For two long years, Westman residents explored ways to relieve their pandemic-induced isolation — some through technology, others with new hobbies. Another chunk of the population sought comfort in canine companions, a responsibility not many pet owners were prepared to tackle once the world began to reopen.
Tracy Munn, shelter manager at the Brandon Humane Society, said experts warned this would happen about a year ago.
"They said people would be returning animals."
Munn said now that most people are back at their jobs after working from home, some dogs are experiencing distress and separation anxiety from being alone for extended periods of time.
It’s why the Brandon Humane Society implemented regulations over the last two years to ensure that only the people who were truly prepared for adopting an animal from the shelter would be able to.
"You shouldn’t be getting one because you’re working from home, unless you’re a dog person and you were thinking of getting a second one and it’s good training time. That’s OK, but very few people were doing that."
Unfortunately, Munn said, she heard complaints from people about how thorough the Humane Society is when it comes to adopting pets.
"Some people say it’s so hard to get an animal from the Brandon Humane Society. It really isn’t, if you’re ready, if you’re the right home."
The issue of matching the right pet with the right family is never a personal one, Munn said.
"It’s not because we don’t like somebody or they’re not good enough. We’re matchmaking. If I had a couple in their mid-80s come in and want a crazy-active Jack Russell puppy, I’m not [allowing] it … you can get mad all you want, but I’m going to do what’s right for the animals."
Munn even encouraged people to volunteer if they wanted the companionship of animals but weren’t quite ready to take on the responsibility of ownership. Despite this, the shelter is still dealing with people relinquishing their pets for a number of reasons, from not being able to be home enough to look after them, to cost-related concerns.
More troubling, Munn said, is dealing with a surplus of dogs from people who decided to breed — or worse, start puppy mills — in the Westman area during the pandemic.
"People are doing it to make money. It should be illegal."
Munn said the Humane Society tries to take in as many animals as it can, but it does not pay for them, and in fact, they charge a drop-off fee for breeders who cannot find homes for their animals.
Funds for Furry Friends, a Brandon-based, nationally registered charity run by volunteers, is also dealing with pets who have now become unwanted in the wake of freedom from pandemic restrictions. D’Arcy Barker, chief financial officer with the volunteer-run group, said they’re seeing an approximately 15 per cent owner surrender rate on cats and dogs that were acquired during the pandemic and while people were working from home.
Some of these people, Barker said, only got animals because everyone else they knew was doing it. Other pet owners realized they no longer have the same time to put into training that they did during the pandemic.
"People need to have a little more foresight when they adopt an animal. They don’t realize it’s not a today thing, it’s not a weekend thing. You have to focus now on the next 15 years, because that’s how long you’re going to have the animal."
Others, Barker said, need to be more patient with their dogs — especially those who chose to adopt puppies.
"It’s the puppy stage that brings a lot of animals into rescue. People just don’t have the patience and tolerance for that stage."
Usually, it’s not pet owners who adopted through humane societies or rescues that are surrendering their animals, but the ones who went to what Barker calls "backyard breeders." Less than one per cent of animals being surrendered are from the Funds for Furry Friends rescue, even though that’s where many of them are ending up after their owners decide they no longer want them.
Dogs found running in packs or alone, or homeless in First Nations communities, also compose a fair amount of the animals that wind up at shelters, though Funds for Furry Friends doesn’t actually travel to the reserves to pick them up. They have, however, arranged for funding for dogs from First Nations to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Barker said nearly 30 per cent of the animals that come to rescue organizations in Manitoba are from First Nation reserves.
"Chiefs and councils right across all First Nations have been dealing with this problem, I’d say, for the last three decades, easily," Barker said. "It’s very, very easy for somebody to go to a city, pick up a dog, sometimes from a breeder, sometimes from a pet store … and they bring the animal back to the First Nation and then they just let it go."
According to Barker, the dogs that are being surrendered aren’t showing any behavioural problems, which means he hopes they’ll find their forever homes soon. They do, however, show a lot of sorrow and a keen understanding of their situation that most people wouldn’t expect.
"They’re just so forlorn. The animal has given up, and they’re just existing now."
Thankfully, once they’re in a good foster home, and certainly once they’re adopted, most dogs perk back up and begin to enjoy life again with all the joy and mindfulness that draws people to dogs in the first place.
Sandy Walter, who runs Pawsitive Experiences doggy daycare in Brandon, said the situation Munn and Barker described is one she feared would happen during the pandemic.
Another pandemic-related issue Walter deals with on a day-to-day basis as a dog behaviourist is the lack of socialization that many canines experienced during the past two years, which in turn can lead to poor habits.
"They have no social skills. Some of them have some huge anxiety."
Often people don’t understand how incredibly important socialization is for dogs, not just when they’re puppies but throughout their entire life, Walter said. She was hoping that, as people socialized less themselves during the pandemic, pet owners would understand the importance of it for their animals.
"They need this. A dog has feelings, and a dog has a brain that works, so if they’re caged up all the time or they’re not socialized, it’s the same thing as if a human isn’t socialized."
The Brandon Sun contacted the Brandon City Pound for comment but didn’t receive a response by press time.
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun