Dancer turns LIC dog walker after cancer battle

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Ryan Stewart, whose dance career was derailed after a bout with cancer, now walks dogs for Long Island City residents who mostly work in the day and cannot do it themselves. Photo by Troy Benson
Ryan Stewart, whose dance career was derailed after a bout with cancer, now walks dogs for Long Island City residents who mostly work in the day and cannot do it themselves.

ALAN CAPPER

If you come to New York with a scholarship to study and learn ballet, it may seem a little incongruous to eventually become a dog walker.

Not so, says Ryan Stewart, who, after a bout with cancer derailed his dance career, walks dogs for Long Island City residents who mostly work in the day and cannot do it themselves. “Dancing ballet requires a great deal of patience and the use of physicality to communicate and send meaning. Body awareness and control are qualities that are needed for dog walking with different breeds and personalities.”

Ryan was raised with dogs and is a dog lover. He believes that what he provides is a service to the community, helping to make the joy of dog ownership more complete. One of the things that keeps him busy is the huge growth in dog ownership in the area.

“Although I studied dance and the arts, it seemed inevitable I would work with dogs,” said Ryan. “I was raised one of seven children — kind of like a pack environment.” He laughed. Ryan’s household chore was walking the family field spaniel. He was also born in the Chinese zodiac year of the dog. “What I think influences me the most is being adopted. It seems natural for me to work with dogs, who are also raised by different biological families. We have an unspoken bond.”

First starting as a trainer for dog commercials, Ryan looked for a consistent job with canines. After trying his hand at grooming, he settled on walks as a way to consistently interact with man’s best friend. As his reputation spread he was asked by more and more owners to walk their dogs, and soon he was looking after small packs. He is a familiar and interesting figure in the area and it can be quite startling to see him controlling five to 10 dogs at a time. Any dog owner knows that in any moment one dog might take a disliking to another, so seeing Ryan’s dogs completely at peace with no discord or angry exchanges is quite remarkable.

“Developing an eye for spotting trouble is key,” he said. “If I sense one dog that may be troublesome I put them really close to me to keep a sharper eye on them. I love pit bulls. They get a bad rep but you have to understand the breed. They weren’t bred to herd sheep!”

He said that he doesn’t have a favorite type, but that his next choice for ownership will be a border collie, for their sheer intelligence, or a German shepherd, because of their versatility and trainability, particularly for rescue. “The challenge will be to find a shelter dog who isn’t overly traumatized.”

As far as small or toy dogs are concerned, he says that there is no reason not to walk them with larger dogs — as long as the personality mix is compatible. Also, smaller breeds, or “toy dogs,” tend to live much longer lives than larger breeds, but all dogs and breeds respond to Ryan’s control with affection. He has certain standards when walking groups, not often talking to strangers, which might come across as rude. “My dogs require my full attention.” The coldest day doesn’t alter his no-glove policy. “My fingertips need to feel the leashes.” And the hottest day will never see Ryan wearing sunglasses. “Dogs like to see my eyes.”

Ryan’s original scholarship took him to Alvin Ailey School to study dance. He was scheduled to transfer to Juilliard when a diagnosis of lymphoma derailed his dance career. After 14 months of chemotherapy, Ryan realized that another profession should be looked into. In an interesting display of serendipity, one of Ryan’s most decorated canine mentors, Sue Sternberg, is the daughter of his oncologist. “It was a beautiful moment when I walked up to Mrs. Sternberg and told her that her mother had saved my life.”

Ryan still has a passion for ballet and takes lessons as often as he can during the week. It is difficult to think of a greater contrast to dog walking than dance, but he continues to feed his passion for both. So watch out for him in the neighborhood, and marvel at the discipline and affection that he engenders with the dogs in his care.

 

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