Dogs did not do well in plagues past. Since at least the Middle Ages, the twin terrors of mad street curs and rampant disease were easily connected in frightened minds during the hot and sticky days of late summer. Men and boys alert to their civic duty grabbed cudgels and brained all the mutts they could find. In London, in 1886, constables had to be equipped with special truncheons when the standard nightstick proved inadequate for the task. In Phoenix, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, the population turned against their dogs when the flu hit town. People killed their own pets, or handed them over to the police if they didn’t have the heart for the work. Police also took responsibility for wiping out strays on the streets.
The novel coronavirus pandemic may be the first in human history for which the modes of transmission were known almost as soon as the disease was identified and while some household pets have been diagnosed with the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the risk of animals spreading the virus is low.
In fact, dogs are having a pretty good pandemic.
India has declared the feeding of street dogs, who lost food sources when restaurants and street vendors shut down, an essential service.
In March and April, when much of Europe was under total lockdown, one of the few permissible reasons to leave one’s house was to exercise a four-legged friend. People offered their dogs for rent on social media. One man in northern Spain was caught dragging a stuffed toy on a leash, and another disguised his daughter as a Dalmatian to get out of his apartment. A mayor on the Italian island of Sardinia felt compelled to offer the clarification that to qualify for a walk, the dog “must be alive.”
In the United States, people are crying out for canine companionship. Dogs for adoption remain as scarce as toilet paper was at the start of the pandemic. Shelter intake of dogs has halved, and many centers now have no dogs to offer prospective adopters.
The first pandemic in a century feels like a throwback to the lives and deaths of our ancestors. At the beginning of the 20th century, the top three leading causes of death were all infectious. By that century’s end, none of them were. But we suffer a new scourge: loneliness.
The proportion of people in the United States with no one to go home to has more than doubled in the past century. Solitude doesn’t kill, but it can sap purpose from life, and its negative health impacts have been compared to smoking: It has been called “one of the nation’s most serious public health challenges.”
This is where our canine companions step up. We have fired dogs from most of the jobs they once held. Sheepdogs seldom herd animals to market and the turnspit dogs that used to walk in wheels keeping our mutton evenly roasted are long gone. In place of so much diverse employment, however, our dogs perform one absolutely critical task: They protect us from loneliness.
This calling draws on one of dogs’ most ancient skills: the ability to form strong emotional bonds across species boundaries. Where most animals seek friendships only with their own kind, dogs readily form loving connections with many beings.
We love our dogs for the unconditional affection they bring into our lives. But what becomes of them when this is all over? A clue may be found in the fact that the most commonly reported behavioral issue in pet dogs is labeled “separation anxiety,” which makes it sound like an unreasonable reaction to normal circumstances. It isn’t.
We love dogs for their friendly natures, but then too often we sentence them to endless hours of solitary confinement. This isn’t what dogs were built for. They cannot just be switched off like our other smart gadgets.
Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” When this pandemic is finally through, our lives will have been changed in a great many ways — most of which we will have had no control over — but there are habits we can and should change for ourselves. It seems highly likely that many of us will continue to work from home, where we have built a form of life that is much more compatible with our canine companions.
As our opportunities to get out of the house improve, we must not forget the dogs we are leaving behind. Those beings who kept us company during the long months when we were too afraid to venture out now in turn deserve our support in protecting them from loneliness. We should slowly get them back into expecting us to leave the house without them by going off on dogless errands from time to time so that they are not taken too much by surprise when duty and pleasure calls us away without them.
As older habits take us out of the house for a larger portion of the day, we must think about how to provide Fido with company. Remember: Most dogs make friends very easily. You may have a home-working buddy or neighbor who would love to pop over and perhaps take your dog along to a coffee shop. And just because dogs so easily make friends outside their own species does not mean that they cannot have buddies of their own kind. A well-run canine day care may be the ideal protection against doggy despondency.
When we were lonely and afraid and didn’t know where else to turn, our dogs stepped up and gave us the emotional support we so badly needed. So in our new normal, we must pay them back at least some of what they gave us.