Ode to the Pandemic Dog. An essay by Christine Ritenis

The dog doesn’t know that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. His needs are simple: food, water, walks, and love. It doesn’t matter if his kibble arrives via mail order or from the local pet store, whether it’s organic or not. He has no preference for water from a bottle or the tap, and a bowl of rainwater is also fine. He enjoys the outdoors, but doesn’t care if we walk along urban streets, where people with masked faces prevail, or suburban byways, where chipmunks and squirrels scamper just out of reach. He demands protection and nurturing; an abundance of petting, cuddling, and belly rubs; and prefers words of encouragement to discipline.

Our dog, Bennie, is a nine-year-old Jack Russell mix that we adopted from a local shelter when he was about two. In recent months, without prior experience or consent, our lovable mutt has become the family’s unofficial emotional support animal. It’s almost as if he understands that in an uncertain world, his needs mesh with ours like never before. Pre-coronavirus, my husband Rich, our adult daughter, Sara, and I, led disparate and busy lives. Rich commuted from the northern suburbs to and from Manhattan by train each day, devoting long hours to his job in between, while Sara worked and lived in the city. As the person with the most flexible occupation, I was Bennie’s primary daytime caregiver, but a favorite dog walker filled in when my absence was unavoidable. Now there is no need for an extra set of hands. We’ve all landed in the same place and Bennie has the daily luxury of napping on a chair or sofa near one of his favorite people.

As recently as early March I couldn’t have imagined what social isolation would involve or how it would feel. Rich and I moved back to New York last fall to be closer to Sara, his job, and its variety of sports, cultural, and learning opportunities. We’d missed the energy of urban life during our 28 years away. We were still settling in when coronavirus arrived and the nation went on pause. Sara joined us for quarantine, “the Q,” as she calls it, and along with Bennie, we’re waiting for an ambiguous future to begin.

When we adopted our first dog, a beagle-mix named Katie, we didn’t allow her on any of the furniture. After Bennie arrived, we relaxed the rules, but neither one was permitted on our beds. Katie was content to retire to her dog crate at night, her private haven for over 15 years. The younger and endlessly energetic Bennie tested every boundary, and often succeeded, although we remained reluctant to let him to sleep with us. It must have been when Sara returned home for college vacations, missing him more than anyone, that we relented and he began to stay with her overnight.

Now that we are hunkered down together, the mutt sleeps in her bed most nights, but often wanders into the master bedroom around dawn to snuggle with her parents. “Choose me! Choose me!” my mind begs as Bennie burrows deep under the covers, presses himself against the nearest human, and slumbers on. The 21.6-pound canine radiates a heat that must be pure love, for it comforts and soothes like nothing else. That special warmth, his soft rhythmic breathing, and occasional contented sighs, ease us into the morning’s somber light.

Getting sufficient sleep is critical. Despite the lack of places to go during waking hours, the days are full. Ordinary tasks such as buying groceries are now as complex and time-consuming as obtaining tickets to a big concert at Madison Square Garden or a popular Broadway show once were. A quick stop at the supermarket to pick up a few things is ill advised and unlikely to succeed. With store shelves depleted of numerous necessities and purchasing limits on what remains—no more than two packs of toilet paper or paper towels per customer, please!—the challenge shifts online, where basics like multi-purpose spray and hand sanitizer are on months-long backorder or unavailable, and price gouging is a common practice. I start early on a recent day, but make little progress and soon grow irritated. A short break seems advisable. Bennie settles in next to me on the couch, resting his chin on my thigh as I stroke his head. He relishes the novelty of having us with him fulltime. Brief minutes with him clears my head of its dismal fog and I can see that while the world’s problems are massive and real, the current inconvenience of household shopping is not among them.

Dog walking is an ideal excuse to venture outside. Bennie has grown accustomed to our extra long post-breakfast treks when we explore the winding paths and tree-lined promenades of nearby parks or the wide avenues and narrow side streets in our neighborhood. He adores everyone, man and beast, and is unused to the current reluctance of many owners to allow pet interaction. The muscular little mutt takes rejection in stride and marches on to the next encounter with enviable confidence. To my surprise a woman strolling toward us permits her pup to engage with Bennie for a minute or two. She says something about dogs and loneliness. The words get lost between our masked faces, but I nod and smile in reply before she rushes away.

Besides such chance meetings, our walks are solitary. On Bennie’s last outing before bedtime, the streets are bereft of cars. Near empty buses travel across town, while others collect lone passengers going north or south. Bicycle messengers ride through the stillness to deliver food and necessities. Unaccompanied pedestrians hasten home after concluding essential work or urgent errands. Only the sirens of emergency vehicles pierce the silence, insistent alarms that emerge as jarring songs of sorrow.

At home, Bennie is content to while away the hours near one of his people. Sometimes he chooses Rich, who conducts business from a folding table in a spare room that we’d planned to transform into a home office someday. Bennie jumps onto its sleeper sofa and curls into a ball for a nap, blinking a few times before his eyes droop closed, while Rich takes calls and writes reports. Every so often the dog awakens and nudges Rich’s leg, signaling that he needs to go out or would love a good scritch behind the ears. At other times, Bennie lounges in the main living area, not far from where Sara spreads her work out on the dining table. When she takes breaks to cuddle with him, I hear cooing, “I love you so much, baby,” and picture the object of her affection responding with a profusion of wet doggie kisses. On occasion Bennie trails me around the apartment, relaxing in the bedroom while I work or reclining on a floor pillow when I ready dinner in the kitchen. He wanders over to sniff out food remnants on the floor and lick the prep tools as I load the dishwasher. Always nervous if there is a closed door between us, he waits for me outside the bathroom and barks nonstop when I take out the garbage. Like a friendly colleague at the office who invites you to join her for a coffee run, he urges us all to step away from the day-to-day tedium and overwhelming issues that consume our minds. He reminds us to breathe.

We’re not alone in recognizing the lifeline that a loving dog can provide. “For all the ill the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, at least one silver lining exists: Pet adoptions, it seems, are up,” according to AP reporter Rob Murray in an article for the Washington Times. He cites Time magazine’s explanation: “The biggest reason is the most obvious one. As much as people are helping the animals, the animals are helping the people, too.” The medical benefits of pet ownership include “reduced blood pressure, increased cardio-vascular health, reduced anxiety, and a reason for outdoor exercise.” Reporting for Wired magazine, Emma Grey Ellis adds that a dog or cat can satisfy the human need for touch. It’s true. A craving for touch is elemental and gains force the longer we are separated from close friends and family. “Giving to another being is a reason to wake up in the morning,” she continues. On the worst days, when my eyes are crusty with sleep, and I long to escape all mention of COVID-19 to dream the hours away, Bennie arrives to lick my face. How happy he makes me.

Traditional service animals are trained to provide a specific and necessary task for their owners, such as seeing-eye dogs that assist the vision-impaired. Emotional support animals don’t require special training, but a licensed medical professional must certify that the animal provides essential therapeutic value to its owner. Also known as therapy dogs, they are not permitted in all public and private facilities without question, although they are exempt from “no pets” rules in the owner’s residence and may accompany the owner in commercial aircraft cabins if they meet size and behavior requirements. While travel is not a current priority or option for many of us, a safe place to live is critical. Home is a shelter, a space to fend off illness and care for the sick, and maybe a work place and children’s school as well. A dog brings rhythm to the days, provides chances for relaxation and play, and adds unexpected hilarity, whether the animal is a certified emotional support animal, or like Bennie, dedicated to snuggling

He is the cutest dog I know. On seeing the broad muscular chest, his brown and white coat, the droopy ears that perk up with interest, a longish torso, and curled up tail, strangers ask if he’s a Corgi or maybe a Bulldog, but rarely a Jack Russell. Rich jokes that Bennie embodies the best and worst terrier traits—he is strong and spry, playful, curious, loyal, friendly, and affectionate, yet undeniably stubborn. Terrier breeds are characterized as “feisty and energetic,” according to the American Kennel Club. “In fact, many describe their distinct personalities as ‘eager for a spirited argument.’” Of course he fits right into the family.

It’s sheer joy to watch Bennie balance on his hind legs and brace his belly against the trunk of a tree if he sees a squirrel scampering to its highest branches. He is 100 percent certain that he will catch that rascal if he waits long enough. He also believes that he can chase down rabbits that hop around the lawn or small birds before they whisk off into the sky. He sends dirt clumps flying as he digs through grass and soil in search of chipmunks, then stands with his snout below ground in the vain hope that they’ll appear. This behavior is characteristic of Rat Terriers, one of the breeds revealed in Bennie’s DNA test.

I have no idea what implicit trait prompts Bennie’s response to a frog, but the encounter ends badly. They both freeze for a heart-stopping moment before the croaker risks a perilous escape into the night. He leaps. Without hesitating, the dog catches and devours him mid-jump. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Bennie suffers from gastro-intestinal problems. Within days of our move to the city he discovers the array of canine culinary treats on our block, enticing scraps of sports bar food, halal truck castoffs, and leftover doughnuts, and requires veterinary care. Luckily we find a wonderful vet several doors down and Bennie becomes a regular patient.

Have I mentioned that Bennie understands English? Several years ago I was in the driveway chatting with a neighbor who stood at street’s edge with her dog. She remarked on his good behavior in not leaving my side, despite the temptation of a friendly animal nearby. I explained that we’d used an electronic pet containment system for both our dogs, adding that it hadn’t functioned in some time. As I spoke, Bennie ambled into the road to greet his pal. He looked back over one shoulder at me, as if to say, “You’re not so smart. I knew the fence was broken.”

It’s a story I tell often because it makes me laugh. Bennie makes everyone laugh. Perhaps one of us is having a difficult day, heightening tension in the household. We are on the verge of a petty argument, or worse, when someone says, “Look at the dog!” and the focus shifts to him. Chances are good that he’s gazing up from some cushioned seat with his eyes wide, as though chiding us: “Get over yourselves and pay attention to me.” It’s easy to forget the reasons for disagreement when the little boy lies on his back with his legs in the air and waits for belly rubs.

In hours that are heavy with solitude, I’ve discovered that Bennie is an excellent listener. He shows little interest in our one-sided conversations, unless he hears a favorite word, like “cookie.” When offered with buoyant enthusiasm in a high-pitched voice, the promise of a cookie vanquishes all his innate stubbornness. Other front-runners include “treat” and “Sara,” which inspire magnificent leaps to snatch the proffered item from the air or send him racing to another room to cuddle with his very best friend. On walks he’s happy to lend an ear as I bemoan the state of the world, mull over an idea, or even sing out loud. Any monologue ends when others approach. I’ll say, “Good boy, Bennie” or “Let’s go home.” Despite a citywide population of well over eight million people, those occasions remain limited.

Bennie’s lively charm conceals a nervous pooch that licks his feet without end, creating open flesh wounds called hot spots. We’ve tried myriad treatments, including specially formulated allergy medication, without success. Even twice daily pet-size doses of Prozac fail to quiet the compulsion. Lacking alternatives, Bennie wears an inflatable ring around his neck 24/7, except outdoors. A modified version of the hard plastic post-surgical shield, it serves as a temporary deterrent, at best. The crafty canine has devised multiple strategies to escape his cone of shame. One involves elongating his entire body to slide out. He can also maneuver the device up and over his head with his paws. Once freed, he resumes licking, a sound that grates on everyone’s nerves until someone tightens and straps the ring in place, forcing him to plan his next breakout. It never takes long.

Like fellow terriers, Bennie is stubborn. If he wants to turn right when we exit the building for a walk, we turn right, or risk having to drag or carry him the other way, embarrassing everyone. In addition, he hates to get wet. We’re fortunate that a neighboring structure is under renovation and its extensive scaffolding provides a large dry area for Bennie to relieve himself when it’s raining. As a last resort we can usually coax him to a side street one block north, where there is a noticeable abundance of rats, enlivening him at once. These are minor quirks that are integral to the personality that always engages and entertains us.

Early spring becomes late spring and the temptation of summer warmth arrives. Nationwide protests in response to the chokehold death of an African-American man in police custody in Minneapolis bring thousands of people outdoors. The battle for equal rights and protection under the law isn’t new, but the incident shines a spotlight on continuing inequities, revitalizing the passion for social justice. It wouldn’t surprise me if a shared sense of helplessness about vanquishing coronavirus contributes to the renewed enthusiasm for political activism. Within days, reports of vandalism and violence sully the peaceful protests, obscuring pandemic tumult for an instant. We continue to shelter in place, but I watch from a window in awe as a huge orderly crowd marches south along Amsterdam Avenue waving “Black Lives Matter” signs.

Change of another sort hangs in the air as some states, including Texas and Florida, begin to reopen their economies. New York’s Governor reports positive progress toward slowing the virus, citing fewer hospital admissions and new cases, among other data. A continuing downward trend in the daily death toll is the primary criterion for launching a phased reopening and regions with the lowest number of reported cases overall will lead the way. While all indicators suggest that the city will be last, the customary political hairsplitting gains volume.

After endless weeks with little to differentiate the days, the shift happens abruptly. The city exits Phase One without significant issues and enters Phase Two. We celebrate by dining outdoors at a nearby restaurant early one evening. Three or four tables reside under its narrow awning. Thanks to a new local ordinance, others stand at street’s edge, where cars ordinarily park. I notice a sizable increase in traffic from our seats on the sidewalk. A couple of patrons bring dogs, although Bennie is not among them. Minus the masks, eating out feels normal, but I’m unaccustomed to leaving the safety of home.

Rich experienced characteristic symptoms of COVID-19 in April. Sara and I delivered meals and snacks, clean clothes, and bedding while he self-quarantined in the spare room. Based on Centers for Disease Control guidelines, we separated man and dog. Our perplexed little mutt barked and scratched at the door morning and night, to no avail. Ever hopeful, Bennie posted himself on the living room couch and waited for his master to exit, while on the other side, Rich bemoaned the temporary loss of his napping buddy. Although Rich recovered without serious complications, he still coughs on occasion, usually at meals or while talking. He reminds Sara and me each time of his seasonal allergies and asks us not to be concerned. That’s impossible. In isolation we’ve experienced the strange duplicity of loneliness and excessive togetherness. We’ve each suffered from mood swings and irritability, felt anxious, and worried about family and friends. It should have been obvious that fear wouldn’t rush away.

On June 22, 2020, the dictionary.com Word of the Day is “lassitude,” a “weariness of body or mind from strain, oppressive climate, etc.; lack of energy; listlessness; languor.” Reported incidents of rash behavior, including large gatherings without masks or social distancing, are on an upswing. We’re tired of minding pandemic rules, it’s clear. Lassitude affects Bennie, too. Unlike before, when he charged into the master bedroom each morning to awaken Rich and me, he lingers in Sara’s room until the sounds of breakfast-making lure him to the kitchen. The adjustment likely results from a shift in his nighttime schedule, but his new why-rush attitude mimics my own. In addition, the once sprightly canine now limits his energy consumption. When he decides that he’s done walking, he stops, plops his rear to the ground, and sits. No amount of leash tugging or vocal encouragement can induce him to move, unless he’s ready. If I’m rushed, I pick him up and carry him over my shoulder like a baby that needs burping. Passers-by chuckle behind their face coverings—someone jokingly remarks, “That dog looks like he’s in charge!”—but my sense of humor is on pause. Although Bennie’s reluctance to walk coincides with early summer heat, I blame coronavirus.

It’s July and our family has been socially isolated for four months. The virus has spread far beyond early hot spots like New York and the death toll continues to multiply. In the face of shocking numbers, I worry about becoming numb to loss. Palpable anger divides the nation. Some question the reality of the disease, while others are furious about government failures during this monstrous crisis. There is a sense of burgeoning sadness in the collective consciousness and no foreseeable end.

Pandemic slang compounds as the virus infiltrates every aspect of our lives. In addition to “the Q,” “rona” or “the rona,” “coronacation,” and “quarantini” are popular on social media. Personally I prefer to drink “coronaritas” with my meals in “iso.” I haven’t tried “iso-baking,” because none of us wants to gain the dreaded “COVID-15,” but I’m wearing “iso-fashion” daily, and it’s getting old. In traditional parlance, we’re sick and tired of the whole thing.

Bennie is disenchanted with lazing around as well. A small print that hung on a bedroom wall in our house encapsulates the current mood. A Jack Russell image appears on the left and the text on the right reads: “I tried to be GOOD … but got Bored.” Though Bennie hasn’t risen to the level of mischief that once led him to steal lunch from a repairman’s truck, he’s made us aware that his life is tedious. One example is a sudden disinterest in the dry food that he’s eaten without complaint for several years, unless we play Catch the Kibble. The rules are simple, I throw and he catches, but variations abound. At a typical dinner I push a food morsel across the floor. He chases it down, sliding at the end like a base runner reaching for home plate, and snaps it up before it rebounds off a wall or piece of furniture. I toss a bit of kibble high into the air. He leaps and spins with the agility of a wide receiver, making the catch with gaping jaws. I fling a succession of pellets to various parts of the room. He zigzags back and forth as if running an obstacle course and grabs each one. Afterwards, the canine athlete cleans the bowl and rehydrates with big gulps of water. A post-meal walk concludes the action, followed by a restful evening of lazing with the family in front of the television. His work is done.

Rich and I haven’t experienced the city as we’d envisioned, but coronavirus afforded us the unexpected opportunity to live with Sara again and to navigate an emotionally fraught time together. We are all closer to our workplaces, and to Bennie, who delivers reality checks and keeps us sane.

It’s unsurprising that mental health professionals predict an upcoming increase in post-traumatic stress disorders in the general population. We’re lucky to have a devoted animal that distracts and shields us from the worst effects of severe trauma. Bennie is a wonderful therapy dog. He brings rhythm to the days and provides numerous opportunities for relaxation, play, and time outdoors. His physical warmth, demonstrated affection, and limitless desire for cuddling help to satisfy the need for touch, and he makes us laugh when laughing feels impossible. All he asks in return is that we care for him. That and our endless gratitude are guaranteed. Bennie is a perfect pet, apartment-mate, and friend. We’ll love you forever, sweet boy.

2 Comments

  1. Benny is quite like my Shelby. Only she is not as lively. However she is just as stubborn on our walks, wanting to go her way. She is a great companion during Covid 19 and a huge reason to get up in the morning and get out of the house. What little treasures they are, our pets, and you have captured this beautifully on your piece. Thank you for reminding us.

  2. After our beagle Schatzie went to doggie heaven, & my husband is in Paramus Veterans Home with Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s & the Home is closed already 5 months for family visits I adopted a stray dog from a shelter 5 months ago. She is my daily sunshine !!,

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