Ginger the goldendoodle had moved in across the street. Cosmo the black Lab was playing in the yard next door. All around our neighborhood, the pandemic puppies had arrived.
Inside our house, Riley, our arthritic, nearly 13-year-old boxer, slowly emerged from her slumber, ambled to the bottom of the stairs and shook her floppy ears vigorously.
It was usually the first sound of the morning, letting us know she needed to go outside. And it became the rhythm of our new remote working life, whether we were sitting in our makeshift home office, at the kitchen counter, or wherever we had decided to park for the daily round of Zoom calls and remote learning.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic forced many of us out of our offices, and as the daily commute shortened to the walk from bed to desk, Americans increasingly adopted or purchased dogs. For new pet owners, the extra time at home meant easier house-training. But for others, remote work provided an opportunity to say a long goodbye to an old friend.
“Karma was just going to be turning 13, and I always wanted to be that stay-at-home dog mom,” said Candace Schlittner, a sales manager associate at a Boston-area communications firm. “I finally got that.”
Schlittner’s pre-pandemic routine started with a 7 a.m. commute to her office. Her new work schedule included more time with Karma. It also meant video conference calls, an opportunity that a mischievous Karma seized on.
“When she wanted something, she would let everyone know,” Schlittner said. Karma would bark or, more embarrassingly, drag her butt in the background during Zoom calls. “She would do it for attention. And I’m like, all right, I’ve got to cut this short and take her out.”
Even the rudest interruptions were opportunities for Schlittner to spend more precious time with her aging dog. “It filled my heart a lot that I was able to spend those three months with her,” she said.
Karma died in June 2020. “She was there for me through divorce, though death,” Schlittner said. “My father had just died six months prior to that. And she was there for me through that.”
To help her through her grief, Schlittner contacted Kaleel Sakakeeny, a pet loss counselor and ordained animal chaplain in Boston.
“I had five times more people reaching out to me when their pet passed during the pandemic because it brought to the surface all the other losses they didn’t give themselves permission to grieve,” Sakakeeny said.
More than 614,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Although the loss of any pet can’t compare to the loss of a human life, Sakakeeny notes that those he counsels would frequently wonder why they felt so much more sadness now.
“We do everything in our society that we possibly can to avoid having to feel pain and loss,” he said. “So all of a sudden, a lot of grief that was never expressed over a person’s life is triggered off by the death of a dog in the midst of a pandemic.”
Riley’s last day came in May.
Like most families with two working parents, our pre-coronavirus weekday mornings were, to put it nicely, a commotion. There were three elementary school-age kids to wake up, waffles to toast, cereal to pour, lunches to make, kids to wake up (again) and backpacks to fill. There were last-minute scavenger hunts for laptop chargers, work IDs, car keys and school assignments. Sometimes there were hugs. Sometimes yelling. Usually both.
And somewhere in the middle of that turmoil was Riley, the seal-brindled silent observer of our chaotic lives. As the morning rush began, she’d usually stay in her spot on the couch, watching us race around. If her legs were strong that day, she’d come into the kitchen, hunting for waffle or cereal bits.
And when the world felt as though it had stopped, it was comforting to know that she was there every day with us. We started to fill up screen breaks with Riley’s favorite things – neighborhood walks and lunchtime trail hikes. Or if her legs weren’t up to it that day, lounging in our backyard.
So when the kids returned to in-person school in April, she came with us to the bus stop to greet them.
Sometime in the year before, a growth had started on her hind leg. It got bigger and we had it tested. It was noncancerous, and our veterinarian recommended against removing it, saying the recovery for a dog her age would be long and painful.
One afternoon while we were waiting at the bus stop, Riley’s tumor ruptured, and she started bleeding. We scrambled to help her, trying not to upset the kids as they stepped off the bus.
We rushed her to the emergency vet, who said there was little they could do. It was unlikely that the wound would heal. Her leg could be removed, but she was too old for us to consider that. And when the bleeding finally stopped, they told us it wouldn’t be long until it started again. Two hours later, she was gone.
Our kids’ reactions matched their personalities. My youngest, 5, was very matter-of-fact. “So, Riley is dead?” he asked a few times, before moving on to play with his toys. My 7-year-old daughter was heartbroken. She had taken on the role of Riley’s caregiver during the pandemic, helping to feed her and let her outside. My oldest son, 9, was angry. At me for taking Riley to the bus stop to begin with, at the veterinarians for not saving her and at his brother for his youthful obliviousness.
At the end, my wife and I sat in a little room with Riley and hugged her for the last time. The pandemic had created barriers to grieving everywhere, some of which I had covered as a Washington Post video journalist. It didn’t seem fair that we could sit with our ailing dog, while so many people had to say goodbye to family members and friends behind a piece of glass or through a computer screen or telephone.
“I think people came to realize the profound nature of the animal-human connection through the pandemic,” Sakakeeny said. “So then when there was a death, the death was heightened and compounded when the pet passed.”
Megan McCormack, a security worker in Perth, Australia, lost Briarleigh, her nearly 15-year-old border terrier, in February.
“I got her when she was weeks old, so we were together for most of her life,” McCormack said in an email. “She was beautiful, stubborn and so independent. She was never really a cuddly dog, but you had no doubt that she loved you.”
Although Australia didn’t have wide-scale shutdowns at the start of the pandemic, McCormack still was able to spend most days at home for about six weeks.
“She wasn’t one for walks or anything toward the end,” she said. “She was more comfortable just sleeping her way through the day, but we could be together.”
Postal delays caused challenges as the country began to institute shutdowns. Medications were delayed, and Briarleigh’s preferred food wasn’t always available. “So we had to try new things, which she was not happy about,” McCormack said.
As her dog’s health deteriorated, McCormack made the difficult decision to have her euthanized. Shutdown measures at the time were slightly relaxed, “so I got to say goodbye.” Even in those last moments, though, the pandemic took a toll. “I really hated that I had to wear a mask for her last few minutes,” McCormack said. “I wasn’t able to smile at her properly to help her pass peacefully.”
Briarleigh’s passing made working from home even harder. “It was like I had no idea what to do with myself,” she said. “I would look around and she wouldn’t be there.”
That’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has lost a dog. But being home so much accentuates it, said Jessica Kwerel, a pet grief counselor in Washington.
“The pandemic is scary as hell,” she said, “but our dogs don’t know or care about that. It’s like, ‘I’m right here, let’s go for a walk, let’s sit on the couch.’ It just helps to calm everything down. I think the bond for all my clients got dialed up high.”
Julie Reinicke, a stock clerk for a food retailer in Buhl, Germany, said of her dog Yuna, “She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and she helped me tremendously with just being around.” Reinicke has suffered from depression since she was in her early teens, and having Yuna and Naruto, her Akita-collie mixes, helped with her mental health.
“I’d ‘visit’ them during the day, playing for a short while, cuddling, and petting them and just being around them to distract me,” she said.
Listening to news reports about the pandemic made Reinicke think more about people – as well as her aging dogs – dying. In April of this year, Yuna died at age 11. “I keep looking for her at the top of the stairs next to my room or on the bed in my mom’s and stepfather’s bedroom, when I go up the stairs,” she said.
Kwerel describes this as feeling untethered, because pets ground humans in the responsibility that goes into taking care of them. As our spaces dwindled during the pandemic, that feeling intensified.
“They are the containers, the witnesses to our lives in a way that no one else is,” Kwerel said. “They are this constant that just feels right.”
That’s the way it was with us. The pandemic had turned the outside world upside-down, as it continues to do. But in our home, Riley had been there in her usual place on the couch – the coveted spot next to a window – waiting for another walk, an extra snuggle, a bonus face lick.
And so, a new puppy is on our street. Her name is Luna. She’s not quite big enough yet to fill up that well-worn spot on the couch. But we know she will.