly, it’s the dogs. I just love them. It really is that simple. Being outside in nature, even in the very worst of weather, brings me such absolutely pure unbridled joy. And YES, in some weird way I also find happiness in pushing myself to my very limits, seeing how much I can truly tolerate. Being a dog walker is, I suppose, a strange badge of honor. And it takes an alphabitch to lead the pack.