I first met Melissa when she was referred to me as a potential petsitter/dog walker for my desi pups.

It was love at first sight for Ruby and Jack (my dogs) who ran right up to her as if they had known her for years – Jack even smothering her face with kisses.

After an hour of sipping tea and chatting, I realized that this 28-year old was much wiser than her age would have me assume. I came to find that not only had she been pet sitting/dog walking since she was 13, she had just completed her first memoir, had her own inspiring blog called Project Positive People— where she hopes to help people through hard times with love and support — and was putting an offer in on her first home.

After having to rush back from India before the borders closed on March 22 due to COVID 19, Melissa became the only human I saw for weeks. I needed to quarantine due to my travel but my dogs still needed daily walks. Like many single folks during Stay at Home orders, my only view to the outside world where other humans lived was via Zoom and FaceTime. If it was not for the ray of sunshine and hope that Melissa brought me and my dogs daily, (from more than six feet away) I may have lost it altogether.

I decided to interview her to get some insight into how she stays positive, and because she loves dogs (and cats) how these creatures have impacted her life. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Deb: Let’s start of easy. When did you first know you loved dogs?

MelissaI have always loved animals, but I didn’t truly connect with dogs until college. My parents didn’t allow cats/dogs growing up, but my sister and I were always bringing home turtles, snakes, frogs, salamanders—all kinds of creatures from the pond down the road from our house.

In college, I started overnight pet sitting for the first time, and that’s when I really began to connect with dogs. While studying at URI in Kingston, I applied for an overnight pet sitting job with two Bernese Mountain dogs and two cats. The owners, who I am still very close with today, took a chance and hired me. Those Bernese dogs saved my life. At the time, I was in the trenches of one of my darkest periods: an ex-boyfriend of mine had just died in a car accident, my family was rapidly falling apart, and I was living with an emotionally controlling and abusive boyfriend off campus. The Bernese dogs showed me what love truly is and how a home is supposed to feel. From then on, I knew my path. I knew I needed to break up with my boyfriend, leave my family behind, and work with animals.

Deb: I love your honesty. You have now been dog walking and pet sitting for 15 years! How did you start and how did you know it could be a full time job?

Melissa: I started pet sitting (just visits, no overnights) when I was thirteen. The first job I had was with my neighbor’s cat, Katrina. I have always LOVED cats. I connected with cats first because another one of my neighbors had an outdoor cat named Midnight who would come over and play with my sister and I regularly when we were young. She was like our nanny.


Melissa and Midnight

Melissa and Midnight

While pet sitting Katrina, I ended up becoming friends with the owner, which I never expected. She started inviting me over for creative craft sessions where we would make collages and she would teach me about art supplies. As a thirteen-year-old, I thought this was a novel experience. As I progressed through high school and college, I continued pet sitting on the side, believing pet sitting to be a hobby not a “real” job.

After pet sitting the Bernese Mountain dogs in college and realizing that I wanted to work with animals, I moved to Rhode Island and secured myself a job at the Newport Animal Hospital. However, I quickly became depressed, but was not sure why this time. All I knew was I had to quit my structured 9AM-5PM job and start pet sitting again.

Against my entire family’s beliefs, I left the animal hospital and started working at Starbucks in Middletown, RI while pet sitting on the side and trying my luck at dog walking as well. After six months of doing this, I realized I could quit Starbucks and work full-time as a dog walker/pet sitter. Again, my family did not support this decision. In fact, my dad strongly urged me to reconsider, so instead of listening to them or waiting for their approval, I decided to take a risk and go with my gut. 

It paid off. Time and time again, I have learned through this business and from the animals that gut instincts are always the way to go. I have returned to the beautiful life I dipped my toes into when I was thirteen. Turns out, connecting genuinely with animals and their loving people is not a rare occurrence. 

Melissa Toni

Melissa and her cat Sashimi

Deb: Well I am glad you pursued it. I know my dogs are better off for it. I just read your memoir .. you’ve definitely had your struggles. How has working with dogs/cats helped you in your journey?

Melissa: The animals absolutely saved my life (and I’m going to quote Titanic here lol) “in every way that a person can be saved.” They are a HUGE part of my memoir, and of course my life. Growing up, I was the black sheep in the family. I was also ostracized by most of my classmates during my teen years for reasons I go into in my memoir. The messages from all around me for years said that I was the problem. I thought I was crazy, hopeless, and destined to perish in a world I didn’t belong.

But then I connected deeply with a couple of Bernese Mountain dogs and they said, “Hey. You’re cool as fuck and we love you just as you are. We don’t think you’re crazy for being angry and we don’t think the light inside of you has died. We think you’re simply surrounded by people who don’t understand you and won’t let that light shine.

Deb: The unconditional love we get from dogs is like no other. You are one of the most positive people I know, which is also the purpose of your blog, Project Positive People. What was your inspiration to start it?

Melissa: Thank you! As a person who has been through A LOT and has cleaned off my internal mirror several times to allow the light to shine inward and outward, I know how much work that takes. I also know, as a person who has been labelled mentally ill and judged as such, how much harder that work is to do when you have a community of judgments, fear, and to be quite honest, ignorance swirling around you (and I don’t say “ignorance” with anger. I say it with understanding and love, because I know now, having been through this process a couple times and having studied psychology, that most people in the U.S. are programmed to believe in mental illness. But most people have not been exposed to the idea of healing, and if they have, they don’t really understand what that means.

My goal with Project Positive People is to support all the fierce, passionate, positive warriors out there, working hard to make a positive impact on the world. I have learned that we cannot achieve our big and radical dreams without each other. I need to help others in their positive goals just as much as I need them to help me achieve mine. My goal is to wake people up to the possibility of healing and do away with the judgmental, traumatic, and limited mental health system currently in place. My memoir is my sword and Project Positive People is my army where I work hard every day to build a platform of resources and support for all the beautiful people fighting their own “good fights”.

Deb: I just wanted to say thank you. I completely admire you for putting your heart and soul out there to help others heal. The world needs more people like you.


Images: Melissa Toni’s own.



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About the author

Deb Jarrett

Deb Jarrett

Deb Jarrett, at age 40, decided her life needed some shaking up. In fact, she needed to rattle her brains a bit. She was done climbing the corporate ladder, paying mortgages and internet dating—so she quit her job and moved to India to help animals. Not to be confused with Elizabeth Gilbert, at this point in her life, Deb had done just about all of the self discovery she so desired on therapist couches, yoga retreats, and spiritual workshops. In fact, she Eats very carefully, due to the risk of bacteria and parasites. She no longer Prays after experiencing the harsh reality of the developing world on a day-to-day basis and believes compassionate action is the answer. However, she did find Love with an Indian man. She started Dharamsala Animal Rescue in 2008 after her first trip to India.