For much of my 20s, my knowledge of life in New York City, often in neighborhoods I could never afford, was in part the result of my willingness to care for other people’s dogs.
That’s how I learned about janitors, cleaning services, and garbage dumps. The politics of dog racing. Off-leash hours in Central Park. The fact that some buildings still have elevator operators. The reality that the list of instructions that come with caring for pets is often twice as long as those that come with children.
Even now, in my 40s, when some of the urban luxuries are closer, I still say yes to most dog requests. I’m a dog person without a dog, and dog sitting is the sweet spot where all the joy meets none of the cost.
During the pandemic, these requests all but disappeared for obvious reasons: People never left their dogs behind.
In fact, if it had been possible to construct a heat map of happiness in the spring of 2020, it is likely that the hottest place would have been Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the day.
While much of the world, including New York City, was suffering from the brutal first wave of Covid-19, a certain segment of the local dog population was living its best life (a step up from what was already very good).
Released from the daily group walk, that iconic image of 10 or more dogs, intertwined leashes, in perfect, if a bit grudging, lockstep, being walked by a laser-focused professional. these pups received sustained individual attention from their closeted and stressed owners. The secret life of pets no more.
Now that the borders have reopened and people can travel once more, I have personally experienced an increase in requests (and watched resigned dogs, once again given over to the group walk). Some of this is undoubtedly due to the number of people who became dog owners during the pandemic. In March 2020, there was a sharp increase in foster applications. Last year, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that 45% of households now have dogs, compared to 38% in 2016.
It’s not just me. The repercussions of the Great Dog Surge of 2020 are being felt nationally, said Amy Sparrow, president-elect of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. “It has exploded everywhere.”
Now all these puppies have to learn to be alone and the owners have to learn to leave them.
“There’s a lot of separation anxiety,” said Jamie DeChristopher of LuckyDog in Brooklyn, who has been taking care of dogs for 20 years. “The dogs will start destroying things in the house. They will howl and bark. Suddenly they are left alone and they don’t understand that. Everyone was home and now people are going back to the office or they don’t have the time they had for their dogs.”
So who you gonna call? Dog sitters. But the non-professionals, friends or family, let’s say, are they happy to come? Not necessarily.
Less-than-enthusiastic dog sitters, or those who outright refuse to do so, do exist, though they can be hard to pin down. In the course of reporting this article, I heard from many people who wanted nothing to do with the dog sitting business, but the moment they were asked to do so publicly, they immediately backed off. Several people told me that they relied on their “allergies” when turning down applications.
“You can’t tell people you don’t like dogs,” said Melanie Nyema, 41, an artist who lives in New York City. “They automatically think it makes you some kind of psychopath. You could also have said that you like to kick babies.
For the record, Ms. Nyema has nothing against other people’s pets, and she’s very fond of babies, but, simply put, “she just doesn’t like dogs.”
“I also don’t touch escalator handrails or hold subway poles. You can’t know where people’s dogs have been.”
Jason Duffy, 48, a producer from Los Angeles, said dog-sitting was akin to “taking a friend to LAX.” “I love you, but wow,” he said.
And, for homeowners, it’s not always easy to ask. Bryn Diaz, 43, lives in Alpine, Utah, has two dogs and feels more comfortable having someone she knows take care of them. The only drawback, she said, is “I hate imposing and I don’t want friends to feel obligated to help.”
The reasons some jump on the opportunity are better documented: Lots of people love dogs, and the emotional support they provide works in two ways. Nikita Char, 22, a recent Binghamton University graduate who lives in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn with her parents in a building that doesn’t allow dogs, found comfort in the two German Shepherds she stays with and care often.
“They really helped me during the pandemic to get my mental state back,” he said. “Honestly, a dog’s comfort is sometimes better than a human’s.”
Julian Weller, 31, a podcast producer in New York, agreed. “It’s like another way to socialize, but you can use muscles that haven’t gotten tired in the same way,” he said. “You can play in a different way.” The added benefit of staying in another apartment: “It was a great way to take notes, of what life could be like.”
Allison Silverman, 50, a writer and TV producer in Brooklyn, took Ziggy, a 10-year-old labradoodle, in over the holidays, in part as a test to see if her family should take the plunge and get the 10-year-old pup. eldest daughter had been begging.
But part of his reasoning “was that we needed a stimulus,” Silverman said. “It felt so horrible to be in that closed space again in New York City in December and January. Ziggy was a mood booster. She made a big difference.” (Now they are getting a dog of their own.)
And then there are those who will to do so, but perhaps not out of doggy devotion. When a friend asked Mia Cayard, 24, an event producer who recently moved to New York from Florida, to babysit her puppy, Ms. Cayard said she did some math.
“It depends on three factors,” he said. “Who asked you,” as well as “how much you care about that person and how much you are willing to change or compromise to deal with the situation.”
Mrs. Cayard ended up taking the dog. “I thought this is going to be a growing experience,” she said. “I can definitely do it. He is not a child, he is a dog. So whatever I do wrong, it can’t give me away.”
In the end, he was glad he did. “I like to reboot during my time at home and just have another one there kind of lay down and I was like, oh, you’re cute, you’re friendly,” she said. “And she looks at you with those little eyes… I love that.”