Among the more persistent points of fascination throughout the COVID pandemic has been the tectonic shift occurring within the dog-human relationship. Dogs, we are told, were adopted in record numbers over the past year and a half, shelters and rescues emptied out, and breeders had huge waiting lists for new “stock.” Indeed, such has been the dog-acquisition frenzy that the phrase “pandemic puppies” has become a COVID-era catchphrase.
We know the general contours of why dogs suddenly seemed even more popular than ever before. People whose pre-COVID lifestyle wasn’t conducive to dog ownership, whether because of long work or school hours outside the home or because of demanding travel schedules, were finally able to make their canine fantasies come true. Some seized on the chance to raise a puppy, whose first few months within a human home require a great deal of supervision and attention. Others felt called to make a difference by adopting an adult dog from a shelter or rescue. Woven into these choices was an element of self-interest. With human social contact winnowed down to almost nothing, people turned to dogs for emotional support and safe companionship.
Initially, “pandemic puppies” were hailed as quiet heroes, furry life rafts for a population of humans drowning in social isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Now, though, “pandemic puppies” has a assumed a more ominous meaning: this is a generation of dogs whose acquisition during the pandemic is an unfolding welfare crisis. This supposed crisis is taking several forms. Unruly adolescent dogs—the adorable and tractable puppies of a year ago—are now testing the patience of their human caregivers. According to many conversations we have had over the past year with trainers and behaviorists, their waiting lists are swollen with desperate clients, and the problems trainers and behaviorists are being asked to address are far more complex than counter surfing or difficulty with recall. Indeed, what dogs and people seem to need now is couples therapy. Census numbers at shelters and rescues are climbing once again as people realize what they should have known all along: that living with a dog is a whole heck of a lot harder than meets the eye and that Instagram photos of dogs doing cute things have very little connection to the actual responsibility of caring for an intelligent, emotionally intricate animal with complex social needs.
Perhaps the most serious welfare issue facing dogs right now relates to the role dogs have been asked to fill as emotional support staff. We have created a generation of dogs who are emotionally co-dependent, often on a single individual. There has been some research on the welfare of seeing eye dogs, autism dogs, military dogs and police dogs, and some discussion of the ethics of volunteering dogs for these jobs. But there has been almost no research or moral conversation about the welfare implications of dogs as hired (though uncompensated) companions, especially as companions who are expected to witness and respond to charged human emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, fear and depression. Dogs are profoundly empathetic and are highly attuned to our emotions, and so it is likely that our neediness extracts a high price from the animals we like to think of as our best friends.
Another serious problem for pandemic dogs is the transition of humans back toward a more normal life. A cadre of dogs have become accustomed to having their humans around 24/7. Many of these dogs have been or will soon be expected to deal with sudden extended periods of isolation. We can anticipate (and are already seeing) skyrocketing rates of behavioral problems in pet dogs. The inclination will be to simplify and pathologize these behaviors and label them “separation anxiety.” On the one hand, perhaps this is fine for now. The strategy for addressing separation-related anxieties and fears is to take things very slowly, helping a dog learn, over several months or longer, how to be alone.
Actually, though, it isn’t that dogs need to learn how to be alone; dogs, like humans, know perfectly well how to be alone, and many dogs want and need considerable time alone; they are introverts. Pandemic dogs need help remembering how to be alone because we have made them forget. In fact, dogs often get far less time alone than is psychologically healthy for them. It may be that the pandemic has been stressful for dogs precisely because they have had more of us than they can handle.
Humans can be egocentric and think that our dog’s entire word revolves around us—that we are all that our dog needs. But do they not need a world broader, richer, more expansive, more canine than the four walls of our home? We may be the apple of our dog’s eye, but it is likely that we are only one apple on a tree of many possibilities.
This much we know for sure: the COVID pandemic represents a widespread and unprecedented social experiment in human-dog relations. The pandemic will have reverberations that are felt far into the future—mainly for dogs, but also for dog researchers and trainers and for the humans who acquired dogs during the pandemic. Yet while many researchers are scrambling to study the effects of the COVID pandemic on human-dog relations, we would like to suggest that the real value of our current moment is to understand that things were hard for dogs well before the pandemic, and it isn’t pandemic-specific issues that are the real welfare challenge. The pandemic has brought problems to the fore that have been simmering in the background, and we can use this as an opportunity to reflect on how we live with dogs, the pressures under which pet dogs—what we call in our most recent book “intensively homed dogs”—live, and how we can best offer dogs the life they deserve.
The real mission suggested by this pandemic-puppy madness, if we choose to accept it, is to begin the slow process of learning to live with dogs in ways that are emotionally healthy for everyone involved.