At first it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The people who stayed home to bake bought up all of the flour. Next came the terrible shortage of hospital ventilators and intensive care beds, and finally vaccines.
Then the dogs came.
Yes. A dog shortage. Yet they are everywhere. Parks are full of it. Shelters are empty. Adoption rates have increased by 30 to 40 percent, and care organizations are unable to keep up with demand.
Breeder waiting lists are years long and veterinarians book appointments months in advance. In the UK, a spate of dog sleep cases is touted as the work of a “puppy mafia”. The ever ubiquitous problem of puppy mills and cheating thrives when people look for puppies.
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Dogs are a big part of my life. As an Associate Professor of Anthrozoology, I attend annual anthrozoology conferences that feature some of the best dog heads in the world. Early in my career, I completed dog training with Huckleberry, my Labrador puppy, when reward-based training was on the rise. I also teach a class on how dogs and humans relate to them. I even met my husband when I was walking my dog.
The rush on dogs
The frenzy makes sense. People who have chosen not to have a dog because they have been away for long hours can suddenly because school and work are now at home. And for many this may be permanent.
Working with your dog can actually be beneficial. Studies show that productivity and the compatibility of work and family are increased. The colleagues and I are collecting data to investigate further. At least now, many new owners have the time to bond with their new family member and train them – they have found a slit of light in the pandemic wall.
Bringing a new pup into the house, however, is not always a good idea, as appealing as it may be to those who feel trapped at home during the lockdown.
Dogs provide a breath of fresh air and are one of the few allowable excuses for people to escape the house. As the lockdowns began, amusing stories surfaced of desperate people walking stuffed dogs, fake dogs, and even spouses on leashes. Now loaned dogs and even rented dogs are one thing.
Unfortunately, most new puppies will not be able to walk enough, and the many unexpected problems that lead to behavioral issues will result in frustrated owners and abandonment.
Dog ownership is a huge responsibility
Knowing a lot about dogs is stressful because I focus on problems. I can’t help but tell strangers at times that their new unvaccinated pups shouldn’t be in a dog-crowded park. I horrify disgruntled owners who pull choke chains or use other types of punishment and outdated training methods because their frustrated dogs just want to run and play.
There is already an increase in dog handovers. This is partly due to impulse buying from pandemic puppies. Unsurprisingly, people are lonely.
But we’re not sure dogs can cure loneliness. Anthrozoologist Hal Herzog says, “The evidence just isn’t there.”
Herzog’s skepticism is understandable and he claims the results are inconclusive. “Contrary to what the pet industry claims,” he says, “the vast majority of studies show that pet owners are no less lonely” than non-owners.
Lack of socialization
A primary concern for canine researchers is that pandemic puppies are not socialized, which is critical to future dog behavior and emotional wellbeing. Typically, very few owners officially sign up for training or puppy classes, which are ideal for developing social skills. Presumably, a ban would make this situation worse for puppies.
James Serpell agrees that this could create “some kind of epidemic”. Serpell heads the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire) project at the University of Pennsylvania. C-BARQ is an online survey tool that owners can use to rate their dogs’ temperament and behavior. So far, standardized information about the behavioral norms of purebred and mixed breeds has been provided for more than 60,000 assistance dogs.
While having a puppy is a rational impulse, Serpell points out some potential problems for unsocialized puppies:
Some dogs may be afraid of new experiences, leading to increased aggression towards both unfamiliar dogs and people.
Dogs that are not used to being alone can develop separation anxiety, which leads to destructive behaviors, including peeing and pooping around the house.
And, of course, waiver. Today’s puppies could become tomorrow’s guard dogs.
Serpell also points out an ironic paradox: “Any puppy acquired during the pandemic would not be properly socialized if owners behaved responsibly.” In other words, people who respect social order can raise dogs who don’t.
A society of animal lovers
But what about the “pet effect,” the theory that pets are good for us? Finally, research shows that the presence of dogs lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and improves emotional wellbeing.
Herzog has repeatedly raised red flags in this regard, which indicates a trend in anthrozoological research. This concern is shared by Dog Sense writer John Bradshaw, who notes that while some studies show positive health effects, the same number conclude that “pets have little or no health effects.”
But is science really important?
After all, we are an animal lover society with nearly 60 percent of Canadian households having a dog or cat. It is often a simple joy to share the constant company of a non-judgmental companion who offers unconditional love. I was grateful that the pandemic gave me more time with Grasshopper, my 13 year old Labrador (who of course behaves perfectly).
This article arguably reflects the downside of my academic life and my preoccupation with research, data, facts, and theories about dog ownership. Sometimes a dog is just a dog.
And in this case, I think the best thing to do is just let sleeping dogs lie.