I got out of debt, fell in love and found my true calling—as a professional dog walker

Gig work is also service work.
Gig work is also service work.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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For a long time, I didn’t like telling people what I did for a living. How many mothers do you know who would be proud that their college-educated, 45-year-old son is a professional dog walker?

Born of mixed race in Taipei during the Chinese zodiac’s Year of the Dog, me and my eight siblings were raised in a pack environment. My designated chore was walking Casey, our orange/faun field spaniel. I spent hours playing with Casey, teaching him tricks. I imagined we were connected: I was also adopted, having been given up by my birth mother at three days old. My family history made me feel an unspoken kinship with pets.

My adoptive parents divorced when I was six, and my siblings and I went to live with my dad. We constantly moved due to my father’s position in the United States Air Force, and I missed my adopted mother terribly.

In Washington DC, I was the “honky cracker” in an all black school. When we moved to Holland, I was told “Yankee go home” by the neighboring Dutch kids on the soccer field. In the suburbs of St. Louis, I learned that my half-Taiwanese heritage made me look like a “chink” to my Caucasian schoolmates. A mutt, I always felt like an outsider.

Accelerating early in school had made me the smallest and youngest among my classmates. With my thick, coke-bottle glasses, I was shy and spoke very little. Never paid much mind by my peers, I sought out my faithful companion Casey, who always seemed to listen very intently to my problems. With Casey, I felt like I mattered.

Eventually I decided to move to New York City on a dance scholarship–much to the surprise of my family. I hoped that becoming a standout performance artist might finally earn me the recognition I sought from my relatives. But my dreams of dancing at Juilliard were shattered when I was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, a condition that required fourteen months of chemotherapy and totally derailed my dance aspirations.

After leaving the hospital, I transitioned to acting—which didn’t go so well. It was during this relatively rough period in my life that my girlfriend came home one day with a Brussels griffon puppy. Fascinated, I paid close attention when the puppy was taught by the trainer. I later spent hours at local dog run, watching the canines interact. Standing on the yellow pebbles, I observed and predicted which hounds would start the fights and what constituted “polite” animal behavior.

Although the girlfriend (and the Griffon) would eventually go their own way, my affinity for canines only grew. I started training dogs around the city, helping on the set of pet commercials. I was finally working in close proximity to the sets I had one day hoped to stand on—so close and yet so far.

But while I hadn’t achieved my dream, I was realizing something else: In my 40s, I had finally found something I loved and was good at. The dogs listened to me.

However, finding clients who would pay me for private dog-training sessions proved tricky. Still athletic from my years dancing and able to handle daily exercise outside, I became a walker.

I’m now the guy people stare at—maneuvering through traffic and apartment lobbies with a dozen dogs in tow, several of them perfectly willing to start a fight if I don’t pay sharp attention. I keep the troublemakers close and give the shy dogs, who I understood most, the longest leashes so they could stay at the outskirts of the pack. Winters don’t alter my no-glove policy; my fingertips need to feel the leashes. I decline sunglasses even on the hottest days, because I know my charges prefer to see my eyes.

The job, even with its challenges, isn’t that difficult for me. The thing that makes it hard are the people–the building managers who force me to use service entrances, for example. “You’re just a dog walker,” they say.

Some New Yorkers see my pack approaching and practically snarl. It is a challenge not to bite the humans who treat me like a curiosity, and don’t realize I may not actually want my picture posted to their Snapchat account.

I’ve come to realize that while dog-walking may be seen as unglamorous and certainly unconventional, it is my true calling. I like the rhythm of the daily walks and the companionship of my dogs. My favorite part is when rich people leave their pups with me while they vacation in some exotic country. The job that had once embarrassed me has grown into a profession that supports me, and fairly handsomely—between walking and boarding, I make six figures a year.

Today, I’m proud of who I am and what I do: I’m a pack walker. I love being with these dogs, and they are helping to pay off the debts I accumulated trying to be someone I wasn’t. My mother loves dogs and asks me about my work. I also met my wonderful fiancée by walking her feisty little Welsh terrier, Monty. I hold my head high. Even my fear that my fiancée’s successful father would disapprove of a walker turned out to be unfounded. He thinks I’m an entrepreneur. And on her days off, my fiancée strolls alongside my pack, helping hold leashes and sneaking ear scratches. Turns out I was onto something when I felt that affinity with Casey. It doesn’t matter if you’re a mutt or purebred; everyone has a place where they belong.