Walking Dakota

Every morning I take our two-year-old Australian Shepherd, Dakota, out for a walk. Whenever I tell people we have an Australian Shepherd they always have the same response: “Aussies are smart… and very energetic.”

It’s true – she is both, but especially the latter. Even after hours of running around and playing fetch, the very first thing she will do when she comes home is to grab a toy, bring it to the nearest human, drop it at their feet, and look up with cocked ears and an expectant look.

Sometimes the last thing I want to do is take her out, but of course, that’s not her problem. Last Thursday was one of those days – it was cold and wet and I was already running late. No matter. Out we go.

We take our usual route around the corner onto Broadway, past a group of parents and children waiting for the school bus; past the delivery men already gathering at the corner, chatting and sipping coffee on their motorized bikes; past the ever-present line at the best bagel store in NY (and by extension, as I point out to my kids, in the entire universe); and past the other dogs out walking their owners, some of whom are strangers, some Dakota’s friends.

As we round up the side street toward Riverside Drive, the morning bustle of Broadway falls away. Dakota pees at her usual spot in a pile of leaves by the curb. The cold air in my nostrils makes me glad to be outside. We approach a young woman bundled in a beige felt coat and a white ski hat. She is walking a terrier who stops in its tracks, plants its legs, and stares at Dakota inquisitively.

As soon as she sees me the woman’s face lights up. I get a little nervous. Should I know her? I ask myself. She looks totally unfamiliar but that doesn’t mean much. Maybe she is a patient I haven’t seen in a while….

“Look!” She exclaims, pointing up at a branch on a nearby tree. “See the hawk?”

Not at first, but wait, there it is – large and gray and absolutely still, blending seamlessly into the surroundings. “It even has a red tail!” The woman says. “I’m so glad I could show it to somebody!”

“Maybe it’ll get a rat!” I say, thanking her and moving on.

A little further down the block an older man unlocks the door to his building. Wanting to pay it forward, I catch his attention and point out the hawk. “See it?” I say. “Cool, right?” But he just shrugs and walks inside.

Back when I was a resident, I remember admitting to the hospital a certain elderly man. He had congestive heart failure and shortness of breath. His wife was with him – it was one of those situations where neither said anything without the other finishing the sentence. “History obtained from patient and wife” would be how I documented it.

At one point she left the room. I joked that I was afraid to proceed until she came back. He laughed and said something about her that struck me as so sweet – I wish I could remember exactly what it was.

“You two seem to have a great marriage,” I said. “What’s your secret?”

“Every day we take a walk together.” he said. “We’ve been doing it for years. That’s the secret.”

At the time the notion struck me as quaint. I am not a walk-taker. Before we got a dog I don’t think I ever once took a walk without a mission – just for the sake of it. Now, I do it twice a day.

For years my kids advocated tirelessly for a dog, and for years I vetoed the idea. With five kids, it seemed obvious that having another living being to care for was the last thing Rachel and I needed.

Over time, though, I noticed that Rachel seemed to be softening, slowly but surely shifting over to their side, and I knew that one day the battle would be lost. Never mind – I held the line as long as I could.

I can’t go into the details of how I finally caved in without embarrassing the daughter involved. Suffice it to say it involved a parental lapse on my part that I like to blame on Covid, followed by a deft, psychological coup de grace on her part that essentially left me no choice.

In any case, I don’t regret it.

For one thing, Dakota increases the net love quotient. It’s nice to have at least one creature in the house who, no matter what drama transpires, always loves everyone and everyone loves her.

For another thing, the daughter in question is Dakota’s “person”. She has taken on the lion’s share of responsibility for Dakota, exactly as she said she would. How can I complain?

But I have taken on responsibility for the first walk early in the morning and the last walk late at night.

And thanks to Dakota, I finally understand my patient’s words. There is a powerful, cumulative effect of taking a walk outdoors, in the neighborhood, rain or shine, no matter what. Things can happen that will make your day. And even when they don’t, the walk itself can surreptitiously deepen your connection with the place and people around you.

One day, when the kids are all out of the house, the bookends of our days are less full, and most importantly fewer rats teem the streets, I’ll get my wife to come with me. If I were as psychologically astute as my daughter I would get Rachel to agree to it now, while the stakes are still low.

After all, our youngest child, Kobi, is only in sixth grade. So even though we know from his siblings the way they grow up in a flash, an empty nest still seems very far away.

Dr. Bertie Bregman
Dr. Bertie Bregman
Full Stack Family Medicine is a newsletter about what it’s really like to practice medicine and run a medical practice in New York City.
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