The lady and the grad

The lady and the grad

The lady and the grad

How a dog can help you push through the loneliness of a PhD

November 1, 2021 | Sarah A.

It all started in the warm month of May, with a raging pandemic and a lonely heart. My roommate Sandy had gone home and wouldn’t come back until the fall, and I was losing my mind going in circles in the apartment. I had been wanting a dog. I had always loved dogs. The things stopping me from committing were Thursday late-night socials, and my boyfriend’s roommate, Mike, who would never agree to a four-legged animal in his living room. But social distancing destroyed all evening fun activities, and September was just around the corner, which meant that Mike was moving out. So, if not now, then when? I WANT A DOG!

But my roommate, Sandy, still said no.

From then on, the year 2020 became that much harder for me. I identify myself as an antisocial extrovert. This means that I only value interactions with others if they are meaningful and will lead to future connections (talking to strangers at a party that I will never see again seems useless to me), but I also feel incredibly lonely if I am not interacting with others on a regular basis. Having not founded true friendships with anyone in my lab yet, I have felt alone for most of my days as a grad student. Even though surrounded by people in the office, at social events, conferences and other gatherings, I find myself isolated. My thought process is that if I were to disappear there and then, it would not make a difference to anyone in the room.

Fall eventually rolled around, my roommate Sandy was back, MIT life was slightly improved from the summer, and the apartment was returning to a livable temperature. I’d finally made up my mind and I decided I would move out as soon as possible and get a dog to call my own. With this “ultimatum” and pictures of extremely cute fluffers, Sandy changed her mind. I could finally get a pet!

I applied to rescues and shelters for adoptions with the same persistence as if looking for a job post-graduation. Two weeks later, I was driving to Connecticut to meet and bring home my girl. There she was, the brown one with the white sleeve. She was playing with the other dogs of the dog park. Oh, how much cuter she was in person! I gave her treats and pets, and she clearly didn’t care. But I fell for her anyways, and 10 minutes later she was in the car, heading to her furever home.

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Meet Lorna, a 3-year-old 38 lbs lab pit (and more?) mix. She is characterized as a “Velcro dog” (because she follows me everywhere in the house). I made sure to have “Lab mix” on her identification papers to avoid landlord breed restrictions: many will specifically restrict “aggressive breeds” like pit bulls, dobermans and mastiffs. To be clear, these dogs are not more aggressive, they just have more powerful jaws; the problem is if an aggression were to happen, it would be much more consequential with a powerful-jawed dog like a pit ball than, say, a westie. I was also careful to get a dog that was not high energy (or so I thought, I’ve now come to terms that she is high energy). I’ve found a routine where Lorna plays with dogs in the morning, goes on a 3k run around noon and a 20 minute walk in the evening. Energy is often correlated with breed1, but personality plays a role as well. In my case, though labs and pits are considered moderate-high energy, my sweet Lorna can chill and chew on something for a couple hours without a care in the world.

I’ve had my fair share of frustrations with Lorna, after only a couple months together. Other than being house broken, she has had no training whatsoever. Walking on a leash was the biggest emotional struggle for me, as I would lose patience, get angry with her, feel guilty, keep on walking and 2 seconds later be frustrated again. Having a dog is a serious commitment, especially at 7pm when all you want to do is chill in front of Netflix, and your dog starts whining from boredom.  All in all, think long and think hard before committing to a dog, as dogs will live 10+ years.

Despite the difficulties, I have no regrets whatsoever. I would wake up at 6:45am any day to see Lorna run with joy in the park. I’ve never felt better on an everyday basis than when she is around. Grad school is hard (yeah, no kidding), but having my lady welcome me every time I come home has made every Monday that much more enjoyable.

Quick happy doggy checklist before committing to a furry adoption:

  • Your housing accepts dogs and your little furball doesn’t fit in any breed restrictions your landlord is free to impose
  • You have the time to commit to at least 5 miles of disciplined walking every day
  • You have a flexible enough schedule to not leave the dog at home for more than 8 hours in a row
  • You have $500 to $1000 extra to spend for the dog’s needs over the year

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