Courtesy Eric O’Grey (Dog), Loveaum/Shutterstock (Grass)
Any day that I had to go to the airport was the worst day of my life, and as a traveling appliance salesman, I had to fly quite a bit. On this day in 2010, I was assigned to a middle seat. I was so big I couldn’t fit down the aisle facing forward, so I walked sideways, like a crab. I could see the other passengers’ fear like cartoon thought bubbles above their heads: “Please, God, don’t let that humongous guy be in the seat next to me!” I was five foot ten and weighed between 340 and 360 pounds; the exact number depended on whether you took my weight before or after one of my gargantuan meals.
When I finally squeezed into my seat, the seat belt wasn’t long enough to fit around my 52-inch waist. They never were.
The flight attendant said they had run out of seat belt extenders. They were going to have to get one from another plane.
More than 30 minutes passed.
“Great,” said the slender man in the window seat next to me. “I’m going to miss my connection because you’re so fat!”
I wanted to die. Right there, in that seat, I wished my life would just end.
I woke up the next morning knowing that I needed to change. I started looking for signs that might lead me toward a better life—and immediately a sign showed up. I turned on the TV and happened to catch an interview with former president Bill Clinton. He looked fit and full of energy, about half his former size. He said he’d been under the care of a doctor who put him on a whole-food, plant-based diet. That was all it took, he said. He lost weight without feeling hungry, and he was healthier and stronger than he’d been since his twenties. I never imagined my sign would come from Bill Clinton, but here he was.
I had no idea what a “whole-food, plant-based diet” was, but I ran with it, even though I couldn’t actually run to save my life. I went online and searched for a doctor who could help me. I came across Preeti Kulkarni, a naturopathic doctor. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I felt hopeful when she agreed to see me the next day.
So tell me about yourself,” said Dr. Preeti (as she liked to be called). I told her I had type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure. I was on all sorts of meds for those.
“If you stick to what I tell you, there’s a good chance you won’t need any of those in a few months,” she said. “At every meal, just make sure that at least half your plate is full of fruits and vegetables and the rest is beans and rice or any other food that is not from an animal. If you do that, you’ll start feeling better. And with exercise, I think you’ll be really surprised how quickly things can change.”
She suggested I start with 20 minutes of light exercise twice a day. “Something you can enjoy, like taking a walk,” she said. “And I recommend that you go to a shelter and adopt a dog.”
“Exercise?” I said. “A dog?”
“A dog is a good companion,” she said. “Plus, you live in an apartment, which means the dog has to be walked. So you walk your dog twice a day, and that will be your exercise.”
“I’ve never owned a dog. What about a cat?” I asked.
“Have you ever seen anyone walk a cat?”
And so a few days later, I drove up to the Humane Society Silicon Valley in San Jose, California, near where I lived. I had already spoken with Casaundra, who was in charge of adoptions. She said she had the perfect dog for me, but she offered some advice: “Don’t look him in the eyes at first.” I knew that wouldn’t be a problem—I had trouble making eye contact with anyone. “Let him sniff your hand. Don’t try to pet him right away. Just give him a second. He’s a real sweet dog once he knows you.”
That didn’t sound like the happy golden retriever I’d had in mind.
Casaundra stepped out of the room, and I took a deep breath. My heart was pounding. Then I heard footsteps approaching. Dog nails on concrete. The handle on the door turned. The door cracked open. A black nose tried to push its way in, and then the door opened all the way. There he was: a large black-and-white dog with a big round body, shuffling into the room with his head hung low. He looked up at me and then dropped his head with a clear look of disappointment. Like, Really? This loser?
I suppose I looked at him the same way.
“He’s a border collie and Australian shepherd mix, to the best of our knowledge,” Casaundra said. “As you can see, he’s middle-aged and overweight, and that means he’s in need of a new routine, just like the one you told me you needed. Raider’s out of shape. His joints are swollen. He needs to start walking again.”
“Raider?” I asked.
“Like the Oakland Raiders. His owners were fans.”
I looked at him, petting him in silence. I wondered how many other dogs had come through here, and I wondered how many other humans, like me, were skeptical of the whole dog-human matchmaking process.
I didn’t want to let Casaundra down. I thought, This is what she does for a living, and she feels really strongly about this. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Why did someone give this dog up?” I asked.
Casaundra flipped through a few pages of notes on a clipboard. “There was a divorce. He was not being cared for the way that he needed. He spent a lot of time in a backyard by himself after his primary caregiver went off to college. And the family just felt like maybe there was a better home for him somewhere else.”
Raider sniffed my shoes. He looked up, and I scratched him behind the ears. He seemed to like that. When I stopped for a moment, he lay down on the floor near my feet.
“Aw, look at that. He likes you already,” Casaundra said. “I have a good feeling about this. Just be patient. You have to understand that his whole life has been uprooted. It’s going to take him some time to adjust.”
“The poor guy,” I said. It hit me how tough this dog’s life had been. I looked down at Raider, and suddenly the sadness in his eyes didn’t look like a reflection on me. It looked more like he was just done and ready to give up and die.
I started to tear up.
“Can I ask you something?” I said to Casaundra. “Can I change his name? I’m a 49ers fan. We hate the Raiders.”
Casaundra laughed. “Yes, you can change his name. It might take him a while to respond, but why not? Fresh start.”
I named him Peety, after the dog in The Little Rascals, and we took it slow, just as my doctor and Casaundra had recommended. We had to. Peety weighed 75 pounds when a healthy weight for him was more like 50 pounds. But on our first walk together, Peety took the lead. We made it halfway down the block and then came back. Luckily for me, he didn’t walk very fast. You could practically hear my footsteps on the sidewalk as I swung each leg forward—thump, thump, thump, like the giant from “Jack and the Bean Stalk.”
The next day we made it to the end of the block. Soon he would lead me around the block. Then he’d want to keep going, and I would tag along.
At the same time, I was following Dr. Preeti’s instructions for plant-based eating. Maybe five or six days after eliminating animal products from my diet, I woke up feeling like a new person. I rolled out of bed with ease. My knees weren’t sore. I had also put Peety on vegan dog food. He appeared thinner and seemed to have a spring in his step. And he had stopped scratching all the time and shedding everywhere the way he had when I first brought him home.
At my second office visit with Dr. Preeti, I weighed five pounds less than the week before. “I’m actually surprised it’s not more,” I said, “because I feel different. I feel lighter.”
A few days later, I went to take Peety for his morning walk and he backed right out of his collar. He’d lost so much weight that it slipped off. My pants were almost falling off me too. I tightened my belt as far as it would go, but I realized that if my belt were to slip, my pants would fall to the floor. That would not look good in the middle of an appliance store. I needed to go clothes shopping—something I had avoided for years.
I would have ordered clothes online, but I didn’t know what size I was anymore. At Men’s Wearhouse, the bending and squatting, dressing and undressing in the tiny dressing rooms left me overheated and miserable. This wasn’t a victory lap. It was awful. I bought three pairs of pants and a few shirts and spent nearly $200. It felt like a rip-off. For the most part, what’s available for men over 300 pounds is the equivalent of a muumuu: low-end, loud Hawaiian-print shirts.
Sitting on the couch that night, I thought maybe I should give it all up. Maybe I was too far gone.
Then Peety jumped into my lap. He started licking my face, which made me laugh. I petted him, and he pressed himself into my belly and lay down on top of my thick thighs as if he were a tiny puppy snuggling up in a blanket. And then he looked up at me as if I were the greatest guy in the world.
“Oh, Peety,” I said. “Are you sure you’re not disappointed you wound up with me?”
He kept looking at me with those beautiful dark eyes. And then he smiled. I’d heard people talk about dogs smiling before, and I thought they were nuts. But he did. He opened his teeth slightly and pulled up the corners of his mouth.
Suddenly I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I was thinking about Peety’s happiness. “I’m sorry, son,” I said to him. “I promise I won’t let you down.”
Over the next weeks, Peety kept pulling harder and harder on the leash, raring to go. There were times when I couldn’t keep up, even though I’d dropped five pounds a week pretty consistently since I started the plant-based eating and walking. The misery of headaches, abdominal pain, and overall discomfort I’d lived with for years just disappeared. I felt good. Not just better, but really good.
I started taking Peety to different parks. I found one, Penitencia Creek County Park, just over a mile from our condo. According to the website, it was home to a stunning pond full of ducks and other wildlife, with golden mountains off in the background. How could something like that exist so close and I hadn’t even known it was there?
When we arrived, it was as if Peety had googled it on his own. He kept choking himself at the end of the leash trying to run ahead. I picked up my pace the best I could, trying to give him some slack. I thought about how Peety’s whole life had been lived pent up, caged up, or tied to the end of a leash. How could anyone allow a dog to get so out of shape that he didn’t even want to run? Changing Peety’s diet and taking these walks had freed him. Maybe it was time to let him experience what freedom really felt like.
We stopped, and I unhooked his leash. Peety took off like a sprinter at the Olympics: head down, body forward, legs moving so fast they almost overtook him. He flew down the path and didn’t slow one bit as he approached the edge of the pond. Instead, he leaped. My jaw dropped open as he sailed out over the pond. He must’ve traveled seven feet through the air before he landed in a great big belly flop. Peety swam so hard he practically lifted his whole front end right out of the water, beaming with pride and excitement.
“Woo-hoo!” I yelled.
When he heard me, he swam to shore, ran out of the water, beelined right to me, and launched into a reverberating full-body shake of biblical proportions. He completely drenched me with mud and pond water, and not for one second did it make me angry. In fact, I laughed. I loved it. And in that moment, I realized I loved him.
I was still laughing as he turned around and ran back into the water for another swim. Peety did the swim-to-shore, shake-off, and run-back-into-the-water thing about eight more times before I was able to get him to sit and rest for a minute. He was panting like crazy, but between the sparkle in his eyes and the sight of his tongue hanging out of his big doggy smile, I knew he was perfectly OK.
He looked up at me like I was the greatest guy in the world—and that’s exactly what I wanted to be for him. I wanted to fulfill Peety’s every dream. He’d come into my life, and simply by being here, he rescued me. And in that moment, I felt like the two of us could have done anything.
“Want to keep walking?” I asked him.
Postscript: O’Grey and Peety walked together for nearly five years, until Peety died of cancer. Today, O’Grey weighs about 180 pounds, competes in marathons, and trains with his energetic Lab mix, Jake. Still, to this day, Peety is never far from O’Grey’s mind.
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