Year of the dog: In 2020, furry friends were just what we needed to make it through the pandemic
The poet Mary Oliver once observed of dogs that one reason we love them so much is their steadfastness. While human beings waver and waffle, dogs are constant. A walk is always grand; a game of tug always the Best. Thing. Ever. The arrival of a special person – even one who has merely slipped away to refill their coffee mug – cause for celebration. The invitation to join them for an afternoon nap on the forbidden couch always open. As Ms. Oliver wrote of her own beloved rescue pup, a bichon frisé named Percy, the very best dogs are a “mixture of gravity and waggery.”
In this grave year, the dog’s steadfast waggery was just what we needed. Dogs quickly beat out toilet paper as the most coveted of lockdown possessions, especially once we had to think of the pandemic in terms of months – now years – rather than weeks. Google searches by Canadians for “how to buy a dog” spiked in April. Reputable breeders, who plan for a litter perhaps once a year, were inundated with phone calls and e-mails for a pandemic puppy, until, to make it stop, some removed their contact information from their websites. Across the country, animal shelters and rescue groups saw exponential increases in adoption applications – in some cases, as many as 400 per dog. Foster families – always in short supply prepandemic – lined up to take dogs home temporarily, often as a strategic shortcut to adoption.
All told, 2020 may have been a lousy time for humans, but it was a good year to be a dog. Those with working owners suddenly had company. Those in need of a family had a good shot at finding one. But more than that, our desire for dogs was a perfect reflection of what the pandemic has revealed we need the most: companionship. This year, dogs rescued us.
For Bridget Hudson, a nurse at a long-term care home who lives just north of Barrie, Ont., the arrival of Gracie, the bernedoodle, on the first weekend of the lockdown was the best pandemic medicine. Ms. Hudson and her husband almost didn’t get her – despite being on the breeder’s list, the sudden uncertainty of the year made them hesitate. But then they had to cancel their daughter’s birthday party, and a trip to pick up a puppy seemed like fortuitous timing. “We can’t imagine life without her now,” says Ms. Hudson. “They mold themselves into your heart.” Gracie’s exuberance and hijinks have lifted everybody’s spirits, she says. Arriving home at the end of a shift, Gracie is at the door to greet her. “She does a little dance for ten minutes.” A highlight of Ms. Hudson’s day is taking Gracie for a quiet walk. The troubles of her work day slip away, replaced by the joy of watching a bouncing dog blissfully unware of a virus called Covid-19.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence of pandemic puppies frolicking in dog parks, it is hard to know how many new dogs found Canadian homes in 2020. But dogs have been gaining on cats for the title of most popular pet over the past 15 years, according to statistics collected by the Canadian Animal Health Institute. In 2018, 41 per cent of Canadian households had at least one dog. This year has likely given canines the crown. Even before the pandemic, Euromonitor, an international data company, was estimating an annual increase of 60,500 dogs in Canada for 2020 – now, a company spokesperson said, that number is expected to be much higher.
For rescue groups, pandemic restrictions made it difficult to transport dogs, who are often saved from kill shelters in the United States or brought south from northern parts of Canada, and the lockdown delayed adoptions. Even so, in Toronto, the rescue group Redemption Paws saw 600 dogs adopted or fostered in 2020 – a number that Nicole Simone, the organization’s executive director, says was limited only by the logistics of bringing dogs across the border, not a lack of eager – and often aggressive – potential owners. Between April and November this year, the group received 5,069 applications – nearly three times more than the 1,695 in the same months of 2019. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have people screaming at me that I didn’t have enough dogs for them to adopt,” says Ms. Simone, who has been rescuing dogs for more than a decade. Overwhelmed, her group had to implement an automated system and a cover letter process to cull candidates, who didn’t always mince words when they weren’t approved for adoption. “People have been admittedly treating us like Amazon for dogs,” she says. “I have had people try to pay me double the adoption fee if I would give them a dog. It is bizarre.”
The Manitoba Animal Alliance has brought 1,400 dogs from northern parts of the province to go to Ontario rescue groups since the spring, an increase of about 500 over 2019; as of early December, according to Debra Vandekerkhove, the group’s executive director, all but 40 have found homes. Still, while dogs may be hard to find in eastern parts of the country, Ms. Vandekerkhove points out, there is a steady supply looking for homes in Winnipeg – and not enough flights or resources to get them to where they are in demand. “If you can make the trip here,” she says, “there’s a dog waiting for you.”
A dog-crazy country made for a booming pet industry. Global Pet Foods saw sales rise; the pet insurance company Pet Plan reported a 45-per-cent increase in new policies purchased in North America. Chewy, an American online pet store, saw its stock price triple to $128 between March and December. Pet “nannies” willing to quarantine after escorting pups on flights from the United States sprang up online. Truck drivers, who could cross the border as essential workers, were enlisted to unite Canadian-bound dogs to their owners; Leon Schreven, a driver from Coaldale, Alta., has delivered 32 dogs (and 15 cats) through customs since the spring, often with the 8-week-old puppies sleeping on his lap while he drove. His fee, to cover the time he had to stop to water and feed the dogs, topped out at $450, he says, a fraction of what was being charged by pet transport companies.
As demand outstripped supply, the price tag for puppies rose – a purebred easily going for $3,000 and up, and mixed-breeds well over $1,000 – putting a dog out of reach for many families. Con artists seized the moment, promising non-existent puppies in online ads, even stealing the identities of legitimate breeders, and taking advantage of physical-distancing rules that made it complicated to travel to see litters. As of September, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre had received 486 reports of animal-related scams compared with 195 in 2019; and Canadians had lost a whopping $450,000 and counting to puppy fraudsters, already more than the entire previous year.
Dogs were a hot commodity around the world. Shelters and rescue groups in the United States, Britain and Spain also reported steep increases in adoption applications. In April, with strict lockdown measures in effect, some countries, such as France and Israel, made adopting a pet from an animal shelter one of the few exceptions allowing people to leave their home. A recent study out of Israel – one of the only ones to attach real numbers to the trend – found that in April, 2020, there were nearly 222,000 absolute visits to a national dog adoption site, compared with 73,000 in the same month in 2019.
Dogs were suddenly coveted tickets to freedom and fresh air; even in cities with the strictest lockdowns, people often still had permission to walk their pups. This led to a few enterprising strategies, including reports of European dog owners “renting” out their pets for strolls. A Spanish man was caught by police – and on viral video – “walking” a stuffed dog. A mayor in Sardinia was forced to clarify that all dogs being walked had to be alive. Even robot dogs stepped up: in the United States, a robotics company distributed additional models to seniors isolated during the pandemic.
Our instincts are right: dogs are good for us, pandemic or not. Owning a dog has been linked to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of heart attacks, improved well-being and – especially useful right about now – resilience in adversity. Other research has found what anyone with a cute puppy already knows – walking your dog triggers more spontaneous interactions with strangers and neighbours. In a 2015 survey of city residents in the United States and Australia, dog owners were five times more likely to have met someone through their dog than other pet owners.
A small collection of international findings since Covid-19 has seen dogs earning their kibble, both as therapists and physical trainers. A Spanish study during the lockdown found that, even with outdoor time restricted, most owners reported getting support from their pets, especially if their reported quality of life was below average. Another study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry that studied Australians living alone during the lockdown found that those with dogs – but not cats – had more protection against loneliness, a finding the authors attributed to the social interactions that result from dog-walking. A similar study in the U.K. published in September also found that pet ownership was associated with smaller declines in mental health and smaller increases in loneliness since the lockdown.
If the best foil to uncertainty is constancy; the cure for worry, living in the moment; the salve for despair, unfettered enthusiasm for simple pleasures – who better for the job than a dog?
For Stefan Guy, a musician in Burlington, that dog’s name is June: they saved each other, as it happens.
The pandemic meant cancelled concerts and no touring gigs, and for the first time, Mr. Guy, 27, found himself housebound. He decided to apply for a rescue dog after seeing a picture of a Shepherd mix pup from northern Manitoba, but he received a stock response that he was well down the list of the crowd of people applying for her. During the moratorium on adoptions, Juniper – June – grew up, and people who wanted a young puppy dropped off the list. The shelter called Mr. Guy, and he met her for the first time the day he brought her home. She fell asleep in the back seat on the drive home, as if she’d been waiting for him.
Over the summer, they have crossed the country from Cape Breton, N.S, to Revelstoke, B.C., climbing mountains, backcountry camping. June has even treed a black bear that wandered too close to her owner. These months with June, Mr. Guy says, have helped him see what he wants out of the next part of his life: more time at home, working in a studio, enjoying nature. “I had put a lot of things on the back burner,” he says. “It has been a strange year of people figuring out what makes them happy, and I owe it all to June being a great sidekick.” He is, as we are speaking on the phone, driving to Algonquin Park; June, having crawled into the passenger seat, is chewing on his Tim Horton’s cup. “She is a grand spectacle kind of dog,” he explains, always up for a big adventure. “It’s like, take me 20 kilometres, or don’t even bother.”
Dogs, Mr. Guy says, push you to be better, more patient, more flexible. “Even the strongest people have felt untethered. I credit this amazing animal with keeping me grounded.” Human beings could learn a lot from dogs about optimism and love. “They reflect the best part of you back into the world.”
Yet if the reasons why we love dogs are clear, why they love us is somewhat more mysterious. There are competing theories about how dogs came to be – a more romantic version in which early humans trained wolf descendants to hunt, and a dirtier narrative where early dogs started hanging close to human camps for garbage, and the relationship blossomed from there. But even if our shared history began with trash, Clive Wynne, the author of the 2019 book Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, suggests that we sometimes underestimate the special bond between dogs and humans. Over time, our connection to dogs has deepened, he suggests, in part because of two trends – a dog’s “job” evolved into companion pet, and people, more often living alone, craved company. Now that a pandemic has only heightened our sense of isolation, call in the dogs. “There is not going to be a lot from this time that we want to hold on to,” says Dr. Wynne. “But I hope it brings home to people the essence of their relationship to their dog.”
“Wherever your dog is,” says Steve Sacco, a 42-year-old paralegal in Stouffville, Ont., “that is your home.” On Thanksgiving, Mr. Sacco officially adopted his foster dog, Faye, a five-year-old black lab mix with terminal cancer, from Redemption Paws. Now, he says, she’ll have a good life for what time is left, and he has the comfort and distraction of an affectionate dog who likes to sneak up on the bed each morning. “Sometimes dogs are better than humans; they don’t say what they are thinking, they don’t talk back; they don’t hold grudges, they just give that unconditional love.”
Indeed, Dr. Wynne’s book is, at its heart, a reminder to take care with the love a dog so willingly gives. The story of the pandemic is not just about people wanting dogs, but all the people trying to bring dogs to people. A few weeks ago, volunteers organized by the Manitoba Animal Alliance travelled eight hours north of Winnipeg – sleeping in their running vans because of lockdown restrictions – to retrieve dozens of puppies and homeless dogs that might not have lasted the winter, and transport them to Ontario for adoption.
Meanwhile in Ontario, volunteers with Redemption Paws have been driving into Michigan to collect dogs rescued from no-kill shelters in Texas and deliver them to foster families in Toronto, even though the trip requires a two-week quarantine upon return. While some groups worry that the increase in adoptions may lead to more surrenders when the pandemic ends, others, such as Dr. Wynne, are more optimistic, hoping the longer the pandemic stretches on, keeping people home, the more they will bond with their dogs.
At the Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary in King City, Ont., people have come forward to foster dogs that had lingered at the shelter for a year of more. One of them was BeeGee, a beagle whose secret past life left him with one eye, and who, with two paralyzed back legs, either drags himself around or uses a wheelchair to walk. He was fostered by Lexee Duval, a 20-year-old living with her parents in Bowmanville, Ont., whose dancing career was stalled by the pandemic.
“The first day I brought him home I knew I couldn’t give him back.” Just like Stefan Guy, the rescuing was mutual – because of BeeGee, Ms. Duval had to get out of bed for walks, chase him for baths, focus beyond her own boredom and disappointment, and onto another living creature, one who always wanted to be in her company. “He lives life to the fullest.” She is trying to pay attention to the lesson: learn to be happy, no matter the circumstances. “He has no clue,” she says, that he isn’t a perfect dog. Which, of course, makes him perfect.
As a college professor, Mary Oliver brought her dog to work each day – “it was in her contract,” she once explained. She died in January, 2019, so she never got to write about this strange time when working people came home to their dogs. But in one prescient poem, she captures this pandemic moment perfectly:
But there are days I wish there was less in my head to examine, not to speak of the busy heart. How would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.
And isn’t that the gift of a good dog? They live in the moment. They remind us to savour the best parts of the day. And, especially in these times, they keep us running forward.