Family life

We got a pandemic puppy—and it was the best decision ever

"The infusion of happiness I felt was instant—there is no drug as pure and harmless as unconditional puppy love."

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the last few weeks (is there anyone who hasn’t?!), you’ve likely detected the increasing spread of a bizarre new contagion. Amid news feeds stuffed with homeschooling tips and toilet paper-hoarding memes, there are pictures of puppies. So many ridiculously cute new puppies. 

Timber, our brand new chocolate lab, is one of them. 

It turns out that an intense yearning for puppy love is a side-effect of isolation (especially when it’s the sort of isolation that has no end in sight). It intensified sharply for three out of the four people in our home during those bleak first few weeks of scary coronavirus headlines. The fourth family member, my husband, took only three days to come around on the idea of getting a puppy immediately, despite the fact that we hadn’t, officially, planned to add a dog to our family for another year or two. Swaying him wasn’t all that hard. The second week of isolation saw us wearying of poor sleep, grey moods and the strain of trying to hide from our kids the fear stoked by every tweet and news alert.

We needed something positive to focus on, I argued, something to distract our kids, who are five and eight, from how restrictive our lives have become. And perhaps something to distract from the fact that even though I try to be the mom who sends her kids outside to make muddy “potions,” who sets up science experiments at the kitchen table with baking soda and vinegar, and who even helps them make Trolls movie cupcakes in revolting neon shades, in reality, I am so damn uptight about messes—and so tired of cleaning up after everyone—that I always seem to wreck the fun. 

With my husband mostly on board, I went alone to meet Timber, a nearly four-month old Labrador. He was sitting on the breeder’s driveway practicing a perfect sit-stay at her side when I pulled up. His sweet puppy face had my heart soaring before I had even parked the car. To keep an appropriate social distance from the breeder, I sat cross-legged near the end of the driveway and opened my arms to see if the pup would come to me. He loped goofily down the asphalt, flopped into my lap and craned his neck up to lick my chin. 

The infusion of happiness I felt was instant—there is no drug as pure and harmless as unconditional puppy love. Everyone in our house needed a dose.

Four days later, we brought Timber home. He is snoring in his crate beside me as I write. Those deep dog snores remind me to breathe; his calm demeanor helps ground us all, including my five-year-old son, who curls up with the dog on his bed when he needs a mental break. 

Now, anyone who has puppy experience knows that for the first six months, raising your fur-baby is a lot like having a newborn (except you can put the dog in a crate, praise be). There is a lot of pee, poop and puke. There is destruction and ruin. There is whining and crying (both canine and human). You will have to get up at least once in the night and, inevitably, at some point, you wonder if you’ve wrecked your life.

Despite all of that, having this dog—and having him right now—has been a balm. Settling on a name was a days-long exercise in compromise—a lesson we were already working hard on with the kids. Lists were made, narrowed, expanded and contracted. Both kids decided on their own that a family consensus was more important than lobbying for a name they had put forward. (Heart emoji.)

The task of training Timber has been a welcome distraction for everyone. Since no one has anywhere to rush off to each morning, we all help out, including my husband, who occasionally sneaks in a walk while tethered to a conference call. I’ve been surprised at how interested my kids are in caring for the pup, and at how much they can actually do when I refrain from taking over. They are learning the rewards of showing kindness and patience to the dog, and it’s so neat to witness their pride when the pup actually listens and learns. (Last week they also learned about forgiveness, after he pooped directly on a beloved roadway play mat.)

He has also starred in numerous school assignments, making cameos on their video conference calls and inspiring many a journal entry and colouring session.

The kids scooter along with us during his many walks each day, which eliminates all of their tricky questions about why we can’t stop at the park to play. This is a win-win for their phys-ed needs, and for my sanity.

Isla Belton, 8 and Finn Belton, 5, walking four-month-old Timber near their home in Oakville

Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Leeder

Now, I should also peer over the rose-coloured glasses I’ve clearly duct-taped to my head to tell you in a stern “mom” voice that getting a puppy in the Time of Corona is not exactly easy, and shouldn’t be done on a whim. Social distancing makes researching a breeder tricky (you should always meet them in person and see their facility and pups before buying). Getting the supplies you need to safely care for a pup (a crate, collar, leash, food, etc.) takes finagling; borrowing from friends can feel dicey during isolation and buying is neither easy nor cheap at a time when many of us are worried about job losses or struggling to buy basic groceries. Most vets have stopped administering puppy vaccinations for now, dog runs are closed and there are no puppy classes to attend, so if you don’t have experience training a dog already, you’ll want to have a plan in place. (Virtual classes or a good training book are decent substitutes.) 

And, if, like many, you need to work full-time from home while caring for young kids, you may not have the time or mental energy to dedicate to yet another living being who needs your love and attention. Unfortunately, unlike most children, a puppy cannot be easily placated with unlimited screen time. 

If you do take the puppy plunge, you’ll also need to consider what will happen when life does return to some version of normal again. I already work from home anyhow, so it’s not an issue for us. But in the past, with our previous dogs, my husband and I both worked long hours at the office and had to hire dog walkers to help us juggle everyone’s needs. It’s a costly service that effectively outsources one of the best parts of having a dog.

All of that said, if your urge to add canine company to your home is strong, but a permanent puppy addition is out of the question, you could consider adopting a mature dog from a rescue organization, or fostering through your local SPCA. (Check their websites for Coronavirus-related policies.)

I do know that at our house, adding four (very big) paws has done wonders for our hearts, and for our heads, in a very short time.

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