By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Our turbulent days now dominated by COVID-19 restrictions have forced many of our work schedules to “go to the dogs.”
The drastic change has altered our lifestyle. Many of us now work at home in front of the computer screen and haven’t been able to head out to the theater to watch a movie or fly away for a vacation break — just some of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And just like the changes wrought to the lives of humans, the coronavirus has disrupted the lives of our furry four-legged best friends.
Prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, Chester spent most weekdays snoozing in his doggie bed in the living room, waiting for his owner, Rhonda Manville, to return from her job in Silverdale. But since Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced a stay-at-home order back in March, Chester’s days have been fuller, filled by cozying up to his beloved owner, who sits in front of her computer.
Manville, a spokeswoman for Kitsap Humane Society, knows firsthand that having a pet during the pandemic provides tremendous benefits. She resides on Bainbridge Island with her husband Todd and the above-mentioned Chester, a 15-year-old dachshund.
“During the last three months, I have worked from home more and definitely bonded more with my dog. Normally, I am gone from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Working at home all day, he is sitting beside me on the couch,” Manville said.
“It’s comforting to have Chester right next to me.”
For Chester and his fellow pups, the disruption has almost entirely been a good thing. It means more opportunities for plenty of face-to-face with their human moms and dads — and that includes smooches and tail wags in return.
Our COVID-19 reality has provided us extra time together, strengthening the bond between humans and their canines, according to a study by Washington State University. Dogs also have helped many people maintain a regular schedule, cope with the uncertainty and have given purpose to their lives, according to the research.
“The study reemphasized the importance of dogs in our lives,” said Phyllis Erdman, a WSU facility member in counseling psychology and associate dean in the College of Education.
“We found that being with our dogs more has strengthened our relationship and bond with them,” Erdman said.
The survey included 4,105 dog owners and was conducted between March 1 and April 19. The sample audience was predominantly U.S. women living in cities in which non-essential stores and businesses had been closed under stay-at-home orders. Erdman conducted the study with researchers at Colorado State University, the University of San Francisco and Palo Alto University.
As part of the project, dog owners were asked how their animals altered some common negative feelings people have due to COVID-19. Significant numbers said their dogs have helped decrease their feelings of anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed, isolation and loneliness.
Findings in the study hold true for Kitsap County, Manville said. The shelter routinely checks in with people who have adopted dogs to see how pet and human are getting along.
“We frequently hear comments like, ‘I’m so grateful to have a pet at this stressful time. I can’t imagine going through this without my new little friend’.”
Manville agrees with the study’s finding that a dog can reduce the stress of animal owners during these times.
“Caring for a pet, petting and snuggling with them all helps reduce cortisol [a stress hormone] and can help lower our blood pressure.”
And as the survey indicated, having a pet can go a long way in reducing loneliness.
“A pet gives you something to look forward to each day. You get to be with the animal, walk them and take care of a living creature that depends on you and loves you unconditionally,” Manville said.
During the pandemic, pets are particularly valuable to seniors who in many cases are isolated from family and friends as protection from the virus, according to the human society official. “When an older individual suddenly does not have any company, a pet can fill that role. They can become a companion,” she said.
“A dog gets them into a routine. The pet gets the person to go outside and has them think about something other than themselves. All of these things are really important for living a rich and happy life.”
In the new reality of COVID-19, it isn’t just the human who benefits from the enriched bonding. Our pets do, too.
“Our pets are social creatures,” Manville said. “Dogs want nothing more than to be with their people. They really love that.”
During the late spring shutdown, many dogs enjoyed the opportunity to go on more walks. A common sight over recent months has been a steady stream of folks walking their four-legged friends through the neighborhood at just about every waking hour.
The dreaded ‘COVID 15’
Hard as it is to believe, there is one downside to the owner-pet togetherness fest: something called “the COVID-15.”
“Chester has gained a few pounds,” Manville admitted. “I am home more and every time I go to the kitchen, my dog follows me and says, ‘What do you have for me?’ It’s so hard to say no to him.
“I went to the local pet food store and was saying I need low-cal treats for my dog since he gained weight. The clerk nodded and said, ‘Oh yes, we are calling that the COVID 15’ [for the extra pounds that pups — and some their owners have put on].”
At some point, however, owners will be returning to the office and pets to their normal routines. The transition will be tough on pooches, particularly those that suffer from separation anxiety.
“Pets will need to reacclimate,” Manville noted. “Some trainers and behaviorists are saying we have to work on transitioning our pets from all of this ‘together time’ to ‘going back to work time’.”
To make the change easier, a pet owner is advised to gradually increase the time they are out of the house leading up to the point they return to working at the office fulltime, some animal experts say.
Short practice departures can involve the entire family leaving the house to get the mail, progressing to long group walks, followed by a stretch of alone time at home for the dog. An owner can also work alone in the garden for a few hours, with the pet remaining in the house.
“Taking the time to practice departures can ease the transition for pets in a low-stress way,” Manville said.
Another adjustment tip for pets: find ways to keep the animal busy while they are alone in the house.
“One way,” Manville offered, “is to buy dog toys like a Kong, which holds dog treats and requires the dog to work with the toy to get the food out.”
An alternative is to get an empty toilet roll, put kibble inside and hide it around the house for the dog to find, she added.
“You do not want the pet just sitting home bored out of their mind because their entertainment has gone to work,” Manville said.
The WSU survey underscored a point, COVID-19 notwithstanding, that all pet owners understand at heart: their fidos are important members of the family and parcel out generous amounts of love and affection to their own two-legged “paw-ents.”