I used to not be a dog person, even though I had an Irish setter growing up. But then about five years ago I picked up my son from a sleepover and saw him lying on the kitchen floor with his friend’s two cockapoos (that’s half cocker spaniel, half poodle) wallering all over him, drowning him in unabashed dog love. My son was howling with laughter, his face was beaming — and wet with dog slobber.
Like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day. This kid needs a dog big time, I thought.
My husband, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee and knows a thing or two about dogs, had one word to say: beagle. I found a breeder, and before long we went to pick up our bundle of joy, Diego. Think Snoopy’s good looks with Eeyore’s docile, hangdog personality. We were smitten, so smitten that a year later we got another beagle, Lily: think Nicole Kidman as a dog — a sleek thoroughbred with what appears to be permanent eyeliner, a penchant for voguing on the living room couch, and a wicked end-around stealth tactic for snatching food off the counter.
I am besotted with my dogs for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that Diego has helped me grapple with almost crippling bouts of insomnia: when he sleeps on my bed, his chin hooked over my feet, his very presence exudes the kind of calming energy I imagine Tibetan monks experience just by getting up in the morning, a deep, unspoken connection with the earth’s most natural rhythms.
And as a working person, I find that my dogs have an uncanny ability to destress me instantly, with fewer calories than a gin and tonic, at the end of the workday. I drive in the driveway and see their little Norman Rockwell tails wagging furiously, their furry faces filled with a toddler-like anticipation (mostly because they know dinner is coming), and I’m instantly grounded and in the present moment.
I found that lots of other working people feel the same way about their dogs. They say their dogs help calm them, center them, and refuel them each and every day. They say their dogs help them get exercise and social contact. And they say their dogs (and cats) help them heal from wounds both physical and emotional: Here are a few of their stories:
Kourtney Crivello, 31, was on top of the world this past fall. Even though she had been feeling unwell for two and a half years, with mysterious symptoms like extreme fatigue and sensitive, extremely itchy skin that her primary doctor chalked up to stress and allergists and dermatologists couldn’t pinpoint, she was about to marry the love of her life, Scott Crivello, on the beach in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
The Ewing couple was deep in the throes of planning their dream wedding when Crivello, who had spent many days home, too sick to go to her job as a secretary for the state in Trenton, felt a lump in her neck above her collarbone. A biopsy came back negative. An MRI, however, revealed lumps all over her neck and chest. An excision at UPenn took place February 1. “We had to wait two weeks for the results,” says Crivello. “On February 11, we drove in that terrible snowstorm. It was really scary. Our street wasn’t even plowed. They told us, you have Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That was the day everything changed.”
They cancelled the wedding and through a family friend, Crivello got in to see oncologist Peter Yi at Princeton Medical Group. “Within two weeks of meeting him, I started my chemotherapy,” she says. On temporary disability Crivello says her saving grace was their dog, Buddy, a 65-pound lab-husky mix, and Amber, their tabby cat. She says that after her husband, an IT professional with Anixter International, would go to work, “Buddy and I would snuggle in bed all day. I was so exhausted I could barely make it through the day. I was home with him a lot. Day after day. You cannot be around others. Having people visit isn’t an option. It gets lonely.”
Crivello, who grew up in Yardley, PA, with one sister and a single mother who was a teacher, says, “Being diagnosed was one of the scariest things and extremely stressful. There were times when Scott and I would be so stressed out, and Buddy would sense that. If I cry or the tone of my voice changes he comes right to me and puts his paws on my lap and stares right into my eyes. Just him coming to me is the sweetest thing. He really makes your heart stop beating so fast. He comforts and calms me, it’s like nothing else. The benefits of having Buddy and Amber are immeasurable. I call my husband my best friend and caregiver. I call Buddy my other best friend and caregiver.”
The chemo exhausts her and makes her nauseous. “It’s been a real struggle and challenge, and I will be forever changed by this. Having a dog, though, means we go out on walks, and it’s important for me to get a little bit of exercise, and it makes him so happy. He’s so happy when we go for a walk, it really lifts my spirits and puts me in a good place. And to see the trees and sky, it’s very healing.”
The couple did get married — Scott’s idea — between her first and second infusions. He contacted Ewing Mayor Jack Bell and asked, “Is there any way you could marry us?” Two days later they were married in his office with immediate family present. “It completely boosted my spirits,” says Crivello. “It made (my illness) more bearable. We’re young — this was supposed to be the best year of our lives.”
She says, “Scott is so amazing. It’s hard to be a caregiver; he has to watch me suffer and cry. He’s got the stress of work, several doctors appointments a week (with me). If we have a bad day or appointment, instantaneously when we walk into the house, Buddy is right there greeting us. Whatever’s going on in the outside world, he’s so happy to see us. It de-stresses you the second you walk in.”
She says her cat, Amber, also helps calm her. “She will come up sometimes when I’m in pain, and press her little forehead against mine, really sweet and loving. She will knead my back while Scott’s rubbing it. In the middle of the night, if I’m sick, she’ll rub up against me. Cats have an amazing way of calming you down with their purring. You start to relax.”
Crivello remains upbeat about her illness and looks forward to the day she can feel better enough to return to work. “You have to stay positive,” she says. Her husband’s co-workers have organized themselves so someone each week cooks the couple a meal. In the meantime, she spends her days with Buddy at her feet, but more often than not, he’s actually on top of her feet. “He is my child,” she says.
The Frequent Flier
Ted McKnight, an IT professional with IBM Global Business Services, characterizes his stress level this way: “My work is crisis management, and I travel most weeks. The project I’m with now is transitioning a pharma company from one support environment to another, setting up servers. I am on phone calls 18 hours a day either locally or with folks across the globe. I’m on vacation this week, but fielding three to four hours of calls a day. I delayed my vacation by a couple of weeks with the goal that we’d get things to less of a crisis situation. When I’m in the office, I’m working 12 to 13-hour days.
When he travels (a typical week can find him in Arizona or as far away as Brazil or New Zealand) McKnight boards his two dogs — Libby, an English springer spaniel, and Patches, an English springer spaniel-border collie mix, both 13 years old — at Weber’s on Route 1.
When he picks them up, usually on Friday at 8 a.m., he has a routine. “They’re extremely excited to see me. They calm down my energy level and take that very hard edge off as I drive out of the parking lot. We usually have a 15 to 20-minute run on the baseball field and we work out of the house for the rest of the day, often on the porch. On the weekends we do a lot of walking — on the trails at Mountain Lakes, or on Woodfield Reservation behind Tenacre on the Great Road, or in the Sourlands.”
McKnight grew up in the Bay area, the son of an engineer and an executive secretary. He graduated from Juilliard with a degree in dance and performed with Vanaver Caravan, a dance company focused on traditional dance from around the world, and the Laura Dean company, before making the transition into IT 18 years ago.
McKnight, recently divorced, says that now that he is single (his two stepchildren, Will and Amelia, are grown), he can be the focal point for the dogs. “I cook up vegetables for them, Brussels sprouts — did you know those are very good for dogs? — and good kibble, and they get very excited. While they’re eating I sit in the living room and watch TV. When they’re done Patches goes outside, and Libby comes up on the couch and lays with her head on my leg. It’s just a time of quiet. I refuse phone calls and make a point not to do things. This is just hang-out time. Even as I’m working in my home office or on the porch with my laptop, they’ll sit underneath my seat. Patches will roll over and whimper at me, ‘scratch me, scratch me.’ They keep me present.
“They’re so silly, they make me smile. They help bring out the laughter. They bring joy. I have an old cat named Zena — after my grandmother; she comes in and forces the dogs to let her sleep next to them.” McKnight’s other two cats are Magic and Porthos.
McKnight, who made it part of his divorce arrangements to keep the dogs (his ex-wife lives nearby and watches the cats when he travels) and not sell the house right away so the dogs could stay in their home, freely admits he talks about his dogs with his therapist, Ruth Goldston (601 Ewing Street). “We have talked about animals as a stress reducer,” he says. “At some point you have to triage your life. I’ve met people who say that dogs are just animals like cows. (But I believe) it’s part of the commitment that you’ll take care of them.”
McKnight says there is no doubt that his dogs improve his quality of life. “They keep me actively involved and healthy physically and mentally.” As an example, he says that for eight years, he has been taking Patches to the “Feisty Fido” program at St. Huberts in Madison, which is designed to help improve a feisty dog’s interaction with other dogs. “They teach him the ability to watch, listen, and be present,” says McKnight. “But it has also been extremely helpful for me, for being mindful in my own life.”
The 9/11 Widow
On 9/11 Nikki Stern lost her husband Jim Potorti, a VP with Marsh & McLennan. A former director corporate communications for Hillier Group Architects, Stern went on to join the board of directors of Families of September 11 and in 2004 became its executive director, serving through mid-2005. Just after she left Stern knew she was going to write a book — “Because I Said So” was self-published earlier this year (see U.S. 1, June169) — and thought about getting a dog to keep her company as a freelancer working from home.
“I had been reluctant to get a pet, reluctant to commit myself. I didn’t think I was emotionally equipped to take care of it,” says Stern. But she began to research dog breeds and decided that a puppy — a mix of a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and bichon frise, to be exact — would be a good thing.
Stern picked up Molly in a raging downpour. “Here was this little thing of eight weeks, and I was, like, oh my God,I don’t know what to do. One night I fell and twisted my knee. I called my girlfriend and said, ‘Take the dog for two days, I can’t deal.’ That feeling of ‘I need to return this dog’ lasted about a month. And then I was looking at her one night, and she was playing, and I said, ‘I’m gonna keep her.’
“Over time I’ve discovered the seriously scary feeling of having something matter so much to me. I wanted to have that feeling again. My father died in ’04 and my mother at the beginning of ’05.”
Stern says Molly, effortlessly, makes her laugh out loud. “She just seems so doggone amusing. People stop and say, ‘Gee, she’s a happy dog,’ and I think, ‘OK, she probably was born that way, but I must be doing something right.’ The idea that you’re doing something right for some creature is very meaningful for me. I must not overall be projecting doom and gloom because she doesn’t at all. I actually say to people, ‘I had a very happy and very good-looking husband. Now I have a very happy and very good-looking dog.’ I have good taste.”
Molly, too, has taught her the beauty of living in the moment. “She personifies the concept of joy,” says Stern. “I think we humans, we get mixed up. When this dog feels joyful, she’s just joyful. She doesn’t read the New York Times and see the headlines. She doesn’t know about the BP oil spill or women suffering in the Congo. That’s my job to think about those things. The one goal in my life is to learn to live in the moment much more skillfully, and if anyone’s going to teach me that, it is going to be Molly.
“Dogs are all about what’s going on in the moment. Molly really relishes the good times, and she seems to forget the bad moments and live for the good stuff. I’ve heard from so many people that dogs do that. Their glass isn’t half full; it’s three-quarters full. We (as humans) don’t know how to do that.”
After her husband died Stern took up yoga. “Yoga has helped me calm down but Molly has helped me put joy back. Dogs are all about joy. You could get very stressed out about how bad traumatic loss has been for me, but I’ve evened the odds by having a joyful dog. I’m going to beat the odds.”
She says Molly also helps her order her day. “Number one, I can’t sleep in. I have a dog, which is a very good thing for a freelancer who is single and childless. I have to be up and walking her by 7:30 a.m. She orders the other end too; she goes upstairs to bed at 10 p.m. Right now what is occasionally frustrating but usually very amusing is that she starts sleeping at the foot of the bed, and in the middle of the night moves up and attaches herself to one of my hips. It’s comforting. It’s like that Christmas carol — glad tidings of comfort and joy. I’ve got comfort and joy.”
Stern has had Molly trained as a therapy dog at PetSmart and has taken her to visit nursing homes. She hopes to get into a program similar to one she has observed at Princeton Public Library, where the dog comes into the library, lies down and lets people pet her, and the kids read to her or the dog’s owner and the kids read together.
Molly also helps her feel needed again, says Stern. “If a dog gives your life structure (on the organizational level) than the fact of her needing you gives structure on the emotional level. All of that comes back to gratitude.”
If it’s any indication of the craziness oncologist Deborah Toppmeyer experiences in her job, we had to reschedule our interview six times over as many days.
Here’s what was going on in that timeframe: “Last Thursday I saw 27 new patients in the clinic,” says Toppmeyer, an associate professor of medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, chief of solid tumor oncology at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and director of the LIFE Center, which provides risk-reduction strategies to young women at high risk for breast cancer.
“Friday I did a taping for an educational website on breast cancer screening. After that I had multiple meetings. Saturday I went to a meeting of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group in DC to discuss the design of clinical trials. Sunday I took the train back and got the kids (two boys, 13 and 15) set up for camp, made dinner, and did the food shopping. Monday I played in a golf fundraiser at the Mountain Ridge Country Club called the LIFE Event [LPGA Pros in the Fight to Eradicate Breast Cancer]. Tuesday morning I saw seven new high-risk patients, followed by a research meeting and lunch to discuss patients on research trials, and more patients ’til about 7:30 p.m. Then I went through my phone calls and mail.”
Toppmeyer, who lives in Montgomery, says she clocks in an average of 60 hours a week. Her husband, Robert Hilkert, is the executive medical director in the cardiovascular division at Novartis Pharmaceuticals. Her boys are in seventh and tenth grades, but her “baby,” she says, is three and a half-year-old Reggie, a goldendoodle (a golden retriever/red miniature poodle mix).
Regiie is trained as a pet therapy dog and has come to the Cancer Institute. And while she knows her husband and boys love the dog, Toppmeyer says Reggie is most attached to her. “He sleeps in a dog bed next to me.” She says he never leaves her side, particularly when she is ill — or the time she tore her hamstring.
Toppmeyer grew up in Manhasset Hills, Long Island (without a dog). Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother owned a marketing research company. She earned a bachelor’s in chemistry/ psychology from Ohio Wesleyan in 1981 and her M.D. from Albany Medical College in 1985.
She says it’s her dog’s unconditional love that helps her transition out of work mode at the end of the day. “All he wants to do is be petted and loved, and fed. He’s very loyal. And there’s nothing more. They have no expectations. They don’t talk back. It’s really nice to come home some nights when you’re not in the best of moods. It just brightens up your day. He comes up and looks at you with these incredibly long eyelashes, rests his head on your lap, and melts you when he does that. I’m totally passionate about him.”
An ex-New Yorker who used to carry her tiny Pekinese in a shoulder bag on the streets of Manhattan — “when you talk into your shoulder bag, you always get a seat on the bus” — Geraldine Getzow found she actually craved more stress after relocating to Plainsboro to raise her daughter, Rose, outside the city. “I like to be busy. I work best if there are deadlines and things that have to be done.”
She currently juggles three jobs: she’s a licensed real estate agent with Prudential in Princeton, works eight hours a day as a contractual business systems analyst in IT for ETS, and on the weekend evenings she babysits for a family with six-year-old twins in East Windsor. She goes to Can Do Fitness every night for an hour near her home on Sayre Drive, and often spends evenings doing more work at home. Her daughter is now at Lehigh.
So who keeps her company? Tula (shortened from Tallulah Bankhead “because she had kind of a sultry look,” says Gletow), a big, fluffy seven-and-a-half-year-old half chow/half Shepherd collie. “I love dogs and puppies,” says Getzow, who used to take her daughter to watch the puppies at the now-closed Puppy Barn on Route 130, where she got Tula when Rose was about 13. At the time Getzow had two other dogs. “I had to put them down a few years ago. Now Tula’s happier. She acknowledged their existence but made it clear from the beginning, ‘Hi, I’m here, you can leave whenever you want.’ She made it clear she wanted to be the only one.”
Getzow grew up on Long Island. Her father worked in management in the garment center in Manhattan then transitioned to real estate. Her mom was at home. Getzow graduated with a bachelor’s in business and marketing from FIT in New York (where she later returned to teach and develop a cosmetic degree program).
She walks Tula several times a day and says, “she is the star of the neighborhood. It gets rid of all the stress and any negative things from the day because she’s such a positive entity. That attracts so much positive energy that it makes me feel good to be with her.” She says walking Tula is also a nice way to meet people. “Otherwise I’d just be by myself. It’s an instant bond with brand new people. When I’m out walking her, if people don’t stop she is very perplexed.”