How Pandemic Pups Are Getting Us Through a Very Dark Year
They slobber, stink, and shed everywhere. They’re also among the best things to happen to us in 2020.
My husband would tell you that I manipulated him into getting a dog.
One afternoon in June, I was in my new home office (my bedroom — but add a desk), flicking through Instagram, when I saw a post about how anyone can volunteer to walk rescue dogs at Doggie Style Pets, a shop around the corner from my Queen Village home. It was one of those weeks of the pandemic where it was particularly hard to make sense of all that was happening in the world. What’s more, I had just received an email confirming that my oldest daughter’s summer camp was officially canceled. So this small piece of new information? It felt like a sign. The idea of walking a dog seemed like going out for ice cream — a mini delight everyone in the family would enjoy. I immediately went to the website for Saved Me (the adoption agency run by Doggie Style) and signed up for a 30-minute slot for the upcoming Saturday. Like all kids ever, my two young daughters have been begging for a dog for ages. Finally, in a year with precious little of it, there’d be some good news to deliver.
We planned our Saturday around the appointment. I insisted my husband come along, having a sneaking suspicion that the second he saw the girls smothering the dog with baby talk and love, his resolve would crumble. It worked. We leashed up Minnie, a sweet three-month-old pit bull mix. By the time we reached the end of the block, my husband and I were having a full-on silent parent conversation, exchanging lots of knowing looks, head tilts and “C’mon” hand motions. He was hooked.
For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out with Minnie. (As one friend said, “It’s easier to get into Harvard than it is to get a rescue these days.”) But by Monday morning, my husband was texting me links to nearby cockapoo breeders. We went from telling the girls “We’ll talk about it when you’re older” to putting a deposit down on a puppy in a week. Not long after I had given away the last of our baby stuff, I found myself once again installing safety gates at the bottom of our stairs.
I’ve never considered myself a dog person. You know the type — they can’t help but comment on every pooch they see, bring their own pups on vacation, wear fanny packs stuffed with treats. (My dad is a capital-D Dog Person. He used to tote gallons of water from his home in New Jersey to his place in Florida so my family dog could “ease into” the tap water down there. Seriously.) I adored my childhood pet, but as I got older, I saw dogs less as lovable companions and more as to-do lists with fur: something to walk in the rain, take to the vet, stress about. Still, as the pandemic rolled on without an end date in sight, I got fixated on the idea of getting one. With everyone home and nowhere to go, the timing was right. A new member of the family could inject some much-needed happy energy into the house. (Kinda like having a new baby, but without having to save for college.) And after all of the missed birthday celebrations, virtual-schooling arguments, financial stresses, fights and tears and virus anxiety, joy was something we needed.
So that’s how we got Penny, the world’s greatest dog and my new favorite child, a 10-pound chocolate brown wavy-haired furball who follows me into the bathroom. But look around, and you’ll see that my story is one of a million. Philly is booming with puppies and newly adopted dogs these days. My Instagram feed is full of friends making “new member of the family” announcements, my vet is booking appointments a month out, and there’s more dog poop on the streets than usual. (And that’s saying something for Philly.)
Rachel Golub, manager of adoptions at the North Philly location of the Pennsylvania SPCA, says they’ve had a hard time keeping up with the demand to adopt rescues. In the spring, Golub’s office started fielding hundreds of application and inquiry requests a day: “As soon as we would get down to 100 emails, 100 more would pop up,” she says. Due to COVID and logistics, they haven’t necessarily had more rescue dogs available to adopt, but the ones they do get in are finding new homes remarkably quickly. The number of dogs that were adopted by the families who were fostering them has also skyrocketed: Between January and September, 79 pups took up permanent residency with their foster families; in the same period in 2019, that number was only 10. Melissa Levy, executive director of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) — the city’s largest rescue partner — has seen the same thing. For the first time ever, she says, PAWS has more people interested in adopting and fostering dogs than it has actual dogs.
For the first time ever, PAWS has more people interested in adopting and fostering dogs than it has actual dogs.
Speaking of: I just took a quick break from writing to get down on my unvacuumed floor and pet Penny, my new office mate. While she occasionally pees on the rug and chews the leg of my desk, she doesn’t hog the conference room and never talks politics. She doesn’t ask for attention, but I can tell — puppy-dog eyes are real — when she’d benefit from a belly rub. And it’s easy to oblige. A five-minute play session with Penny is noticeably more restorative than my usual work-from-home breaks, which consist of dipping pretzel rods in peanut butter and checking my phone. I knew a dog would be good for my kids, but it turns out I needed one, too.
At some point in the past 20 years — way before “underdog” became our unofficial mascot — Philadelphia evolved into a dog town. Sandy Hingston wrote about the phenomenon in this magazine last year, noting that when she lived in Rittenhouse in the ’70s, people mostly owned cats, because cats are for people who stay home. She pointed out that outdoor dining wasn’t yet a thing, streetscapes were bleak, and nightlife was nonexistent. That version of Center City seems so far off from today’s Philly — even in the middle of a pandemic.
In the ’90s, the city began investing in public amenities downtown, and what you see today is the result: riverside walking paths, grassy parks, welcoming plazas, outdoor seating around every corner. When people started getting out, says Hingston, they started getting pets they could get out with.
Then, of course, came the millennials of the early aughts, who have — I’m generalizing here, although with some evidence — found themselves more likely to have plants and pets than to buy houses and have babies. This accelerated a movement that was already occurring: a shift toward treating dogs like children and investing time and money in these new pals. (The term “fur baby” was coined around 2006.) In response, pet stores, dog parks and doggie daycares started popping up. Trainers and walkers had steady work. Interior designers started building dog showers into mudrooms. There’s an artist in Grays Ferry named Andrew Pinkham who takes professional photos of dogs and turns them into 18th-century-style images for up to $1,550 a shot. Rules around where dogs can go relaxed. (Need your puppy to hold your hand while you get a flu shot? Bring him into CVS!) “The culture surrounding dogs has changed,” says Levy. “It’s true for the whole U.S., but certainly in Philadelphia. We are a dog-loving city.” Just a few months ago, pet-advice website PetListed published a ranking of the 100 best American cities in which to own a dog, based on factors like proximity to green space, walkability, and the number of dog-friendly restaurants. Philadelphia landed at number 13. So really, Philly was poised for this pandemic pup explosion.
The recent uptick in dog ownership extends beyond first-time owners, too. The Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia (ACCT), which operates a large city-run shelter in North Philly, reports that dog intake for the first nine months of 2020 was down 22 percent compared to the same time frame in 2019. Some of that change can be attributed to the fact that more people are holding on to the dogs they already have, says ACCT executive director Aurora Velazquez. While there’s some speculation about dogs being returned en masse as the pandemic ends, she’s hopeful that won’t happen — in part because organizations like ACCT and PAWS are working hard to provide the resources necessary to make pet ownership successful, but also because quarantine has fast-tracked the deepening of human/canine connections. “We are seeing some really strong bonds developing,” says Velazquez. “Owners are not going to think of surrendering this pet that has been their buddy for the last eight months.”
“I’ve heard the pet industry described as recession-proof. Perhaps you can now label it pandemic-proof.”
The effects are reverberating through the local pet industry as well, which has seen steady business despite challenging economic times for many other retail and service sectors. Sheehan Kovall, who owns Bella Vista dog shop and daycare Pit Stop HQ, says that though business overall has been down in 2020 because people are traveling and going to the office less, he’s continued to get new applications. In September, Kovall was even able to open a new venture, 9th Street Grooming, around the corner from Pit Stop: “In the first month, we got 50 new grooming clients,” he says. Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, who owns Philly Unleashed, a dog training company based in South Jersey, says she’s hiring more trainers in an attempt to keep up with the demand. “Everything went quiet in March, April and most of May — radio silence,” she says. “And then around Memorial Day weekend, it exploded. Absolutely insane. Everyone was looking for trainers.” At local pet supply mini chain Doggie Style, sales increased by 44 percent from March to October year over year. “I’ve heard the pet industry described as recession-proof,” says Doggie Style media manager Alex Savitski. “Perhaps you can now label it pandemic-proof.”
About a month after we got Penny, on a muggy summer night, I was out for the bazillionth — and hopefully last — walk of the day. That’s when I met Spencer (the human) and Zeus (the dog), a stunning Alaskan Malamute puppy, on the grass patch near my house. Being a newly minted dog person, I had to know everything. (With their sled-pulling pedigree, Malamutes aren’t something you see in Philly every day.) Spencer told me he had just returned from Portland, where he’d picked up Zeus. “Maine?” I confirmed in the form of a question, sure that no one would travel to Oregon to get a dog in the middle of a pandemic. “Oregon. I know, it’s crazy,” Spencer said. I tugged on Penny’s leash, suddenly self-conscious about my Lancaster crossbreed that looks more like a stuffed animal than an actual animal. Clearly, she was unworthy of sniffing Zeus’s Westminster-level butt.
A story like Spencer’s is rare but not entirely surprising these days. People put so much into their dogs because they get so much back. Science supports the relationship: Studies from around the world have repeatedly shown that the simple act of petting a dog lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, and ups oxytocin (a.k.a. the cuddle hormone), which has been linked to human behaviors like trust and mother-infant bonding. Christina Bach, a licensed clinical social worker, believes in the soothing and healing effects of dogs so much that she created a program at Penn Medicine in 2015 that introduces therapy dogs to patients receiving cancer treatments. “It lowers blood pressure and slows down the heart rate,” she says.
This biological draw to dogs is something I now regularly experience firsthand — and with total strangers. When I was on a walk in Old City with Penny this fall, a young guy came running across Market Street, flagging me down like I was a long-lost friend. Turns out he just wanted to pet my dog. Another time, when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood, an older woman asked if she could say hi to my puppy. After a few minutes of kisses and tummy rubs and cooing — on the sidewalk, mind you — she stood up, looked me in the eye, and said that petting Penny was the best part of her day. I believed her.
But there’s much more to the human-dog bond than hard science can unravel. That’s especially true now, as our lives teem with uncertainty. Many people I’ve spoken with mention how their new dogs have brought structure to their lives again. They say that without morning commutes or lunch meetings, taking care of a dog is something to build a schedule around. “Life is so chaotic right now,” says Rachel Golub of the PSPCA. “The routine of owning a dog keeps you accountable — and forces you not to wear pajamas all day.”
“Life is so chaotic right now. The routine of owning a dog keeps you accountable — and forces you not to wear pajamas all day.”
Dogs are also distractions. Welcome ones. Bach says that’s one of the best things she’s seen her therapy dogs do for cancer patients: Spending even a few minutes petting or playing with a dog “lets people escape for a moment, makes them think about something else.” And in this year, with reminders of the pandemic, racial injustice, divisive politics, and an unstable economy lurking around every corner, shutting out the world for a few minutes might be the ultimate version of self-care.
The distraction factor could also be why many new pet parents have gone so far as to create social media accounts for their pets. (Seriously, the steps to getting a pandemic puppy might as well be: Adopt dog, open Instagram account for dog, buy food and leash.) My current favorite is Miss Molly the Minidoodle (@missmollytheminidoodle), which has amassed more than 4,000 followers in just six months. It’s run by Lauren Molino, a Philly Mag production manager who is this wonderful blend of frustrated stand-up comedian and South Philly lifer. The account — which Lauren started after getting her dog in March — is gold. Molly’s got fresh content and fresh accessories (her sunglass collection rivals Beyoncé’s) on the regular. Molly is sassy and likes a good cocktail and really gets my whole pandemic mood. “We did it as a joke, and then it snowballed,” says Molino. “Molly now has friends all across the world. I rarely go on my personal social media now. The positive vibes of the dog community far outweigh the nonsense on my human feeds.”
The connections fostered by having a dog — whether to the dog or to other people — make bringing one into a home especially profound for people who live or work alone right now. Lydia Peterson, who lives in Grays Ferry, adopted Lena Rae, a shepherd mix, in July. As a freelance filmmaker and editor, she spends hours working on her own. Now, she’s got a built-in pal: “I like to run, and she likes to run. We run on the Schuylkill River Trail and go to all the parks.” Plus, admits Peterson, Lena keeps her from being lonely. “You know how it is,” she laughs. “When you have a dog in the house, you talk to the dog.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, I personally couldn’t have imagined fitting a dog into the hectic rhythm of my family’s day-to-day, even with my husband and me both working from home. But now, I’m so glad I didn’t let logic supersede emotion. Every member of our household has benefited from Penny, for all the reasons above and more. Most importantly, though, she’s bonded us together at a time when fighting, more than fun, has become our family’s norm. (It helps that Penny does adorable things like squeak while she yawns.)
I’m sure that cats and fish and ferrets (no judgment) make for great pets, but there’s something about owning a dog that’s particularly rewarding. Bringing a dog into your home is saying “I do” to a long-term relationship, but one in which you only have to meet basic needs — food, water, bathroom breaks — to receive unconditional love back. Give a dog a bit more of yourself than that, and she’ll return it tenfold. Dogs aren’t resentful when you leave, are only happy that you return, and appreciate a 30-second ear scratch as much as a three-mile hike. The relationship is rewarding but uncomplicated, and uncomplicated is something we could all use a little more of right now.
Considering I’m not very good at making friends in normal times, I never thought I’d make new friends in the middle of a pandemic. And yet, Otis, Tito, Zelda, Franklin, the other Penny and the other other Penny — and their owners — are suddenly a part of my everyday life. (Turns out Penny is the dog-name equivalent of James or Mary, likely because, as my daughter smartly surmised: “Everyone probably did what we did — Googled ‘names for brown dogs.’”) I’ve lived in Queen Village for 12 years and have never met or talked to so many of my neighbors. Owning a dog in this city is like being part of a club. It signals that I am, in fact, a dog person, just like you, and that I’m down for a discussion about leash brands and up for a dog-park puppy playdate. With so many dogs in the city, every time I step out of my house with Penny, it’s like I’m stepping into a never-ending canine cocktail party. (Frankly, it can be exhausting at times.) Gabriella Kasmer, a Wynnewood resident whose family adopted a goldendoodle in June, says the same thing goes on in the suburbs: “We’ve met neighbors within a block of our house that I never even knew existed.”
I’ve spent my 20s, my 30s, and now the first year of my 40s in Philadelphia. In each of those decades, I’ve experienced the city in a different way. There were the bar-hopping years, the first-time-homeowner years, the parenthood years. Now that I have a dog, I’ve unlocked another door. I’ve become privy to a new world: the midday dog walkers, the secret off-leash spots, the doggie-daycare crew — and how did I never before notice there are two vets within three blocks of my house? Penny hasn’t just connected me to my family or me to my neighbors, but me to my town. And those leash-distance interactions and new discoveries are a lifeline when everything else feels strained, mundane and disjointed. I like to imagine that the same thing is happening for every new dog owner in the area. Connected, but safely apart: pretty much the motto for surviving 2020.
Published as “The Dog Days of COVID” in the December 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.