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What Do Dogs Have to Say About the Wards?

By Aanika Balaji

The best job I've ever had was during medical school when I worked as a dog sitter. When I moved across the country to begin school, I arrived in a new city without the security of my family or the company of my beloved dogs. I turned to dog sitting as a way of earning pocket money and to get to know my neighborhood but mostly to be around the animals I loved. This slowly grew into a busy part-time gig and a great excuse to take long walks exploring the city on weekends.

I've learned that dogs are incredibly wise creatures. Each dog is a little different, and each has taught me something new about handling my own emotions—and, surprisingly, about medicine. While I have had to cut back my hours since starting clinical rotations, the lessons I learned are more relevant as I become involved with direct patient care.

Mindfulness in the Moment

I cared for a dog who spent the first hour of each visit sitting by the door and whining for his owner. I tried everything, and I mean everything, to distract him: treats, petting, comforting talk, turning the television on, a walk (which only worked temporarily, because he started whining as soon as we got back). Things improved only when I learned to step back and model calm behavior. He taught me that, sometimes, doing nothing is also action.

Watching the dogs made me realize that they live completely moment to moment, which is just one part of what makes dogs great. They teach us to live, feel, and revel in the present moment. I had the chance to put this into practice recently.

It was my first night shift working as a subintern. I was eager to do a good job and show my team that I had things under control. The patient I was assigned to see was acutely ill with a complicated medical history. The admission process took longer than I had anticipated. I then stayed up late reading up on her many problems. I wanted the presentation at rounds the next morning to be perfect. I started off strong but made a small error in reporting a lab result. This quickly escalated, and I found myself tripping on words and forgetting important bits of information and soon became the proverbial “dog chasing its tail.” Definitely not the cool, collected image I wanted to project. That's when I just stopped. I took a deep breath, knowing that the choice I had was to either complete having my meltdown or move past my embarrassment and focus on a strong finish. I'm happy to say that the morning ended much better.

Kindness and Understanding Are First-Line Therapies

Like many dog sitters, I meet my clients before the first day of the job for a “meet and greet.” This helps me to familiarize myself with the dogs and know the many dos and don'ts expected. Most dogs are friendly in the presence of their owners; however, I know that when I come back, I may have a very different dog waiting for me.

Bailey and Piper, two adorable Australian shepherds, were shy but friendly at our initial meeting. When they saw me alone on day one of the job, they suddenly were not sure they wanted a stranger in the house. They sulked and hid in their crates, clearly missing their owners. A couple of hours passed. I took small steps to coax them out and ended the evening sitting next to their crate with my laptop, working on a couple projects and talking through them with the dogs. This seemed to do it—the pair eventually came out, tails wagging. Be patient, they seemed to say, and we may just trust you.

In the hospital, we often see people at their most vulnerable state: being physically ill, in unfamiliar settings, and facing the unknown. This is enough to break the strongest among us. Sometimes, we forget that the hospital that is familiar and in many ways comforting to us might be scary and isolating to patients. Letting them know that their experiences are real and understood can help ease anxiety.

Learning to Say No

Some dogs have their minds made up—I'm thinking specifically of a brother and sister Labrador team. They would both suddenly decide to not walk down a certain street, leaving me foolishly trying to strong-arm them (a lost battle) or swallowing my pride and letting them take me on their preplanned route. They were determined in their actions, and I just had to accept that.

I tended to say yes to every opportunity that came my way out of fear of missing out. Then, the inevitable would always happen: Work piled up; deadlines loomed; and the frustrating, never-ending cycle of playing catch-up began. Learning to prioritize and focus my time and attention has been difficult, but I'm getting better at it. Saying no has given me the chance of doing what I enjoy well, and I am no doubt happier.

Treat Yourself

Most dog owners know how well treats work. I recently looked after a large boxer mix who wouldn't go into her crate unless she saw a treat in my hand. It was our nightly ritual: This little boost helped her overcome a difficult task.

I have adopted this idea of rewarding myself fully, especially while on the wards. Did I ace my patient presentation? My treat is going to be a stress-free run. Finishing my clinic notes early means I will treat myself to a home-cooked meal—just something to celebrate the event. Little rewards help to keep me going and give me encouragement along the way.

At first glance, dog sitting and medicine seem to occupy disparate worlds. Yet, the dogs have taught me some important life lessons and made me a little wiser. They have taught me to be a more empathetic student doctor, understand my priorities, acknowledge my feelings, and give myself a break when I need it. I will carry these insights with me when I enter a future world of internal medicine.

Aanika Balaji
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Graduating Class of 2021

Back to the October 2021 issue of ACP IMpact