I'm a Therapist Who Walks Dogs to Stay Sane and in the Black

After seven or eight hours of listening to people talk about life’s complexities, the simplicity of being with dogs is a relief.

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Dec 6 2018, 1:45pm

Francesca Sternfeld with Leo, one of the dogs she gets paid to walk, in Central Park.

I don’t just like dogs, I learn from them. In my day job, I’m a psychotherapist, so I’m always questioning behavior and pondering what’s going on below the surface. The more time I spend with dogs, the more I see how they are deeply emotional, how much they care about status and territory, and how they are motivated by whims and have their own neuroses and hang ups.

But compared to my work with human New Yorkers, they’re spectacularly straightforward, and they teach me to be the same. After seven or eight hours of listening to people talk about life’s complexities, the simplicity of being with dogs is a relief. Good dog energy goes a long way to shaking off heavy human vibes, and I get saddled with plenty of those. As a side gig, walking dogs hits all the right notes—it’s good pay for easy work, it makes me happy, and I keep learning as I go.

I got into caring for dogs—first as a dog sitter, then as a dog walker—by chance this past September when my grandmother suggested me to a friend. It was a perfect first experience—two poodles, both whip-smart, one bouncy and playful, the other tranquil and affectionate. I thought I was just doing her a favor. So the text sent saying, “I forgot to tell you your envelope is on the table!” was a very, very nice surprise: $200 for three days and two nights of sleeping over and walking the dogs three times a day.

Now, when the stars align, I can make as much as $500 in a month from my side gig. I’ve never even used apps like Wag and Rover because, frankly, I don’t need to—plus, they all take a cut of your earnings, which isn’t worth it to me. When people see a happy dog, that’s what really matters. It’s much more convincing than a bunch of online reviews from strangers.

How I turned a favor into a lucrative side gig

I’ve been able to grow my client base with the help of both dog owners and fellow walkers. Once the first owner saw how much I loved her dogs and vice versa, I let her know that I’d be grateful if she recommended me to some of her friends with dogs. Within a few weeks I was dog sitting for a couple heading out for Columbus Day. From there, my name got passed around by word of mouth and soon I was walking dogs a few times a week and sitting a couple times a month.

I’ve also been able to pick up a few clients by being totally unabashed about telling complete strangers that I walk and sit dogs. The dogs are my wingmen. When I’m already out with a cute one, I casually slip in amongst an owner posse congregating at a park. After they see me connecting with their dogs, I’ll chat them up, talking breeds and ages and behaviors. Once there’s a bit of genuine human-human spark—I’m a therapist, so I’m good at reading people—I give them my number, tell them I’m happy to provide references and quote them a price on the spot. I keep it on the low end, $15 to $20 for a 30 minute walk for one to two dogs (no mini-herds for me).

It's all about the logistics

It’s not hard to juggle my side gig with my day job. Dogs or not, I wake up around 6AM an don't have to be at work until 9AM at the earliest, so a 7AM walk doesn’t interrupt my flow. I’ve said no to evening walks when it would mean missing out on a cool event or time with friends or family, but other than that if I get a call, I’m in. And while most of my dog sitting is on weekends, I don’t mind putting my dating life on hold for a couple days in exchange for a couple hundred bucks.

It helps that I live on the Upper West Side, right by near Central Park, which is probably as dog-dense and high-income as they come. Not only does that translate into higher pay, it also means that Upper West Side dogs are basically Ivy League animals. Dog owners here pour a lot of time and money into having their pups professionally trained, groomed, and socialized. Luckily for me, all the dogs I’ve been able to work with so far have been happy, cooperative, and well behaved.

When dog owners forget their manners

The only downside to this job so far is that some owners and staff at the tippity-top of the income scale are more human to dogs than they are to me. To those owners, I’m faceless, interchangeable help. I’ve had people keep me waiting long past when they told me to arrive without any acknowledgment that my time matters too. Some don’t even looked at me at pick up or drop off, which felt downright bizarre. Here these people are trusting their precious, loved, and likely expensive animal with me, and I might as well be a robot.

I’ll only go back to a job like that if I love the dog; it’s not their fault the people they live with can’t provide a minimum of human courtesy. But those clients are the exception. Most owners are gracious and appreciative, and often we form a real bond over our mutual affinity for their pet.

I try not to let the downside distract me from doing my job, either. My role is simple: show up on time, be reliable, and help the dog get out there and be a dog.