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ROBERT PRICE: It was only two months in dog years, but 2020 was a happy one for canines

2020 had to be the best year in dog history.

We humans won’t be looking back on it with much fondness, but to our four-legged companions, last year was a canine utopia.

High demand. Plenty of attention. Increased opportunities for dog-appropriate people food.

With the pandemic sending millions of 9-to-5 Americans from their offices back into their homes and classroom learning going strictly virtual, family dogs began to find themselves with almost 24-hour company. And dogs being dogs, they liked it.

Shelter managers ran out of product, to put it in business terms. Very nearly, anyway.

“Puppies especially, and small dogs — they went fast,” said Chuck Nordstrom, assistant executive director of the Bakersfield SPCA. “Chihuahuas — they’ve been popular.”

With the exception of previously mistreated, justifiably surly 8-year-old pit bulls, dogs were finding homes like never before. Cats too.

But now comes the reckoning.

Offices are opening back up. White-collar workers are getting back in their cars. Schools are reopening. It’s not a wholesale return to pre-pandemic levels — and may never be — but it’s significant.

Which, in many cases, leaves Rex exactly where he was 14 months ago. Alone.

Celeste Hernandez is one dog owner trying to prevent that from happening.

“I’m trying to keep her happy,"  said Hernandez, at the Kroll dog park with Skye, a five-month-old Siberian Husky with Tahoe-blue eyes and a pink collar. Yes, Skye is a Covid puppy, adopted in October, mid-pandemic. “We go to the dog park every day, sometimes three times a day,” Hernandez said.

It helps that she is at the office only four hours a day, prepping for her real estate license. “My boyfriend and I work different schedules, so someone is usually home, but I don’t know if it’s always going to be that way.”

Same with Ania Mohan, who brought two to the dog park: Kayzo, a 2-year-old Shiba-Inu adopted in September 2019, and Kaia, her brother Amish’s 1-year-old German Shepard-Husky mix. Both dogs were adopted just before everything shut down.

Things are good now — the dogs are getting daily rations of grilled chicken from Ania’s parents’ barbecue grill — but when she goes off to law school in a few months, the menu, and the dogs’ attentive company, will change.

“They’ve got it made now,” said Mohan, “but that’s because we have so much time on our hands right now.”

But dog owners can take steps to minimize the trauma.

“They will acclimate if you break it into chunks and stay away longer each time,” said Julie Johnson, executive director of the Bakersfield Animal Care Center and the Bakersfield SPCA

“Separation anxiety is a real thing,” said Nick Cullen, director of Kern County Animal Services. “Especially if they’re used to being stimulated on a daily basis during school hours.”

Cullen knows of what he speaks. His kids are getting ready to go back to school, and his significant other has already returned to the office. He’s preparing his adoptee, a mischievous beagle, for the inevitable separation with engagement tools: keeping radios or TVs playing while she is alone, practicing crate training in advance so she's used to it, and introducing her to neighbors in case Cullen needs them to check on the dog.

“It’s more about the pup’s well being when circumstances change,” he said. “That sudden removal of engagement can bring on the habits in pets that people give up on dogs for — destruction, eliminating in the house, barking, howling, whining …”

Then there’s this option: Get a second dog to keep the first one company.

As difficult as 2020 was for many people in terms of mental health, it almost surely would have been worse without dogs and cats in the mix, particularly new dogs and cats.

Researchers actually studied this. A team of academics from Israel, writing in the November 2020 edition of the journal Nature, confirmed a significant increase in dog adoptions in that country, as well as continuing evidence of “a bidirectional connection between the welfare and health of humans and non-human animals,” specifically the primary object of their research, dogs.

Interest in dog adoption has barely ebbed. The Bakersfield SPCA is staying busy, and not just with inquiries from this community (which always has first dibs, according to the organization).

Nordstrom said the SPCA had a man from Illinois scheduled to come in Friday to pick up a pre-selected dog and a truck driver from South Dakota arriving Saturday to do the same. Maybe word is out about the unusually fine character of Kern County canines; Nordstrom has no idea.

One might think that all the adoptions by previously dogless families might result in an eventual spike in the number of returns and abandonments. Dogs, after all, eat, dig and make doodee. Who knew?

That turns out, happily, to not be the case. “Returns are crazy low, under 4 percent,” Johnson said. Cullen said returns at the county shelter are also flat — around 7 percent.

Excessive returns would definitely put a damper on this uplifting dog story. That it hasn’t happened confirms that 2020, for all the grief it caused humans, has to go down as the greatest year in dog history.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.