Pandemic Pups: Adopted Dogs Offer A Furry Support System

Pandemic Pups: Adopted Dogs Offer A Furry Support System
Dogs ease anxiety and provide needed companionship during a tumultuous year of lockdowns and quarantines


When 81-year-old Manhattanite Jane Isay met her potential new pet on a cold winter’s day mid-pandemic, it was love at first sight. She sat on a bench in Central Park and the graceful Poodle ambled over and poked her head under Isay’s knee. Within a couple of days Tiffany (Tiffy for short), was hers. “She is just the sweetest thing,” says Isay. “I love her.”

A week later, Isay came down with Covid and went into isolation, with only the dog for company. “You think you’re going to die,” says Isay, who wondered every night if she’d make it through ‘til morning. When she woke up in a panic, the dog in the adjacent chair would look at her or come over for a snuggle. Tiffy’s companionship helped Isay get through the ordeal. “She’s been such a comfort,” says Isay.    

Isay is not alone.

Though long man’s best friend, a dog’s fellowship is needed more than ever. People have seen Covid rob them of their routines, community, and sense of certainty, says licensed psychologist Lori Kogan, Professor at Colorado State University, who conducted a survey of US dog owners during the pandemic. Unchecked, these pressures could lead to anxiety or depression, she says.

Luckily, our animals can buffer some of these burdens, says Lindsay Hamrick, Director of Shelter Outreach & Engagement at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “We know pets are one of the best antidotes to lowering our blood pressure,” she says.

“After contracting Covid, “my grandchildren thought I was going to die,” says Isay. Her dog was the only creature she didn’t have to calm down.”

Both new and long-term owners are benefitting from their canine companions. The vast majority (76 percent) of Kogan’s survey respondents said their pets diminished their despair. Dogs are replacing some of the supports lost due to social distancing. “Having a living, responding entity” that cares for you, says Kogan, “can be very helpful in alleviating some of those feelings of isolation.” Dogs’ cuddles and kisses furnish us with sorely missed physical touch, and their entertaining antics yank us out of our preoccupations and into the present moment.

Plus, our pets give us a sense of direction that has been missing for many during the pandemic, says Nancy Gee, Director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine. Duty towards their dogs motivates older owners, in particular, to protect their health. “They might say, ‘I can’t die yet because I’ve got to take care of this animal,’” says Gee. Walking our dogs can also foster much-needed, socially distanced interactions with others as animal lovers offer advice or trade anecdotes about their pets.

They also lower our stress, a service needed more than ever. More than 80 percent of adults reported the coronavirus pandemic as a significant source of stress in their lives, along with emotions associated with prolonged stress, an American Psychological Association survey found.

“Nearly a year into the pandemic, prolonged stress persists at elevated levels for many Americans. …We can’t ignore the mental health consequences of this global shared experience,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA’s chief executive officer. “Without addressing stress as part of a national recovery plan, we will be dealing with the mental health fallout from this pandemic for years to come.”

Here again dogs help. Interacting with dogs not only makes us feel better, it also rewires us physiologically. In one of Gee’s recent studies, college students’ stress hormones (cortisol) fell and their focus improved after they attended dog therapy sessions.

But pandemic pets have brought some burdens as well as benefits. According to a survey of companion animals conducted during the lockdown in the UK (April-June 2020), 67 percent of participants voiced concerns about their animals. Some worried they would catch Covid from their pets, while others questioned their ability to afford pet food or health care, says author Emily Shoesmith, Research Associate, York University (UK). Pet owners also feared their animals might develop separation anxiety when they eventually returned to their workplaces.   

Illustration courtesy of kinship: based on an online survey among 1,023 pet parents in the u.s. Completed between December 22, 2020 and January 4, 2021

In spite of some misgivings, the vast majority of owners appreciated their “non-judgemental, constant source of affection,” says Shoesmith.

Three new dog owners would agree. For octogenarian Jane Isay, her Poodle, Tiffany, keeps loneliness at bay. Teenager Sonya Zacharek’s new Lab puppy, Sully, helps her relax after the grind of online studies. Editor Nancy McKeon’s terrier mix, Sadie Lou, leads her out of the house for marathon marches. Meet three people with different lives but similar gratitude for their pandemic pooches.   

An Octogenarian's Adopted Poodle Keeps Covid-Related Loneliness at Bay

When the pandemic struck last March, Manhattanite Jane Isay’s ties to humanity were severed overnight. The extroverted writer was used to daily dinners with friends, regular outings to the theater, and overnight stays with her children. But the fear of catching Covid kept her indoors, where the writer threw herself into a new children’s book.   

The isolation exacted an emotional toll. Anxiety invaded Isay’s thoughts and her body grew tense with unspoken fears. Her only relief came when she listened to her favorite classical composers. “I could let down my guard and weep of loneliness,” she says.

By the summer, the former dog owner realized she needed the comfort of a pet. Isay applied at one rescue organization after another, only to be told the dog she wanted was already taken. “I felt the way you might feel in high school when you got an invitation to the party,” says Isay, “then they called and said it was a mistake.” Eventually, a friend found her a well-trained rescue Poodle “who’s as smart as most of my neighbours.”

“Without a dog to walk, McKeon holed herself up in her apartment where she began talking to herself.”

Isay felt immediate relief after Tiffany arrived in her home. “I breathed differently,” she says. Tiffany glommed onto her quickly, shadowing her everywhere and showering her with kisses. “I was just so glad to have another living entity in my life,” says Isay.

Especially when she contracted Covid. Though her case was mild, Isay’s family feared the worst. “My grandchildren thought I was going to die,” she says.

The dog was the only creature she didn’t have to calm down. Unlike her relatives, Tiffany revelled in mundane rituals, dancing with joy when she was taken for a walk. “She was just a dog,” says Isay, “and that was a great relief.”

Looking after Tiffany also restored Isay’s sense of agency. The mother of two has always nurtured others and hated being the one in trouble. But she could feed her dog and give her a hug even while battling a virus. “You can do that,” says Isay, “whether you’re coughing or not.”

Today Isay continues to count her blessings. Tiffany’s steady presence continues to comfort her owner and keep her linked to the living. “She’s just here, and I find that wonderful,” she says.

A Teenager's New Pup Provides Company During Remote Learning

When the pandemic struck her hometown of Ann Arbour, Michigan, it shook 17-year-old Sonya Zacharek’s belief in a predictable world. She felt overwhelmed by dinner table conversations, where her parents, both healthcare professionals, worried about Covid’s spread. As her anxiety mounted, Zacharek had trouble concentrating on her studies. “(The) new way of life was super shocking,” she says.

But there was a silver lining—a puppy. Though Zacharek had long yearned for a pet, her parents were too busy to help care for an animal. But when they began working from home during the pandemic, the perfect moment had arrived. The Zachareks found a breeder who recommended a “pretty chill” yellow English Labrador Retriever. “He was really cute and that swayed us as well,” says Zacharek.

The “sassy” puppy, whom they named Sully, needed intensive house training. But this responsibility helped distract Zacharek from her problems and re-establish a regular schedule. When you’re learning at home, you can spend all day doing nothing, she says. But if your pet is hungry in the morning, that forces you out of bed. “You’re kept accountable to the dog,” she says, and that also “keeps you in check.” Caring for another creature has also boosted the teenager’s confidence. “You feel proud, especially if they’re acting right.”

Zacharek gets back as much as she gives. Sully’s high spirits keep her entertained as she watches him explore like a toddler or “vacuum” up his dinner. At night the tired-out puppy helps her unwind when she strokes his soft fur.  Embracing him also helps to make up for the human hugs put on hold by Covid. “Just him being in the house makes it feel less lonely,” she says.

Today the affectionate dog feels like Zacharek’s sibling when he trots by her side or just relaxes by her feet. He’s a far cry from an “angel dog”—he nips occasionally and leaps onto countertops. But Zacharek finds his escapades more amusing than irritating.  He’s like a little brother,” says Zacharek. “He’s annoying, but you love him.”

 A Rescue Dog Provides a New Yorker a Bridge to Socially Distanced Interactions  

For 74-year-old New Yorker Nancy McKeon, the pandemic was tolerable while her dog Bailey was alive. Though she missed sharing cocktail hour with her “girl gang,” her friendly dog attracted the attention of other pet owners on walks. “The dog opens doors,” says McKeon, “you meet people you didn’t know.”

When the editor lost her four-legged socialite unexpectedly last November, her world imploded. Without a dog to walk, McKeon holed herself up in her apartment where she began talking to herself. A week and a half later, McKeon realized this monastic life wasn’t healthy. “It’s terrible about Bailey,” she told herself, “But I really, really need another dog.”

After searching in four different states, McKeon found a lively rescued terrier-mix called Sadie Lou. McKeon was immediately taken by the dog’s charcoal grey colouring and her “outgoing” nature. “She was so sweet,” she says.

Since acquiring Sadie Lou, McKeon gets a daily workout, sometimes trotting for miles beside her enthusiastic 10-year-old pet. “She’s a little frisky,” says McKeon. “It gets my heart rate up.”

These outings aren’t always relaxing, though. Though Sadie Lou dotes on her human, she has a bone to pick with members of her own species. “She reacts to every dog on the street—she wants to rip their throats out,” says her owner. McKeon’s learned to anticipate potential sparring partners during their outings and whisks her little “bully” behind a parked car to avoid a scuffle. “It’s embarrassing,” she says.

But Sadie Lou’s devotion at home more than compensates for her savagery on the streets. The dog provides a “healthy connection,” monitoring McKeon’s moods and listening to her voice. Unlike people who make constant demands, the dog accepts her as she is. “(She’s) willing to do whatever I want to do,” says McKeon.   

Sadie Lou also creates a sense of purpose for her owner. When she walks out the door with her dog, her owner feels anchored in space. “I have a right and a place to be in the physical world,” says McKeon. “That’s what she gives me.”

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