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‘It’s just slobbery kisses all day long’: Meet a dog walker on a path of healing for mental health

Sarah Hillier runs her own dog walking and pet services business, Sarah’s Snouts, in the St. John’s area. (Submitted by Sarah Hillier)

When Sarah Hillier was first diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and Type 2 bipolar disorder in 2017, she wasn’t sure how she was going to earn a living.

Acting on medical advice, she’d left her job as a call center manager. She needed time to focus on treatment and therapy for her mental health. But though Hillier received sickness benefits while on medical leave, those benefits dried up after a couple of months. She still had bills to pay — and she needed a way to pay them without risking a backslide in her mental health.

Then, while out with her dog and foster dog in the yard one day, it dawned on her. “People have dogs at home that they’d like to get out,” she remembers thinking. “I could do this.”

Fast-forward five years, and Hillier’s dog-walking and pet services business, Sarah’s Snouts, is in high demand. At the moment, Hillier has a full roster of furry friends. And with every doggy grin, slobbery kiss and muddy trek through the woods, Hillier’s walking her own path toward healing her mental health from her.

The CBC’s Andrea McGuire spoke with Sarah Hillier for The St. John’s Morning Show.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does an average day of work look like for you?

A: I don’t get up super-early because most of my dog ​​clients actually like to sleep in. [laughs] The way I run my business is that I pick up all the dogs that I’m walking. So typically around three dogs at a time. I’ll pick them up, go to a trail — but typically not a popular trail or a groomed trail. I like going to transmission lines or secret little trails off in the woods. And then I drop that group back and I head to the next group and do the same thing.

This is just one of the dog squads in Hillier’s care. (Submitted by Sarah Hillier)

How many walks do you do in a day?

Around four or five, depending on how large the groups are. All the dogs pretty much have their best friends, and if they take a week off you can really tell — they get really excited to see each other again. We’ve got our little groups.

How has being a professional dog walker helped your mental health?

It’s been a big help. My health-care professionals also say this is really something that keeps me healthy.

Being outside and being active is a huge thing for mental health. Being with animals just adds another layer onto that. And having flexibility with what I’m doing, who I have as clients, when I take time off — and not having to worry about, you know, leaving a company high and dry kind of thing — all this has given me a lot more flexibility to focus on treatment. So it works in a lot of great ways that really keep me healthy.

Seeing a smile on a dog’s face — I mean, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit better.

It’s huge. I mean, even on the rainy days, or the days where you get up and you’re like, “Oh my goodness, I really don’t want to go out in this weather” — as soon as you get out there, I mean, the dogs don’t care. They’re running around in the mud. They’re playing. And it’s hard to stay mad at the weather. It’s hard to stay mad at the day. Because the dogs really show you how to live in the moment and take those little joys wherever you can get them. Despite whatever might be going on, there’s always — in that moment — something you can do to be happy.

Hillier heads to transmission lines and ‘secret little trails’ around St. John’s. (Submitted by Sarah Hillier)

How do people tend to react when you tell them about your job?

The majority of people are jealous. I mean, it’s a great gig. If you love animals, there’s not much better that you can ask for. Of course, there are people who are like, “You’re a dog walker, that’s kind of a kid’s job,” or “That’s something somebody does as a hobby.” But I think the industry is changing as well so that it’s becoming more of a profession, we’ll say. And being a business owner isn’t just dog walking and pet services. There’s all the logistics behind it, all of the accounting behind it. So it’s a huge undertaking. But like I said, most people are jealous. It’s a good gig.

What might surprise people about your job?

The amount of dirt. [laughs] I think I also offer a different kind of service. It’s not just down-the-street city walking. I like to take the dogs in the woods. So we get pretty messy. I’ve kind of sacrificed my car to the dogs — I just chauffeur them. So, yeah, it can get messy. And I mean, that’s kind of working in itself. But there’s just so much joy in it. I’ll take the dirt any day.

Of course if somebody has mental health troubles, the solutions to that are complex and diverse. But would you suggest people spend some more time with the animals [as a possible remedy]?

Absolutely. I mean, obviously some people don’t like animals, so that’s fine. That’s not going to work for you. But if you love animals, there’s nothing better. Another thing I like about my job is that I can still have those bad days. I can cry every day if I need to. And there’s no one really around that I have to explain that to. The dogs don’t care. They’re just there to love. I mean, it’s just slobbery kisses all day long.

When she’s out with the dogs, ‘there is no future or past thinking,’ explains Hillier. ‘It’s just pure joy.’ (Submitted by Sarah Hillier)

When I knock on the door, I can hear the dogs getting super-excited. And when I walk in, they greet me every time like it’s the best day of their life. So it’s hard to stay in your head and in the thought processes, I guess, that come along with mental illnesses. It’s a lot easier to get out of that and just be there with the dogs, because they’re there. They’re in that moment. There is no future or past thinking. It’s just pure joy, and experiencing that [with the dogs] helps spread it to you as well, whether you’re feeling it or not.

It’s hard not to crack up at the dogs when they’re, you know, running around and you can see their faces where it looks like they’re smiling, or they’re playing and having the best time. It’s just, yeah. It’s really good.

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