Maybe you’ve heard about the COVID dogs. They’re everywhere, owned by people like the guy gingerly walking his new pooch around the lake, or your formerly pet-free neighbor now waxing poetic about her new family member and his soft, fuzzy ears.
My family fell into the COVID-dog cliché last summer, when I, the lone holdout against dog ownership, broke down one evening at dinner and impulsively blurted out to my husband and daughters, “Let’s get a dog!” I’d been feeling torn up about how the pandemic had thrown my girls’ lives out of whack, and I somehow decided that a dog might actually help everyone feel just a little better.
Our new dog, June, a sweet-tempered terrier mix rescued from a shelter in Texas, came to our family this summer with her share of quirks, but in time she wormed her way into all of our hearts. Somehow, she has helped to bolster our mental health: When June snoozes on my lap while I’m watching some pre-bedtime TV, my tensed-up body relaxes; when my younger daughter feels anxious, June nestles into her arms for a reassuring hug.
We’re definitely not the only family that has decided this was the right time to welcome a dog into our lives: Humane societies around the country reported an increase in adoptions after COVID-era lockdowns went into effect. Research, including a University of British Columbia study reporting that students saw significant reductions in stress and increased happiness after spending time with therapy dogs, backs up the mental health benefits of spending time with animals.
My family adopted June from Secondhand Hounds, a Minnetonka-based animal rescue organization. I was curious about how the pandemic-based jump in adoptions had impacted the nonprofit, so I contacted Rachel Mairose, Secondhand Hounds’ founder and executive director. She was more than happy to talk.
Before COVID hit, Mairose said, “We were already at capacity. We were bringing in 40 to 50 dogs and cats a weekend.”
When interest in adoption spiked, Mairose explained that she and her 40-member staff tried their best to respond: “We increased our capacity as much we could while still being attentive to the needs of the animals, their owners and our staff.”
Last week, Mairose and I talked about how her 11-year-old organization dealt with the increased demand for adoptable pets, how she found herself in the business of animal rescue and her firm belief in the mental health benefits of dog ownership.
MinnPost: I’ve heard that more and more people are adopting dogs these days. Has that been the case at Secondhand Hounds?
Rachel Mairose: One hundred percent. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just nuts. It has been like that almost since the beginning of the pandemic.
MP: Why do you think that’s been happening?
RM: Everyone thinks a pandemic is the perfect time to get an animal: They are at home. They’re not going anywhere. They have time to train it. The kids are at home so the dog has plenty of company.
This increased interest in adoption was the silver lining of the pandemic, for Secondhand Hounds at least. It is actually hard to adopt a dog right now: As soon as their picture gets put up on our website they’re scooped up.
MP: My family’s rescue dog has quickly become an important source of love and comfort during stressful times. Do clients tell you that their dogs help support their mental health?
RM: I think that the folks who are adopting dogs these days are really in search of companionship. We humans are not built to be locked down in our houses. We are social animals, so to speak.
For many people, adopting a dog is almost a survival mechanism, especially for people who are single or have a partner who travels a lot. It is nice to have a warm body to be around, whether it is a person or an animal. I think it is good for people’s mental health to be able to adopt an animal during COVID.
MP: Are you concerned that some people might “return” their dog once life gets back to normal?
RM: We’re doing everything we can to make sure that everybody who adopts a dog from us understands that when life goes back to normal your dog can’t be left behind. Dogs are pack animals: You have to make sure that the eventual switch back to normal life, with Mom and Dad and siblings being away all day again rather than being around all day, isn’t too hard on the dog.
We try to tell people who adopt dogs from us to forecast what their life will be like in two years, three years, five years. A pet is a life-long commitment.
MP: Have you had any clients who’ve adopted a dog and then realized that pet ownership is more stress than they can handle?
RM: Some people have had to return their dog to us, but so far it hasn’t happened as much as you’d think it would. The ones that have done that were mostly people who work at home, maybe they’ve adopted a dog that was super barky or anxious. Maybe the owner already suffered from anxiety, and caring for a dog was ramping up their anxiety levels.
When someone tells us that a dog isn’t adding good to their lives, we realize that it likely is not a good fit. We never want dog ownership to add to a person’s anxiety. We want it to add good to the person’s life and to the dog’s life as well. Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. It’s not something we foreshadow, but when that happens we do our best to find a more appropriate home for the dog.
The truth is there haven’t been more returns than in a normal year. Dogs are just like humans: They don’t fit in every household. You can’t expect every match to be a good one. We try really hard to make sure that every match is as good as possible. We do have just under 1 percent of dogs returned.
MP: How much have adoptions been up since the pandemic started?
RM: Dog adoptions at Secondhand Hounds were up 16 percent in 2020. That number could have been a lot higher, but we were already at our organization’s capacity before this all started. I’m always trying to look out for my staff members, to make sure that they aren’t overwhelmed.
COVID is overwhelming enough. To force staff members to do more and more is just too much to ask. We were able to hire some more people. We wanted to make sure that we were also being cognizant of everybody’s time. In animal rescue, compassion fatigue is a big problem. A growth of 16 percent is great. Without staff and financial restrictions, we could’ve easily grown by 300 percent — but we really didn’t want our staff to burn out and we didn’t have the funds to hire additional staff. We need to look out for each other’s mental health.
Shelters all over the country are increasing their capacity so more dogs are getting adopted. Dogs that were previously sitting in shelters for months or years are now finding homes.
MP: Have you always had pets in your life?
RM: I grew up with animals. They were always part of my family’s life. I’m allergic to dogs and cats. When my parents found out I was allergic, they were like, “It’s not an option to get rid of the dog. What shots can Rachel take to not be allergic to our firstborn?” That’s just the way I was raised. Dogs have always been important to me.
MP: Why do you think that dogs are so important to you?
RM: I have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, bipolar II, dissociative disorder — basically all sorts of fun things going on in my head. Animals helped save my life. I had a significant dissociative episode in college and I realized I had to take a step back. I spent about a year and a half seeing a psychiatrist and therapist. Most of my disorder is anxiety-focused. At some point I convinced myself that what I needed to feel better was a dog of my own.
When I was going through all of this, I was between the ages of 19 and 20. It was a very self-centered time in my life, like it is in many people’s lives. It took me caring completely for something else to get outside of my own head enough to stop being so self-focused, to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Having a dog in my life helped me to be more mentally healthy.
MP: What can you tell me about that first dog?
RM: I went to Wash U in St. Louis. I always knew that I wanted a dog to help with my anxiety. I had to convince my boyfriend — now my husband — to take the dog. We didn’t have a dog-friendly apartment. He said, “This is a bad idea.” I said, “This is a good idea.”
My first dog was a dog from a breeder. I hadn’t yet been woken up to the fact that there were so many dogs available outside of breeders, so I went and got a little Havanese puppy. He was my buddy. He was the worst dog in the world, but I loved him.
Then I started looking on Craigslist at other hypoallergenic dogs. I saw an ad for a pit bull puppy. I saw her little face and I said, “Are you kidding me? I need this dog.” We went to look at the pit bull puppy and we ended up adopting her on the spot. That opened my eyes to animal rescue.
MP: How did you decide you wanted to start your own animal rescue organization?
RM: I went to college for environmental science and was going to do pre-law. During that time I realized for my own mental health sitting at a desk wasn’t what I was meant to do. I wanted to do something where I could be more effective.
Dogs saved my life. So I wanted to return the favor and save their lives.
When we moved back to Minnesota, I was about to have a baby. I tried to find animal rescue places to volunteer at, but they were already either too established to get my foot in the door or too small to get involved. At that point it became clear to me that I should start my own rescue organization.
My parents and my husband both said, “This seems like a bad idea. You are about to be a mom and you have a husband who is in med school.” There were all of these roadblocks, but I’m a believer that you can do anything you set your mind to do within reason. So I followed my heart. And it worked out: We are now saving just under 3,000 animals a year.
MP: What makes your organization unique?
RM: I love people as much as I love animals. I think many people get into animal rescue because they love animals more than they love people — I wanted to honor and support humans as much as I wanted to honor and support animals. I wanted to acknowledge how we can hold each other up, how much animals make our lives better.
I was seven months pregnant when I decided to start Secondhand Hounds. It might not have seemed like a great decision at the time, but in retrospect I think it was. Since the beginning I haven’t looked back and we’ve just kept growing and growing.
MP: What does the future look like for Secondhand Hounds?
RM: A big part of Phase Two for Secondhand hounds is we’re looking to develop a way to provide respite care for people who can’t care for their animals because they need to take care of themselves.
Sometimes life gets in the way. There are cases where people need to go in for mental health or addiction treatment but they put it off because they don’t know who would care for their pet while they are gone. I would love to be able to find a solution for that, to be able to help people take a step back and feel confident that their animal will be cared for, whether it is in a sanctuary setting or short-term respite care. I see that this kind of program could also be helpful in domestic abuse situations. It’s an example of caring equally for the needs of people and animals.
We also have a program called “Secondhand Hope,” where we bring rescue animals into senior-living facilities. We already have a relationship with 52 senior-living facilities in the Twin Cities. We bring the animals in for the afternoon to hang out with the residents. During COVID, we’ve had to do window or video visits, but the program is still going strong. We’re all looking forward to the day when we can be face-to-face again.
MP: Where do your adoptable animals come from?
RM: We take dogs from all over the country, mostly because Minnesota has a great spay-and-neuter program, so we have a higher demand than supply in the state. We work with Southern shelters that have a high rate of euthanasia because they don’t have space for all of their dogs. Minnesota rescue organizations have been going down there for several years now.
MP: Can you tell me more about the dogs in your life?
RM: I have three dogs — a Great Dane, a pit bull and a “Texas special.” I call him a megamutt. They’re all really important members of our family.
MP: Do clients ever tell you about how pet ownership has improved their mental health?
RM: One year I got a letter in the mail from a volunteer who basically said, “You saved my life. I was contemplating suicide, and the unconditional love that was shown to me, not only by the animal, but also the organization, saved my life.”
This was somebody who, from the outside, you would never would have guessed was struggling like they were. Those are the people who worry me the most because they are so good at masking their emotions. Animals can open them up to love.
MP: What have you learned from the animals in your life?
RM: We people think we are the superior beings when it comes to caring for others and understanding emotions, but animals actually have that in the bag. They teach us to be more loving and forgiving of ourselves. Humans can learn from the animals in their lives. It is always the same, whether it is a 17-year-old girl who’s had it all or someone in their 80s who is searching for companionship.
The relationship between humans and animals is such a powerful thing. You hear that old saying all the time: “Who rescued who?” It’s an important question. Animals provide so many benefits to people. With the world the way it is right now, many of us are so isolated. Our relationships with the animals in our life can actually provide us with a reason to live.