Pandemic puppies are finally getting out of the house as their humans start heading off to school, the office and vacations. And it’s a wild world out there.
Doggy day cares are at capacity, with monthslong waiting lists. Dog walkers are in short supply, and the ones still on the job are booked as they juggle client schedules that are anything but normal. Boarding facilities are full too, leaving pet parents scrambling to house their pooches as they plan long-delayed summer trips. All this change is leading to serious separation anxiety for pups and their parents.
“Once people started realizing that they can travel, our boarding business boomed to a level we actually could not handle,” said Tania Isenstein, owner of Camp Canine in New York City, which offers day care, grooming and boarding. The day care, which started seeing a spike in business early this summer, now has a waiting list 150 dogs long.
“The planners got their dogs in well before they needed to go back to work,” Isenstein said. “Now we’re getting calls from people who need to go back to work next week.”
The pandemic ushered in a historic run on puppy adoptions, as Americans last year looked at their empty calendars and an indefinite lockdown period, and decided that there was no time like the present to bring a four-legged friend home. For months, this generation of pets curled up at the feet of their lonely owners and experienced a puppyhood unlike any other. No one went anywhere. Ever. Walks happened three, sometimes four times a day. Cuddles were near constant. And many of these puppies rarely encountered anyone outside their household.
But this summer, as vaccination rates climbed and restaurants, hotels and the office beckoned, many pet parents belatedly learned a truth about owning a dog: Someone needs to watch yours if you’re going to be out of the house for the entire day.
Of course, some owners had to figure out these details months ago, as frontline workers have never worked remotely. And forward-thinking owners were quick to enroll their dogs in day care or keep a dog walker on hand, knowing that eventually they would need a routine again. But many new pet parents didn’t have to confront these logistics until recently.
Now, as they gear up for a life that might eventually resemble something called busy, they are discovering that they have no walkers or day cares in their Rolodexes. And, much like finding yeast last April, or toilet paper last March, available caregivers are increasingly hard to come by.
Wendy Sheehan Donnell, who lives in South Orange, New Jersey, started looking for places to board her year-old pug, Yoshi, in June, two months before her family’s August vacation. All the places she called told her they were booked until September.
“Everybody in these towns are getting new dogs, and you can’t get in anywhere,” said Donnell, editor of PCMag.com. Finally, a friend gave her a tip for a dog sitter in nearby Maplewood. “I wound up getting in with her right before she shut her doors down for anybody else,” she said.
With fall and a return to the office on the horizon, Donnell realizes that she should probably start figuring out who will walk Yoshi when she starts commuting again. But with her schedule still uncertain, she’s just starting to think about it.
For dog walkers, all this uncertainty has turned scheduling into a game of Tetris, with clients calling on a Sunday night asking for a Monday walk, or only needing erratic care. While their needs might be inconsistent, they nonetheless often want consistency for their pets, requesting the same walker every time.
“It’s really difficult for us to say, ‘This person is available for your every need that you’re going to have,’ because that’s just not realistic,” said Dani Pedraza, an owner of the Big City Woof Walker, a dog walking service that operates in New York City and Chicago. “It’s hard for them to grasp that.”
Pedraza said that because of staffing shortages, she occasionally needed to cancel walks, something that never happened before the pandemic. On the upside, clients have grown accustomed to living in a world where goods and services don’t always arrive on time. They’re more patient than before the pandemic, when many would call if a walker was even a minute late.
Once the dogs do get out of the house, their new caretakers are grappling with a generation of pups with iffy social skills. Born into a world locked down, many of them missed socialization opportunities. If no one ever knocks on the door, how is a dog to know that he shouldn’t lose his mind when a stranger walks into his empty apartment, puts a leash on his collar and takes him on a walk with a dozen other hyped-up puppies? Pedraza said that one of her walkers recently left an apartment because the dog would not stop barking and growling.
If dog trainers were swamped in 2020 with new owners hoping to teach their pups basic manners, 2021 is about teaching them not to melt down when everyone leaves. Lonely pups are destroying baseboards, sofas and barking so incessantly that the neighbors call to complain.
“People who don’t even know their dogs have separation anxiety are going to leave for eight hours in September, and their dogs are going to flip out,” said Holly Santana, director of training at Dog Done Good, a dog trainer in Westchester, New York.
The humans are anxious, too. Doggy day cares are fielding more midday calls from worried owners, asking to see photos and videos of their pets at play.
“The people have much more anxiety than the pets,” said Isenstein, of Camp Canine. “Many of the dogs are puppies, so they’re psyched to play with other puppies. They come in and just have a ball.”
A few weeks ago, Grace Townsend, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with her boyfriend and their 7-month-old Portuguese water dog, Cheerio, went to a friend’s birthday party in Hoboken. They left Cheerio behind in her crate and spent most of the time worrying if she was OK.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. The cake is still not out. Should I leave?’ I feel guilty,” said Townsend, an executive assistant for Harry’s, a shaving brand. “You come home and of course she’s totally fine.”
Townsend recently started looking for a dog walker because her company plans to return to a hybrid schedule in September. Most of the walkers she found were booked. She finally turned to Bark Buildings, a service for dogs that operates in her building. Now Cheerio goes out for a regular midday walk with a Bark Buildings walker.
Townsend wonders if she should feel anxious about this, too. “You feel this sort of guilt with having a dog and not hanging out with them. Why do I pay someone to come walk my dog when I’m home?” she said.
But Cheerio likes the attention. And eventually, at some point, Townsend will actually leave the house without her dog.