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Getting By, With a Little Help from Our Friends — Dogs: Nature’s Gift in Times of COVID

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Jameson, the Author’s Dog. Courtesy photo.

Cassandra Hemenway’s kids wanted a new dog and they weren’t subtle about letting her know. 

There was the direct approach: “We want a dog,” they would intone.

There was the indirect approach: scouring the internet and emailing her pictures of adorable puppies. 

Then there was this: “They would go on my computer and go to adoption sites, and leave pictures of puppies up so I would immediately see them when I opened my computer.”

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But for her, the timing wasn’t right. She was a single mom, with a demanding job as the outreach manager for the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District. 

“I couldn’t handle the idea of taking on an additional responsibility,” she says. And, perhaps more than the kids — Emery, Aurora, and Alex (the youngest and most persistent) — she was still grieving Princess, their German shepherd who had died.

Gradually, though, she started coming around. They began checking in with the Central Vermont Humane Society, and on one visit they happened across a picture and biography of Jasper in the binder of available pets. 

“He was this hugely obese dog,” Cassandra recalls, “like a golden retriever who had swallowed another golden retriever.” 

But he checked all of the boxes. She wanted an adult dog (“I didn’t have time to train a puppy”), he was mellow (his weight, if nothing else, would limit his energy), and he was affectionate.

“He has a demeanor that says, ‘I love you,’” she says. “He did that to us, and it turns out he does that to everybody.” 

So Jasper came to live with them. He was about three, and that was about three years ago. And it has done all of them a world of good. Between a better-regimented diet, daily walks, and play time off-leash with other dogs at Hubbard Park, he lost 40 pounds, and looks terrific. Thanks to Alex, he even has an Instagram account: instagram.com/jasper_the_doggo12.

In return, Jasper’s doing an excellent “job” for his adopted family. Jasper was kind enough to submit a proposal for inclusion in this article, and in one section he wrote: “My new mom thought I would be a therapy dog for her kid [Alex], but I decided to be a therapy dog for her instead. Before COVID she used to take me to her office every day. Now I just hang out in her home office and leave my fur all over the floor for her to remember me by.”

Jasper. Courtesy photo.

Furthermore, things have changed in Jasper’s Montpelier household. Cassandra is remarried, to Sandy Stevens; Alex, 14, is still at home, but Emery and Aurora are grown and gone. Six months ago, Cassandra’s father and stepmother moved in, having fled Florida where her father had endured a prolonged bout with the virus. 

“They had to give up their dog when they left,” she says. “This has been a hard time for everyone. Having a floofy, sweet dog to pat and love is a big deal.”

For Mind and Body

If dogs were not dogs, but pills, they would be so widely efficacious that we could toss out nearly everything else in our medicine cabinets. Internet searches reveal a veritable cosmos of scientific studies documenting how bonding with a canine lowers our blood pressure and reduces our triglyceride levels, improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart attacks. 

Merely patting a dog lowers our stress levels by increasing our output of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that stimulate our sense of comfort and ease. Gazing into our dogs’ eyes, as they gaze back at us, prompts our amygdala — the part of the brain that handles fear and stress — to produce more oxytocin, the “love” drug. (Happily, reciprocal; dogs benefit in similar ways.)

But dogs are not pills. To gain these benefits, you gotta have the real thing — which is so much the better, because you can’t get exercise walking a pill. Dog owners are four times more likely to get their recommended levels of exercise, these studies conclude, and people 65 and older reportedly call upon their doctors with health concerns 30 percent less often if they have a dog. 

Plus, of course, dogs are funny.

Dan Towle, of Montpelier, may not have tallied these precise data points, but he was well aware of dogs’ value for emotional support, and that was something he needed.

“I struggled throughout my career in finance in Connecticut,” says Dan, “not disclosing to employers my mental health situation, trying to be successful in corporate America despite periodic mood episodes.”

He had a home and a family, a career, and a psychiatrist and a therapist. Six years ago he was able to retire and move to Vermont, where he has devoted himself to mental health causes. He volunteers at Pathways Vermont, helping staff a support line for callers who are often homebound and alone and desperately in need of a sympathetic ear. He’s active with the National Alliance on Mental Illness; he helps train and facilitate support groups. He testified recently before the Committee on Health Care in Vermont’s House of Representatives.

“I consider myself open, proud, and out of the closet,” says Dan, summarizing his public engagement with issues that caused private turmoil for much of his life. 

Nevertheless, the pandemic tossed him a curveball.

“COVID was definitely a stressor for me, more and more.”

He had owned retrievers in Connecticut and knew a dog would be helpful. He tried an adoption, but the dog’s anxieties were the opposite of what Dan needed. Fortunately, his close friend Carolyn Grodinsky has a sister in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who provides temporary care for homeless dogs. One day last summer she called to say, “Dan, I found the perfect dog for you.”

“At the beginning of August I hopped on a plane to Knoxville, rented a car, and went to see her,” says Dan. “It took me about a minute to figure out that this was the right dog.”

They got tight on an intimate, two-day drive back to Vermont.

There are mysteries surrounding Dougie: how he ended up as an underweight stray, when it’s apparent to Dan that he was well-loved and cared-for; how old he is (Dan guesses about five), and what his breeds are. Dan believes he’s a retriever mix, although he’s a bit lean for that. His most striking feature is his tail, a thick, sturdy handful of fur.

Dougie has adjusted well to his life in Dan’s apartment, where he must mind his manners so as not to disturb the other residents. Dan, Carolyn, and Dougie go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Dougie accompanies Dan on car trips to visit his daughter in Connecticut. He’s a good boy.

“He arrived and immediately my mood and whole attitude and outlook changed,” says Dan. “I can’t imagine living without him.”

Put Me In, Coach

If Ivy had an extra — a third — set of paws, you could almost imagine her using them to wave off the other outfielders as she gauged the flight and erratic descent of the floating plastic disc.

“I got it! I got it!”

Ivy waits for a frisbee toss. Courtesy photo.

And most of the time, she does. It’s extraordinary to watch her eyes and body as she reads the wind, arc, distance, and speed, the way the brilliant centerfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. did for the Red Sox for eight years. Except that Ivy is a 42-pound Australian shepherd. Where does instinct end and intelligence begin? 

Christie Sternbach-Feist says her six-and-a-half-year-old Aussie has plenty of both. Along with athleticism. And energy. Those were precisely the qualities Christie and her husband, Todd Sternbach, were looking for when they got Ivy at about eight weeks old. They had been enthralled with their first Aussie, Taz; after she died, they returned to the same breeder, in Cambridge, Vermont, for another go. The breeder, Christine Porter, assesses her clients and matches them with the puppy she deems most appropriate.

“We like to hike and cross-country ski,” says Christie. “I like to kayak at the Wrightsville Reservoir, and I bring her with me. She has a little vest, so I can pull her in and out of the water. Aussies are great swimmers.”

Todd, Christie says, was one of the earliest disc-golf enthusiasts in Vermont, a passion they converted to “disc dog.” It’s not just the precision reading of the disc in flight, but also the extraordinary leap at the last moment to snag it out of the air. On lousy days they keep her busy inside with “mind games” and “nose work,” sniffing out concealed treats. “With Aussies,” Christie says, “you’ve got to engage their brains.”

The arrival of COVID last year lent new poignancy to the outdoor pastimes that were part of their lifestyle. Todd, an IT consultant, works from home in Montpelier. Christie is an occupational therapist at the Barre Health Clinic. When the clinic shut down temporarily in April, Ivy helped her adjust to her new reality.

“I felt like my time with her gave structure to my day. I had my own workout, and also had to get Ivy out for hers. I have a tendency to check in on my neighbors, and having a dog along makes it easier for people to come out for a greeting.”

Christie is now back working part-time, but recreational outings with Ivy are a part of every day.

“And we have a fenced-in yard,” she adds, “so we often invite the other neighborhood dogs to come play. We have a lot of pandemic puppies around here.”

New Kid in Town

When Lola showed up, everyone came rushing over to check her out. There was Cleo and Murphy and Scout; Basil and Penny arrived a bit later, and also wanted to get a close look at (and whiff of) the little Labrador puppy. Lincoln, a puppy himself, but a French bulldog, was hesitant. 

Dogs socialize like mad at the Town of Barre Community Dog Park, but the newbies blend in on their own schedule. Lola, four-and-a-half-months old, took naturally to the scene, as the grown-up dogs bounded around and their people cooed over the cute new puppy. She’ll be back. Her person, Tori Steinberg, of Montpelier, is sold, and that’s partly because, like Lola at the dog park, Tori is a “new kid in town” (tip o’ the cap to The Eagles). 

Tori grew up in Atlanta, in the constant company of Happy, a Lab mix the family got when she was six. After college, struck by wanderlust, Tori traveled to Vietnam, where she taught English for nine months, and then landed an office job in Chicago with a software firm. 

Before a year had passed, COVID put an end to that, so she searched online for another gig. Fast Enterprises, a technology company specializing in public-sector support services, hired her and sent her to Montpelier on a contract with state government. She arrived last October, got an apartment, looked around, and realized, “This is very different from Chicago.”

It soon occurred to her, however, that unlike Chicago, she could have a dog here. She wasn’t commuting on public transit, and wouldn’t be leaving the dog in an empty apartment every day. It would be her first dog on her own, and an intimate companion for her in an unfamiliar town. She found a reputable, local rescue organization, and learned of new pups that would be available soon from Alabama.

“The coordinator sent me this picture of Lola, and I had to have her!” says Tori. “I adopted her officially in December, then picked her up in January.” 

Lola. Courtesy photo.

Puppies are a lot of work, but it’s manageable for Tori because she’s working from her apartment. “If COVID gave me anything,” she says, “it’s time to train my dog. It’s too easy to get trapped indoors, especially in a time like COVID and with a job like mine.”

So now these southern transplants are finding people and canines with mutual interests at Barre Town’s dog park and exploring their new community together.

“Being out with Lola,” says Tori, “reduces my anxiety. Honestly, I feel safer. Humans and dogs both have pack mentality. Humans are social creatures. With Lola, there’s someone there. She’s definitely supporting me as much as I’m supporting her.”

Oodles… Etc.

It was the dopamine rush they missed most of all, the “rush” that doesn’t feel like a rush but rather the comforting sense of well-being that we get from intimacy with our beloved animals. Well, it was everything, really — the delightful interaction forced upon us by a pet who’s not as depressed as we are; the laughter they inspire with their antics; the fresh air we enjoy, even though we had dreaded the cold, when they go out to poop; the break in cyclical, predictable routines.

Some months into the pandemic, as Stephen McArthur and Rickey Gard Diamond sat in their condo in Montpelier, Stephen gave it voice. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful for our mental health and our emotions to have a wonderful pet we could cuddle with?” he said. (In other words, the dopamine — or maybe the serotonin — fix.)

By then, they had been bereft of their miniature poodles, Gertrude and Alice, for a few years, as well as the cat they had adopted after moving into town from their spacious Berlin homestead in 2015. The pandemic, in all its stultifying glory, had settled upon them, driven home most poignantly when they had to cancel a trip to California to visit their daughter and grandchildren.

Maybe a dog would be the answer.

So they began searching online, and learned they must tread carefully.

“We think there’s something of a racket going on,” says Rickey. “People would post adorable pictures and then ask for a down payment.” Stephen traced the address in one such solicitation and found there was nothing there.

They wanted another poodle, but this time the standard size. Or possibly a doodle. But, says Stephen, “Many, many people were looking for those breeds, so there weren’t oodles of poodles and doodles to be found.”

Long story short, they eventually heard from a breeder in Readsboro, Vermont, who had two 10-week-olds, both with “defects” (from a show-dog perspective). They selected the female with the so-called “cherry eye,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and in October drove down to bring her joyously home.

Zelda. Courtesy photo.

Now six months old, her name is Zelda, after Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott’s wife, a literary reference almost inevitable with Rickey and Stephen. Rickey is an author, most recently of “Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change” (2018), a columnist with Ms. Magazine, and organizer of a nonprofit with a bustling, interactive website, www.aneconomyofourown.org. She and Stephen founded Rootstock Publishing, a collaborative enterprise that helps authors, many of whom are local, bring their works to the market. 

Immersed in these activities, whole days can pass by unnoticed at the computer. Zelda conspires against that. She is a growing, active, delightful whirling dervish of a dog who has injected energy and not a little serotonin into the Diamond-McArthur household. Their worry now, they say, is that the COVID-induced isolation that inspired them to search for Zelda might have a similar effect upon her.

“We’ve read about COVID puppies who are closed in and develop fear and separation anxiety,” says Rickey. So they plan to consult a trainer. And meanwhile, what’s good for the goose (the poodle) is good for the gander (the people).

“We have to go outside with her several times a day, and get more air, more sun,” says Rickey. “That’s not a bad thing.”

Disquiet

It’s not just the pandemic. We all know that. It’s these times, and the lurking turmoil that is almost as unsettling as the stalking virus. They are linked, of course, the forced isolation and the outraged rebellion against isolation being two sides of the same coin — a coin of insistent foreboding.

No time not to have a dog, Wendy Freundlich concluded. For her, the general, societal disquiet had been matched by shifts in her personal situation that left her largely on her own in rural Middlesex. Her children were out of the house, her stepfather had died in August, and her mother had grown impaired and had to move into a facility. Waffles, her Labradoodle, should have been her helpmate in these circumstances, but she had had to euthanize him in June. 

“I run a mentoring program for kids,” Wendy adds, “but because of the pandemic and life in general I’m working very minimally. I didn’t want to live by myself in these crazy times. I wanted to have someone here for company, and because of the weird stuff going on.”

 Wendy called Waffles’ breeder, in Calais, and learned that she had five male puppies available, not doodles but British Labradors this time. Waffles had had a dog buddy up the road who also died, so Wendy asked her neighbors if they would like a puppy, too.

And that’s how Mango and Ollie moved to Middlesex, Mango joining Wendy and a tenant in her lovely wood-frame home, with a nicely fenced-in yard (littered with sticks he carries around), and Ollie settling in up the road. Mango is friendly as can be, and is nine months old, “almost over the hump,” as Wendy says, of his demanding puppyhood. 

Mango and Ollie. Courtesy photo.

“I have to spend my time getting this little guy the crazy exercise he needs,” she says, “but it’s pet therapy for me. I have a bad knee right now, but we walk or ski two to four miles a day. It’s critical for my mental health. If I didn’t have a dog, on a lot of days I wouldn’t go outside.”

That would make bad times worse. Mango’s not going to let it happen.

The End… and the Beginning

And now to Jameson.

If he sleeps upstairs, on the dog bed in our room, the first I will hear of him in the morning will be the almost imperceptible sounds of his grooming — rhythmically licking his left rear thigh, an occasional tiny snuffle, the paw descending languidly until it rests atop his head. It then moves down to his neck, which he scratches in slow motion where his collar annoys him. (It’s dark, but I’m picturing these wakeup moves because I know them well.)

After a few minutes of this I hear him stand up, and then — I know it’s coming — the flappy sound as he shakes and his collar jingles and his big hound ears careen wildly across his head.

If he sleeps downstairs (it’s always up to him), the first sound will not be of his toenails clicking upon the staircase, as one might expect, but of the door leading from the hallway to the study sliding with a whisper across the rug as he nudges it open, and then the door from the study to our bedroom almost silently doing the same. 

And then, in the dark, he’s rubbing his back and side, atop those long legs, along the mattress beside me, and burrowing his head into the overlapping sheets, certain that I’d just be delighted to get up and feed him. I put my hand down and in a moment feel his cold, wet nose upon my wrist, and then his hard, arched head beneath my fingers. 

No matter where he has slept, I know at this moment that it’s 6 a.m., or just a few minutes on either side of the hour. And as I lie there, with Jameson snuffling beside me, I break into a peaceful smile.