When my mother acquired her dog, Ellie Mae, in 2020, I didn’t know how close Ellie Mae and I would become, especially since I didn’t live full-time with my mom. But keeping her water bowl full, going on walks through downtown Sarasota and the Rosemary District and hanging out with other dogs and their owners at local parks: All of it provided a sense of joy. I have learned how valuable dogs can be in softening the shocks of the pandemic, mitigating social isolation and relieving stress.
Nothing beats seeing Ellie Mae after an extended time away, when she greets me with her tail wagging faster than a windshield wiper. As we walk through town, we run into fellow Sarasotans taking their dogs on a stroll. We meet neighbors and learn about local events, areas to explore, things to do and restaurants to try—conversations we probably wouldn’t otherwise have.
It’s no secret that these pets give us a sense of belonging and meaning. Dogs love unconditionally. They don’t hold grudges, and they offer love and support upon which we come to rely. Studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and a lower resting heart rate than non-owners. While the pandemic exacerbated loneliness in the U.S., and rates of political division and burnout have climbed, pets can ease our tension and improve our well-being.
"Owning a pet keeps you active and gives you a sense of purpose,” says David Lynch, the senior director of operations at The Humane Society of Sarasota County. “You get out in fresh air. You stay healthy. The first thing that happens every day is my dogs wake me up to go for a walk. Then I come home to my dogs and their unconditional love. When you are down, a support system is right there."
More than a decade ago, Lynch was like many young Americans struggling to enter the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession. He turned to a local shelter as a volunteer, and after a few months, they offered him a job. He’s since been in the field helping animals find safe homes. “These animals give me a sense of purpose and dignity, and that's immeasurable," he says.
Lynch is not alone. He regularly sees how being in the company of a pet, whether as a volunteer at the Humane Society or as a dog owner, can improve one's quality of life. Volunteers have made lifelong friendships and cited their pets as a critical help in transitioning to retired lifestyles. Lynch recalls how one woman, who had experienced a difficult time in her life, came to adopt a dog. Three months later, she wrote a letter stating how the experience of acquiring the dog had helped her navigate a “terrible circumstance.”
When dogs visit local schools, Lynch says teachers have told him that they didn’t know one of their “most troubled students could show so much compassion.” There are many examples of pets assisting the disabled, the elderly, the distressed and the ill.
October marks shelter adoption month, and the Humane Society runs a 50 percent discount on adoption fees throughout the month. The Humane Society has seen a steady number of pets adopted this year, its first at full capacity in its new facility.
Adoption and intake numbers are on the same pace as last year, but adoption numbers are down across the state of Florida. Lynch debunks the stigma that adopted pets are inferior to purebreds, noting that there are many reasons dogs end up in shelters, like owners who are forced to move away or face financial constraints. “These are great animals that deserve a second chance,” he says.
There are options for people who are unable or willing to commit to adopting a pet and owning one full-time. Elizabeth Joiner, a volunteer coordinator at the Humane Society, says volunteers are welcome to play with their sheltered dogs, walk them and pet them. There are also programs where locals can take a dog out in the community for a few hours or host a dog for a night.
“Volunteering here is a great way to get your steps in for the day and get that serotonin boost,” Joiner says. “You see those sweet faces and you say, ‘OK, one more walk.’”
Matthew Gutierrez is a writer from Princeton, N.J., who has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. A graduate of Syracuse University, he also writes a newsletter on life reflections and meditations. Write to him at [email protected].