April 23, 2020 | Feature
welcome home, son
adopting a dog during the pandemic
We had already been planning to do it. It was going to be after graduation, when my brother and I officially returned home for the summer and our whole family could spend lazy hours playing fetch in the backyard. We weren’t going to do it in April, not a mere two months after our beloved yellow Labrador, Stella, had died. But then the coronavirus happened, and my brother and I came home early, and we realized just how empty the house felt without a dog.
This is an unexpected upside to the COVID-19 pandemic: pet fostering and adoption rates are through the roof. People are spending more time at home, often isolated from their human friends and family, seeking companionship. Animal shelters have had to close down or operate with a skeleton staff, and many have flooded social media to ask followers to foster or adopt. Their efforts have paid off marvelously. On April 5, Chicago Animal Care and Control announced on Facebook that it had no more dogs available for adoption. “We’ve never typed those words before,” the post said. Workers at Friends of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control in Florida posted a photo of masked employees standing joyously in front of empty kennels; for the first time in the shelter’s history, every single animal in its care had been adopted. The Humane Society of the United States said that adopting now can help reduce the strain on understaffed shelters that may soon see an increase in surrendered pets as more owners fall ill or lose jobs, making them unable to care for their animals.
My family scoured shelter websites in the Chicago metro area, ultimately landing on one in the city, a few miles from our house in Evanston. They had a comprehensive COVID-19 preparedness plan, well-equipped for pre-adoption meet-and-greets via FaceTime and socially-distanced leash handoffs. They also had Bobby, a 3-year-old Labrador mix who, according to his bio, “might be part fish, because he loves to flop.” He smiled up at the camera from this “flopped” position, belly exposed for a rub and ears flattened against his head in an expression of pure bliss. He was perfect for us.
According to The Guardian, the benefits of pet ownership include “reducing loneliness and anxiety, lending daily structure, and lifting mood.” I can’t remember a time when I’ve needed all three of these so critically: isolated states away from my closest friends, obsessively refreshing the Johns Hopkins coronavirus case tracker, and watching my days blend together, delineated only by a cursory change from night pajamas into day pajamas. It took a little while to convince my parents that now could actually be the right time. We were—we are—all still grieving Stella. But we also realized just how much we had depended on fur-filled hugs to get through even the most normal of days. Now, so far from normal (I hesitate to call this a “new normal,” and try to retain hope that I will one day only open Zoom on rare occasions), we need those hugs even more.
The relationship between humans and dogs dates back 10,000-30,000 years, when nomadic hunters interacted with wolves for the first time. Early humans started to select the gentlest, most sociable wolves from a pack and breed them, creating a domesticated group over the years. Interestingly, when researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed the DNA of an inner-ear bone from a dog who lived 4,800 years ago, they concluded that humans in the Eastern and Western parts of Eurasia independently discovered dogs could be domesticated around the same time. Over the centuries, dogs and humans have developed a mutually beneficial relationship: Dogs provide companionship, lessen worry, and help their owners feel safe, while humans feed, shelter, and offer affection to their dogs. There’s a biological reason we feel we can’t resist those “puppy-dog eyes”—when we lock eyes with our canine companions, both of us produce oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of love.
Dogs have also been a staple of arts and culture for thousands of years. A mosaic of a dog was found in the ruins of Pompeii, bearing the inscription “Cave Canem” or “Beware of the Dog.” During the Renaissance, many noble figures had their portraits painted, and these too included their dogs, immortalized forever. Early modern art also depicts the relationships between dogs and ordinary people; Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 painting “Hunters in the Snow” shows a pack of working dogs following the hunters across a snowy landscape. Pop culture is replete with lovable dogs—think Lassie, Snoopy, or Scooby-Doo. Fiona Apple even featured her own dogs’ barks on her long-awaited album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, released April 17, 2020. Living through a pandemic is a profound historical experience, but history shows us that we are rarely alone in our experiences. For most of human history, at least, wherever we’ve gone, whoever we’ve been, and however we’ve channeled our creative energy, we’ve done so in the company of dogs.
We’ve had Bobby for a little over a week now. In fact, we signed the official adoption paperwork this morning as he snoozed in an armchair with a stuffed turkey clasped in his paws. He’s a quirky guy. He loves to squish his body into spaces that are far too small for him; he sits perfectly upright when we’re holding treats, with his chest puffed out like he’s being fitted for a tuxedo; he doesn’t like most toys, but he’s absolutely obsessed with the ones we can fill with cheese.
We know he’s part Lab, but he doesn’t act like Stella at all, which is actually good. He’s his own dog. We think he might also have some beagle in him, perhaps some pitbull, and maybe a shepherd of some sort. He likes to herd his humans, taking stock of all of us, making sure he knows where we are before wandering off for a nap. He’s a lovebug, leaning his short, stocky body into our legs and gently placing his head in our laps during dinner. It took him a few days to get used to us, and the first time he lay at our feet in front of the TV after dinner felt like a little victory. Now, he wanders into the kitchen when we’re cooking, stretches out across the couch in my mom’s office while she works, and wiggles his whole body with happiness when we come back inside from taking out the trash. We’re developing a growing list of nicknames: Bob, Handsome Bob, Bobby Blue, Robert, Roberto, Robert pronounced Roh-BEAR because my dad can speak French when he’s speaking to the dog. Every day I feel more sure that we made the right decision, inviting him into our house, because he makes it feel like a home again. After all, we’re going to be here for a while.