Michelle Marques (@michellemar.ques) is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and has her M.A. in African American Studies. She's outspoken on Instagram around her mental health, and recently adopted Baldwin, a Lagotto Romagnolo. They both live in Bed Stuy, and Michelle sat down to chat with us about dogs and mental health, the intersection of dog ownership and dogs and more.
Heed Foods: What role did dogs play in your childhood and how did you decide to get one?
Michelle: I always wanted a dog, but my parents are Guyanese. In Guyana, people have dogs, but they’re usually just stray dogs that live on your property which you feed scraps, but you never bathe them and they would never enter your home. You really didn’t have a relationship with a dog.
I continued to like dogs in college - I babysat for a family that had a schnauzer who I totally fell in love with. She was so sweet and had so much excitement for me anytime I'd come over. I realized I needed to have a dog one day.
I suffer from depression and have been mostly high functioning, but my life felt very gray about a year ago, and I didn’t feel excitement for what I was doing. I just knew that I needed a dog even though it wasn’t the exact timeline I had imagined - I thought I still had to wait a few more years. At the time, I was a Rover walker to fulfill that need. I thought I wasn’t ready for a dog financially, but just decided to do it one day. I’m figuring out how I'm getting this dog right now. I started researching, creating spreadsheets, figuring out what a dog needs, how much it costs.
Heed Foods: How did you know that having a dog would help with depression?
Michelle: I was always that person that would get a little jolt of happiness whenever I walked past a dog. Even if I was having the shittest day, a brief interaction with a dog would make me feel so much better. I knew that having constant interactions with a dog would make my day a bit brighter.
My therapist would bring her dog into the sessions with us, and he wouldn’t interrupt the session at all, but it would always make me feel better to have him around. My therapist mentioned that dogs have a huge impact on mental health and mentioned some of the studies around it.
Heed Foods: What was it like to have your first dog as an adult? How did it feel to bring him home?
Michelle: It was definitely overwhelming. I had read so many podcasts and videos but nothing can prepare you for actually bringing the dog home. They’re a puppy, they don’t know anything about you, you don't know anything about their needs or what their mannerisms are.
I barely slept when he was a puppy, running around at 10 weeks old. I often felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing, and wondered if he was getting the care he needed. It felt like I was nowhere near the fun part of owning a dog yet.
Heed Foods: How long did it take to feel manageable and normal?
Michelle: Probably by month four I felt like I understood him more. I took him to a prep school for dogs at that age, and when I started talking to the trainer there and learned what the dog’s needs were, it made me realize that I hadn’t done all the things I was meant to do in month one.
It was isolating because I don't have a partner and I raised him by myself. I have roommates but neither of them had dogs as an adult, only as children. Both of them grew up in a suburban setting and Baldwin is an urban dog, so it’s a whole different game.
I felt like I had to constantly advocate for him with my roommates, who had unrealistic expectations of how a puppy should behave which rubbed off on me. It made the beginning process much more stressful.
"The burden to have your dog behave well is higher as a black person."
Heed Foods: I’m curious about your thoughts on representation in the pet industry and how race affects dog ownership.
Michelle: Historically, a lot of black people are afraid of dogs because of the use of dogs by the police and the way dogs have been used to incite hatred towards black people for generations. There were instances of white people training their dogs to attack black people.
There is also this perception that only a white person would spend money or take care of their dogs, which affects the way that black people see themselves as dog owners. There’s a misconception that dogs are not worth spending money on and that it’s a “white” thing to have a dog in your house, or that it’s a white privilege thing to own a dog.
I knew all of this before I got a dog - my dog is an expensive breed, so most of the owners themselves are white. I had met with an owner in Tribeca, and I love her because she's been a great resource, but I also saw the amount of financial resources she had, and it made me wonder, maybe I'm not equipped to be a dog owner, maybe only wealthy people can own dogs.
Heed Foods: What is it like to have a dog in Bed Stuy, the neighborhood you live in?
It’s interesting because Bed Stuy is diverse, so there are a lot of people of color who own dogs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I feel connected to them, because there’s a lot of disparity in how owners treat their dogs. I’ve seen people yanking their dogs back and cursing at them. It’s really isolating because I can’t connect with some of the older black community that may own dogs here, but I can't really connect with the white community of dog owners either, because I’m not white.
What’s also challenging as a black dog owner is that just like in life, you have to be better than a white dog owner. Things that a white person with a dog does is not going to be perceived the same way that I am as a black woman if my dog were to lunge or growl at people on the street.
The burden to have your dog behave well is higher as a black person.
Heed Foods: Is that why you’ve invested more energy into training Baldwin?
Michelle: Definitely. I live in a black neighborhood, and a lot of black people are afraid of dogs, so I couldn’t have a dog that would be jumping excessively or lunging at people. I can't have that on a regular basis, because I don't want people who look like me to feel afraid of my dog. I also don't want some prejudiced white person to see my dog not behaving well and then getting some kind of negative experience from them. It's definitely perceived differently.
For example, in my building, there’s a woman who comes down with her dog off leash to the laundry room. As a black person, I would absolutely never do that. Someone’s going to call management. That's the reality of it, so I know that that is probably why I have invested so much money and training into Baldwin. I do think it’s a privilege to not need to train your dog.
I’m personally happy to train, but I know the social and cultural aspect of it is a big reason I do so.
Heed Foods: There’s almost a sense of cultural gatekeeping with mental health resources that make it more inaccessible to people of color. For example, therapy and dog ownership as mental health tools - can you speak more on that?
Michelle: A lot of black people don't believe in therapy or they think they can't afford therapy, or that only white people go to the therapy. Most black people probably don't see dog ownership as a mental health benefit, they see it more as an economic burden, which I totally get. Unfortunately the wealth gap is crazy in this country and you're essentially adding a dependent to your financial budget when you get a dog.
Heed Foods: How have you grown as a person since getting Baldwin?
Michelle: I think he's made me infinitely more patient. One thing that is challenging about him is that he needs a lot of mental stimulation. He's not the easiest breed, he's highly alert. He's not a lap dog by any standard, he's super smart and when bored will revert to barking or destroying things. All are common things that happen when dogs are under stimulated.
I think a lot of people have not had dogs that need this much mental stimulation, and I hear people say, “You’re always training him, when is that gonna be over?”
I'm training him because I want him to be the best dog he can be, and I'm willing to commit that time and energy. I have the patience to train this dog, and I've made a commitment to this dog. It's really made me realize that patience is critical and it's also helped push me away from the perfectionism that I tend to apply to my life.
There have been times where he’s not getting the training or we revert back after making progress. I would get upset and blame myself, but I've had to learn to forgive myself because dogs are just like people - progress is not linear. It's taught me to focus on the positive and the little changes I see in him each day.
Heed Foods: Last question, you have 30 seconds and Baldwin can understand every word - what do you say to him?
Baldwin, I love you. You help me get out of my bed every day even on days when I am so over life or feel down and hopeless. I love your vigor for life and how excited you are by the simplest things. Thank you for making me a better, happier, more patient person that can find joy in the smallest and simplest things of life.