THE BLOG

Astoria Characters: The Dog Tamer

03/04/2014 10:07 am ET | Updated May 04, 2014

It's what's not in Judy Bushman's third-floor walkup that commands attention. Her tiny, tidy studio has a kitchen, bathroom and living room/dining room/bedroom combo, but it doesn't have a dog. And that's a shame because Judy loves the furry, four-footed creatures more than she loves some people. Make that most people.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Judy started Woofs 'n Purrs when she lost her job.

"Dogs give you unconditional love," she says. "They lick you for no reason or come to you with a ball and ask you to play."

Judy, who possesses fly-away auburn curls, penetrating eyes and an uncanny ability to get the crankiest canines to follow her every whisper, knows what she's talking about.

She's been walking the magnificent beasts every week for the last couple of years, sweating through the searing sun and shivering in the slushy snow. She calls this fun, not work.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Judy on the job.

Judy doesn't have a dog of her own right now not because her lease leashes her, but because she doesn't want to take any time away from her charges.

"It wouldn't be fair to them," she says. "Besides, I'm 64, and at this stage of my life, I'm happy to be the grandmother, not the mom, and return them to their owners. That gives me enough joy."

Although Judy started her dog-walking business, Woofs 'n Purrs, near retirement age, she has been a pooch pal since she was no more than a pup. Dogs walked into and out of her life, and it was their love that saved her life.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She feels a special connection with dogs.

"I had evil, absentee parents, and I felt abandoned all the time," she says. "I made a lot of life decisions based on the lack of love. I was always trying to win my mom and dad's affection, but it never happened."

Her first dog, a mutt named Lucky, filled in some of the gaps, but it wasn't enough. So she got herself a steady boyfriend when she was 17. She married him when she was 21, and a year later, they had a baby boy. But when the son came, the husband left, and Judy became a single parent, a task she was singularly unprepared for.

"I wasn't a very strong person," she concedes.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
When Judy whispers, dogs sit up and take notice.

She supported herself by working as a legal secretary. The following decades gave her a second husband, who was a musician, an affectionate shepherd-collie mix named Bucky, a perky cat who, when in the mood, answered to the name Purdy, and a nomadic existence that took the native New Yorker to New Mexico, Texas (twice), New Jersey and Ohio.

Life wasn't swell, but the years flew by uneventfully, or at least Judy thought they did. The day after her son graduated from college and moved to Connecticut for a job, Judy's husband told her he wanted a divorce.

Feeling alone, Judy moved in with her parents in Texas. The experience was so traumatic that she hasn't spoken to them since.

After she landed a job as a cardiac monitor technician at a hospital, she began putting together a new life.

In 1997, she returned to New York City to be closer to her son. By day, she was a legal secretary; at night, she worked as a medical transcriptionist.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Taking comfort in a cuddle.

"I wanted to buy a co-op apartment, so I worked two and three jobs," she says.

In 2005, after selling the co-op, she moved to Astoria and started to make major changes in her life and lifestyle. She went on a tour of Europe, and with the help of an internet nutrition site, she lost 62 pounds in 18 months.

The weight wasn't the only thing she lost. In 2010, she was let go from her job.

"I sent out hundreds of resumes, but I was 57 and nobody would hire me because of my age," she says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Judy's window on the world.

She panicked. Her only income was the small widow's benefit she was collecting from Social Security, so she was ready to do practically anything to get her bills paid.

"I had been taking care of my son's dog, and I've always loved animals, so I decided to take this passion and make it a business," she says.

Judy handed out fliers on the street and posted them in store windows until Woofs 'n Purrs was running full throttle like a boxer on the beach.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Walking dogs gives Judy a purpose in life.

"This makes it sound like it was easy, but it was a struggle," she says. "I've learned to live with much less money."

Her doggie dance card is filled: From 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, Judy walks her regulars and adds others as owners need her.

"I don't know how many miles I walk every day, but it's a lot, especially if you count all the steps in the apartment buildings," she says. "I find it difficult physically, but I have the stamina to do it, and I want to do it because I've always had an unexplainable connection with animals. I can sense what they are feeling."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A companionable walk in the rain.

The love she gets and gives is what keeps her going.

"Every corner that I turn and every street I walk down is my opportunity for greatness," she says. "When I go to bed, I know that I have made a difference in someone's life, in my life, in an animal's life."

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling