By Erin Moore, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training
About five years ago, I experienced a serious case of burnout. After six months of feeling stressed, exhausted, and short-tempered, I wondered if there might be something physically wrong with me. When I finally found the time and energy to make a doctor’s appointment, I learned that the years of stress from running my own business, being responsible for other people’s dogs on a daily basis, and always feeling like I needed to take on more and more I had flooded my body with so much stress hormone that my adrenal glands were no longer able to function as they should.
As it turns out, everyone needs down time, a break from work and responsibility and everyday life. Everyone needs mental health days. For me, that means days where the only expectation I have of myself is to take care of me, to rest, to recuperate, to lounge around and read and snuggle with my dogs. It is critical to my sanity to be able to go for long, leisurely strolls with them where the goal isn’t exercise or mental stimulation, but simply to enjoy ourselves and be. I have to allow myself to gently and kindly replace the thoughts of everything I need to do the next day with what is right here, in this very moment. On these days, I find ways to help distract my brain from the laundry list of things to do because a day off is not a day off if the mind is still occupied with work. Some days I allow myself to get completely lost in a good book that isn’t dog related. I have to force myself to (gasp!) actually take a vacation and spend money on myself without the fear of what will happen if an emergency arises and I have “frivolously wasted” that money on down time and vacation time.
This period in my life caused me to profoundly shift my perspective, to understand that in order for me to be able to give the very best to my clients, I need to take time for myself. I had to learn to say no to them, to honor the time I need and to understand that it doesn’t make me lazy or unproductive, and that my business isn’t going to fall apart if I take two weeks off.
When I eventually bit the bullet and worked up enough courage to take that first vacation, I agonized over how to tell my clients, worried that I’d get a backlash of frustration and anger. What I got instead were emails filled with support and comments like “Wow, it’s about time, you really deserve a break” and “I hope you have a fantastic time, I’m so glad you’re taking time for yourself.” I was flabbergasted. I had made myself a priority, and other people thought that was a good thing. Who knew??
I took my dogs and spent two weeks at a lovely B&B, where I spent my days reading, napping, exploring with my dogs, and sitting in the hot tub. I even went horseback riding, something I hadn’t done in years, which invigorated me more than I ever could have imagined. That was the start of me getting me back. Together with the treatment for adrenal fatigue, depression, and anxiety, the time off allowed me to slowly start seeing more of myself again. I began taking one weekend a month where I had no boarding dogs, where I didn’t think about the coming week and what needed to be done. Instead I spent it in the moment, celebrating and enjoying my own dogs and my life. I lost one client because I said “no,” and I had the amazing realization that that was okay. Losing that client lowered my stress levels even more, because she was replaced by another client who respected my boundaries and my down time, and didn’t expect me to always say “yes.” Not surprisingly, my new client was much, much easier (and nicer) to deal with.
Mental health days are not something we should do. They are something we need to do. They are vital to us being able to provide the best care and service for our clients and their dogs. As dog walkers, we take on such huge responsibility for other people’s dogs. Not just the physical responsibility, but the mental and emotional one as well. I see so many dogbiz grads and other colleagues seeking each other out to discuss issues with their clients’ dogs, learning how they can make things better, looking for ways that (outside of work hours) they can make a difference. Each and every one is emotionally connected and engaged with their clients’ dogs.
The connection that can exist between dog walker and dog is a beautiful, amazing, touching thing. But it can also be an exhausting, draining thing, because when we care, we give of ourselves. And we give and we give and we give. I wish for everyone reading this a way to find that desire to give to themselves. I encourage you to find the things you can do on your mental health days that recharge and reinvigorate you, to give yourself permission to take those mental health days (whether it be a two-week vacation or simply taking a weekend off, fully and completely), to learn to say “no” so that you can continue to say “yes” to all of those dogs who benefit from you being at your very best.