It all started with a text from my friend Dave.
“I’ll be going away to Yiddish school this summer. Would you like to watch my dog?”
He proposed a deal: in exchange for watching Dave’s dog, I could stay in the spare bedroom in his home in Chicago free of charge. Then, he sent a photo of his pup—a Pit Bull mix with kind, large eyes and an undeniable sweetness. Her name was Miette.
I knew I would fall in love, and I was right.
When I arrived at Dave and his partner’s house, Miette was lying on the floor of the living room with a look of malaise. She hadn’t been eating much and had trouble keeping her food down.
After a visit to the vet, it turned out that her symptoms were a result of feeling anxious and stressed. Dave had left a few days ago on his trip. It was the first time her owner was away from her, and she was suffering from separation anxiety.
I did what I could to make her feel better. I took her for long walks throughout the day and gave her affection by way of ear rubs, cuddles and rounds of fetch on the patio. Anything to help allay the anxiety she had of her owner being own. And in no time, Miette was on the mend.
Bonding with Miette was almost instant. She was such a friendly, sweet dog that within a few days of us meeting, she had her head on my lap and slept at the foot of my bed.
In my time caring for Miette, I learned her backstory. When Dave and his partner, Greg, came across her at an animal shelter, Miette was severely underweight and malnourished. She had been used as a breeder dog and lived in filth in a cold basement along with six other dogs. Their owner was arrested for animal hording and abuse.
But you would never suspect those were Miette’s origins. She was so loving and quick to sniff out other dogs, to make friends with strangers. She was there by my side, comforting me one night after someone tried to intrude and enter my friends’ home when we were alone.
It wasn’t always easy caring for Miette. There were days when she would get super stubborn on our walks, park herself on the sidewalk, and not budge. Other days, she would get excited around other dogs, enter “herding” mode and circle them uncontrollably, getting herself in a bit of a tangle with a leash. It took some time to figure out the best ways to work with her.
When my pet sitting stint was over and it was time for me to return to Los Angeles, I missed Miette dearly. From time to time Dave would send me photos of her, at the dog park, her little tail wagging.
When a year passed and the next summer came around and Dave asked me to pet sit again, I didn’t think twice.
Pet sitting is more than just a paycheck or free room and board. It’s an opportunity to get to know these wonderful beings, to spend time with them and love them. And as the person caring for these fur babies while their pet parents are away, I think of myself as a conduit for their owner’s affection.
And in some ways, being a pet sitter has also helped me heal. When Tasha, my beloved Cocker Spaniel of 16 years, passed away, I didn’t think I could love another animal the way I loved her. “Tasha Bear” had been with me since I was 12, and I long considered her my best friend. When she passed from old age in 2011, I wept for two weeks straight. It was one of the hardest times in my life. And I never thought I would be able to let another dog into my life again.
Through pet sitting, I could feel myself opening up and letting new animals into my life. Now, although I feel I am more ready to be a pet owner again, my semi-nomadic lifestyle as a freelancer would make it hard. Pet sitting has given me a chance to form relationships with wonderful animals.
In my time as a pet sitter, I’ve had the joy of caring for both dogs and cats while their owners are away. There was Boo and Ninja, a pair of black and white cats. While Boo would be quick to hop on your lap and put his head underneath your hand to be petted, Ninja would hide for days.
There was Kali, the demure Abyssinian cat who seemed perpetually annoyed. And there was Murphy, a geriatric Australian Shepherd mix who would endearingly take his sweet time waddling across the street during our walks, stopping to sniff just about everything. I’d oftentimes find him sneakily nestling underneath the bathroom sink before I even had a chance to close the door for a bit of privacy.
I think of these creatures as my little nieces and nephews, and their owners endearingly call me “Aunt Jackie.”
And while I have felt so much joy spending time with these animals, there have been sad times, too. In the past year, both Murphy and Kali both passed away. When my friend Devin, Kali’s owner, called me to tell me Kali was dying, my heart grew heavy. While she was a one-love kind of feline who displayed intense devotion to her owner and was kind of neutral toward everyone else, in the seven years I knew her, I had grown fond of her.
I got a chance to say goodbye to Kali in her last days. And when Devin decided to schedule an in-home vet visit to put her to sleep, I found myself crying, feeling a similar sorrow to when my dog Tasha passed.
But along with the deep sadness that comes with loss is remembering the fun, joyful moments and why we make the conscious choice to let beings, human or non-human, into our lives in the first place. And despite the challenges that come with the territory, pet sitting has provided such a form of deep fulfillment and happiness that I find myself constantly grateful for the opportunity to bond with these special animals.