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During the coronavirus pandemic, another fever spreads — for puppies

In this stay-at-home alone time, the puppy has emerged as the ultimate vector of comfort.

Matt Dubois exercised his puppy, Bruin, on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Many people are turning to puppies and dogs for the emotional support they need during the pandemic.
Matt Dubois exercised his puppy, Bruin, on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Many people are turning to puppies and dogs for the emotional support they need during the pandemic.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

First came the social distancing. Then followed the work-from-home order, the remote learning, and the puppy.

“In a one-mile radius, I know four families that have gotten puppies in the last month,” says Jennifer Platt, of Hingham. “I almost think of it as a wave.”

As inevitable as hoarded pantry staples, the puppy has emerged as the ultimate vector of comfort in this coronavirus time. The Platt family was not immune. Last week, they welcomed Ranger, a fuzzy, wiggling 8-week-old Golden Retriever.

“We hadn’t been planning on getting a new puppy. It was this impulsive decision,” says Platt, whose family of four already has, as she calls him, “a senior puppy,” Buckley, a 9-year-old Golden.

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There’d been talk — the vague, noncommittal, someday kind — of adding another good boy into the mix. Then the pandemic hit. “It was this sense of, why not now?” Platt says.

As the battle to slow the spread of COVID-19 has left businesses shuttered, streets empty, and so many humans separated from their chosen packs, families and individuals are asking themselves the same question. The result has been a surge in demand for dogs, and especially puppies, among shelters and breeders across the state.

Kristin Mullins, executive director of the Worcester Animal Rescue League, which is presently closed to on-site visits, says, “All of our adoption slots are filled.” Since the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect March 23, Mullins says, adoption inquiries at her shelter are up 25 percent.

“More people are calling. They are home, and they have time they normally wouldn’t have to spend with an animal,” she says.

This happy turn of events for shelter dogs is also cause for extra vigilance, says Mullins, who has a 9-year-old Pitbull-Terrier mix named Yogi. “We are asking more questions in regards to [prospective adopters’] original lifestyle. We are asking what their lives will look like once the pandemic is over. We want to make sure that people aren’t just wanting to adopt because they are home. We don’t want to see these animals come back.”

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At the Baypath Humane Society in Hopkinton, executive director Liz Jefferis says that in spite of being closed to the public now, applications to adopt and foster continue to pour in. “We’ve had dozens and dozens every week,” she says. “Normal is very few. If we got three or four in a month, that would be typical.”

“The cats are like, can you please go?” says Jefferis, who has three of them, in addition to an African Grey Parrot, a deaf Pitbull named Pigeon, and two foster dogs from Baypath – Billie, a Maltipoo, and Troy, a lab mix. With dogs, it’s different. Like their human counterparts, they are intensely social. And socializing a new puppy, Jefferis says, is key.

But how to do that during a time of social distancing? “One of our fosters just shared on social media that she made a little obstacle course in the living room to get the puppies used to different sounds — a doorbell, a car horn — and textures and smells.” Jefferis says.

Paul MacLean, a retired breeder of Labrador Retrievers who lives next to a cranberry bog in Norton, has also been besieged with inquiries for puppies. MacLean has two old labs, Ocean Spray Blizzard and Ocean Spray Brendan, whose heyday as champion studs is well behind them. He also has a 6-year-old female, Ocean Spray Wendy. “Someone told me she would take one of mine,” he says, of a caller whose canine fever had evidently spiked.

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“During this blackout, interest has quadrupled,” MacLean says. “I got an e-mail the other day from someone saying, ‘Please, please, please, if you know of anyone who has puppies, let me know.’ ”

By some accounts, canis familiaris has been delivering excellent, tail-wagging companionship since our hominid ancestors clubbed their dinner and dragged it home, some 15,000 years ago. They’ve been man’s best friend ever since, with killer apps that include unwavering loyalty, unmatched cuddle tolerance, and a head tilt that slays.

“The thing about dogs is every day is a new day for them,” says Dr. Terri Bright, head of behavior services at MSCPA-Angell, in Jamaica Plain. “They look at you like, ‘Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in five minutes!’ And no one else in your family looks at you that way.”

Bright says, “I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in a long time offering to take care of dogs in the shelter.” Her guess as to why: “People are very exposed emotionally right now. Some are lonely, I think. There is so little they can do to help other people, because we are segregated from each other. If they can’t help people, they can help animals. It is such a kind thought.”

Bright, whose 18-month-old American Bully, Ribbon, joins her on Zoom meetings, has some advice for those welcoming a new pup during the pandemic.

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“Dogs like routine. I swear they wear watches,” she says. “The challenge is going to be leaving the dog at home when you go back to work.” Bright recommends keeping a schedule. “They know when it is time for dinner, time for a walk. And if you have not inculcated these types of routines for them, some dogs will have anxiety when they are alone.”

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus of veterinary medicine at Tufts and president of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, says that confident owners make for confident dogs. To minimize the chance of separation anxiety, “Before you go, set up the environment so it appeals to all five senses — interesting things to do, to chew, to see, acoustic music or dog TV.”

Dodman, whose 12-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback-Boxer mix, Rusty, is his lockdown-moment excuse to go on long walks in nature every day, also counsels low-key hellos and good-byes. “Don’t make a huge fuss,” he says.

Back in Hingham, Jennifer Platt is 48 hours into getting up “once, twice, three times a night” with Ranger. “It is like having a newborn,” she says. “We are all like, what did we just do? We have just brought so much stress into our house.”

But, she says, “I am so thankful that we have the whole family home, not only for help, but everyone has bonding time with the puppy. He just melts our hearts.”

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Buckley, Platt reports, “is skeptical.”