Home alone: The fate of post-pandemic dogs

Perhaps the most serious welfare issue facing dogs right now relates to the role dogs have been asked to fill as emotional support staff. We have created a generation of dogs who are emotionally co-dependent, often on a single individual. There has been some research on the welfare of seeing eye dogs, autism dogs, military dogs and police dogs, and some discussion of the ethics of volunteering dogs for these jobs. But there has been almost no research or moral conversation about the welfare implications of dogs as hired (though uncompensated) companions, especially as companions who are expected to witness and respond to charged human emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, fear and depression. Dogs are profoundly empathetic and are highly attuned to our emotions, and so it is likely that our neediness extracts a high price from the animals we like to think of as our best friends.

Another serious problem for pandemic dogs is the transition of humans back toward a more normal life. A cadre of dogs have become accustomed to having their humans around 24/7. Many of these dogs have been or will soon be expected to deal with sudden extended periods of isolation. We can anticipate (and are already seeing) skyrocketing rates of behavioral problems in pet dogs. The inclination will be to simplify and pathologize these behaviors and label them “separation anxiety.” On the one hand, perhaps this is fine for now. The strategy for addressing separation-related anxieties and fears is to take things very slowly, helping a dog learn, over several months or longer, how to be alone.