By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC
I waited 20 years to get a dog again. After growing up with dogs in my home town of Memphis, taking on such a commitment after I left home was too much for my chaotic, itinerant life: college in Knoxville, TN, first jobs in Miami, all-consuming career and cramped apartments in New York City. I knew, from my mother’s example, what having a dog entailed. So I waited. Finally, in 1995, when my family was comfortably ensconced in Austin and my youngest child was five (big enough not to get toppled), we got a chocolate Lab puppy. We had a woodsy, fenced backyard that backed up to a greenbelt, and we installed a pet door. The pup, named Jordan, had the run of the house and property; and I began a dog-walking routine that I have continued to this day. Of course, 15 years later, Jordan has passed on. Now we have two dogs: a nine-year-old Bichon named Buffett and a three-year-old chocolate Lab named Jamie.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the full beauty of dogs: they are not only devoted companions, but they are also ideal exercise partners. Certain breeds, like Labs, require lots of exercise, and this is exactly what I needed: someone to motivate me, hold me accountable and keep me company. We walk morning and evening, seven days a week. Along our route, in hilly Lost Creek, we experience the world—other dogs and humans, cats, deer, birds, squirrels, armadillo, possum, road runners, rabbits, fox, snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, lizards, buzzards, and even the occasional coyote. We take in the sky and the trees; we stop to smell the flowers.
On weekends, my husband, dogs and I walk up to the park at the top of the hill and meet our dog-walking group. These are people whom we would not have met otherwise. We venture down into a deserted office park, where the dogs run gleefully off-leash. Just watching their exuberance makes us happy. Anxiety and depression float away. They put things in perspective, reminding us to embrace the moment, to live consciously. When we get home, we swim together to cool off. Occasionally, we venture out to Zilker, Red Bud Isle or Town Lake.
Besides the exercise benefits, my dogs keep me grounded. As a therapist, I have an emotionally exhausting job. I love what I do but I need therapy; and Buffett and Jamie are my therapists. I talk to them, tell them my problems. They listen, and love me unconditionally. During the week, I alternate taking Jamie or Buffett to work. They are wonderful therapy dogs. But they also force me outside between sessions to stretch and walk and breathe in the sunshine. We return refreshed, limber and ready to focus.
So for those who like dogs and want to stay fit, consider getting a dog. Even Buffett, the little Bichon, is hearty enough to walk three or four miles a day. Other than the cost of the dog, a reasonable expense at the local shelter, the only equipment you’ll need is a leash and a good pair of walking shoes!