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Pandemic Puppy

April 13, 2020

Obviously I get it. When you imagine untold weeks of pacing the same home and seeing and talking with the same limited number of people, or even just your own reflection, the idea of a cute, cuddly companion—one you can pet, take walks with, and talk to (with the added benefit of them not talking back)—is suddenly incredibly appealing.

And the truth is, having a puppy helps. Having something to focus on other than my own anxiety and fear is nice. With a puppy, our household is forced into a new routine—the type of schedule and consistency that experts say is crucial during turbulent times. We have to wake up to take Barry for an early walk (okay, my husband has to wake up to take Barry for an early walk); we have to make sure Barry gets outside to exercise; we must ensure that he eats meals at regular intervals. Plus, he’s adorable. Barry helps us see joy in the little things, like when he first successfully made it down the stairs by himself, nervously squealing the entire time.

“Research supports that being around our dog makes us feel good,” says Phyllis Erdman, a psychology professor at Washington State University. Our collective pandemic-puppy moment isn’t necessarily good for the dogs, though. Erdman worries about what she calls the “Christmas-puppy scenario.” “People have time now and want to hug up on their animals,” she explains. “When this is over, people who have adopted these animals might find they don’t have time for them, or they ignore them.” And for some, a prolonged economic downturn caused by the coronavirus could make having a pet financially untenable, forcing them to make hard choices about whether they can sufficiently care for an animal in the long term. There’s also the question of just how much emotional support scared and anxious humans should expect their pets to be able to give them. Erdman notes that some animals that have been rescued from bad situations, or that have been in shelters for a long time, might have their own anxiety or emotional trauma, and layering the owner’s on top of that could be unhealthy for everybody.

Still, everyone I spoke with underscored that, as long as new owners act intentionally and with long-term planning in mind, the prolonged stretch of time at home might provide a unique chance for owners to bond with new pets. (Hi, Barry.) This difficult period may mean that people become more attached and attuned to their pets than if they were seeing their animals for only a few hours a day, which may help get them through the hurdles of pet ownership with slightly less frustration.

My experience so far suggests that there’s probably something to that idea. While housebreaking was hard, and it certainly isn’t ideal when Barry decides to bark for more attention while I attempt to have a series of Zoom meetings, our puppy is making us unreasonably happy. During a lengthy period of sadness and uncertainty, it has been cathartic to laugh at the random things Barry has decided to be afraid of—black plastic bags, parked bicycles, large trucks, the back alley, and stacks of cardboard boxes, to name just a few. And our walks provide a sense of purpose and structure. Having a new puppy has also helped us forge stronger connections with our friends and family—giving us all something to DM, call, FaceTime, and text about other than illness and angst.

Barry has given us the invaluable gifts of levity and joy during this extraordinarily miserable crisis. I’m not really sure how we’ll repay him, but we’ve got lots of time, right here at home, to figure it out.

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