When the Griffin family brought their new dog back to their Vancouver home in April, he wasn’t quite what they had expected.
The pup, a 3-month-old rescue shipped up from a Louisiana shelter shuttered by COVID-19, wasn’t the 7-pound terrier mix in the photo who would have been just right for their small yard. He was bigger — a little over 13 pounds, expected to hit 35 once fully grown — and a DNA test revealed he was a high-energy combination of Siberian husky and miniature pinscher.
He’s perfect. His name is Ronin.
“He’s a nut and a handful, but also the best possible addition to our family,” Meagan Griffin said.
For the Griffin family’s son, 6-year-old Wallace, Ronin has proven to be a valuable companion. Although closed schools mean that Wallace’s interactions with peers are limited, having a furry friend to play with and care for means that he’s still making memories and connections.
“I think it absolutely has helped. He’s an only child, and as much as we all love spending time together as a family, I think it’s got to be really hard to be 6 in an adult household,” Meagan Griffin said. “If he didn’t have Ronin, he wouldn’t have spent an hour in the backyard yesterday. It’s really, really good for him.”
Like many American families in 2020, the Griffins decided to make lemonade out of the lockdown lemons and get a “pandemic pet.”
According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health, there’s a scientific basis for how our four-legged friends can help us through this time of crisis: “interactions with them and positive physical contact lead to a variety of physiological and psychological benefits,” the study, published in July, states. “It also releases biochemicals which can further boost the immune system and enhance health and well-being.”
As many families report, quarantining simply provides a convenient opportunity from a scheduling standpoint. For the first time in a lot of households, everybody’s home all day.
“I didn’t want to take on a puppy under normal circumstances, because it’s so much work and it would all fall on me because I’m the one at home,” Meagan Griffin said.
The Shimer family, who live in La Center, have a similar story. They went and picked up their golden retriever puppy from Phoenix, Ore., in September, just as wildfires were decimating much of the region. They named him Tucker.
“My wife got laid off right at the beginning, in March when everything started,” James Shimer explained. “We just figured it’d be perfect timing, if she’s going to be home.”
They’d hoped to get a golden for a long time. Shimer’s daughter, who’s in second grade and doing remote learning, was also part of the equation.
“My daughter really wanted one,” he said.
Nationwide, pet adoptions are soaring, with shelters and agencies handling more applicants than animals. The Washington Post reported in August that at one Los Angeles shelter, daily adoptions had doubled; other rescues reported they were receiving dozens of applications for individual dogs, and some breeders said they had waiting lists that stretched well into next year.
Adoption numbers haven’t seen the same spike locally, but not for lack of demand, said Denise Barr, vice president of marketing at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. The shelter had to slow down its rate of adoptions due to new COVID-19 protocols.
“It was a strange time at the shelter, because initially we closed down our adoptions because that was the governor’s mandate, then we created a curbside adoption experience,” Barr said. “(People) literally went through the process of adoption online.”
Today, adoptions at the Clark County shelter are done by appointment. Most families are taking home pets they’ve never met. The exception is adult dogs who are going to families who already have a dog at home — the shelter organizes a social visit first, to make sure the pups get along.
“There’s not this giant surge, but people are enjoying animals,” Barr said.
What about post-COVID?
These pandemic pets are living the good life. All their favorite people are there, all the time. They don’t know anything different.
If not properly transitioned, they could be in for a rude awakening when their family goes back to their regularly scheduled programming, experts say.
“He doesn’t even know what real life is,” Shimer said of his golden retriever puppy. “What’s he going to do when we go back to work?”
According to Barr, the dog behaviorist at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington is pointing new owners toward resources that guide dogs through separation anxiety. An abrupt change in an owner’s schedule is a common cause of separation anxiety in canines.
Tracy Krulik, a trainer based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in separation anxiety, suggests “alone-time training.” Coupled with enrichment like a puzzle toy and a safe haven for a dog to relax, it’s important for the animal to learn how to be alone, she says.
“Every day, you’ve got to get out at some point,” Krulik said in her webinar. Severe cases might require more intervention, like anti-stress medication.
The Griffins worry about how Ronin will handle being left alone when the time comes. Now almost a year old, he’s “insane,” Meagan Griffin said. “He runs like a greyhound. He can run laps, he’s so strong. It’s like one big muscle.”
Right now, it’s working. Ronin and Wallace entertain each other, and the family actually since moved to a house with a bigger yard. But when life goes back to normal — or whatever the “new normal” will mean, post-pandemic — she plans to take her time transitioning the dog.
“He can’t be trusted,” Meagan said, half-jokingly. “I know he would probably eat the furniture if he was left alone … it definitely concerns me. It’s going to be a whole learning curve, but this is our first family dog as well, so everything feels like we’ve been thrown into the fire.”