If someone asked an average student what they do day-to-day, they are likely to hear the usual response: lectures, studying, sports, essays, socials, essays, formals, essays… but for some, there is also dog walking.
What with the ‘No Pets Allowed’ policy in student halls and housing, four-legged friends, like home-cooked meals and washed sheets, become something to look forward to when returning home for the holidays. Your only connection to your pet is that weekly Skype session when a parent lifts your confused cat to the camera and, apart from that, you are left with an animal-shaped hole in your heart that is only filled by stopping a local in town to stroke their dog.
There is, however, a solution; a way to pretend you have a pet during university without awkward questions from the landlord about why there is a dog basket in your living room. I actually don’t have a pet at home – cat allergies and living in London prevented that – but I love dogs just as much as any pet owner so when I stumbled upon Student Community Action’s (SCA) volunteer dog walking scheme at Fresher’s Fair last year, I could not believe my luck. Whilst team sports were out of the question for fear of bringing back bad memories of cold PE lessons, dog walking seemed the perfect combination of volunteering and gentle exercise, whilst I could finally have that dog I’d been longing for my whole childhood.
I immediately signed up with a group of friends and went along to the induction session where we learnt about the scheme and the dos and don’ts of dog walking. Then, when they introduced us to three dogs – a German shepherd, which happens to be my all-time favourite breed, and two black Labradors – it was the start of a beautiful friendship and weekly walks that are still happening now.
Dog walking is such an unexpected thing to do at university but, for me, it is one of the best and most rewarding. There are no time consuming, strict commitments like team sports, so it can be fitted around lectures because you can choose whether you walk for half an hour, an hour, two hours… the dog is not watching the clock, it is just waiting for you to throw it a ball. You can do it with a group of friends and actually have a proper chat, rather than gasping for breath running around a pitch, and I have explored more of the beautiful Durham countryside than I ever would without dogs. It is amazing how much more motivation you have to go for a walk and how everything becomes an adventure when you’re getting dragged around by energetic dogs that find every nook and cranny fascinating. Finally, these dogs become your friends, just as any pet would, and you form such a ridiculous attachment that you start to plan the best way to smuggle them into your suitcase for the holidays. Of course, there are also the humans behind the dogs, and making friends with the dog owners is also a great way to get out of the Durham bubble and get some local help and advice, which, for me, has proved invaluable.
Most importantly, the dog walking scheme is not a selfish venture designed to help students who want a dog of their own or who miss theirs at home. It is an incredibly worthwhile charity, as partaking students have helped locals in the community walk their dogs during difficult times when the only other alternative would have been to rehome.
You can also walk dogs at SAD kennels (Stray Action for Dogs), help at college puppy rooms (a great way for students to relax), get involved in organising the dog show that raised over £600 for canine charities, or participate in Inclusive Dog Walks where dogs accompany community members in full-time residential care.
University is a time to try something new, from the Harry Potter to the Hula Hooping society, but if you want to give something back to the community, whilst doing some exercise to de-stress after a day of essays, then there is nothing better than dog walking.
Florianne Humphrey is an English Literature student at Collingwood College.