Family Friday: When COVID Hits Home for a Reporter

Micaela Watts has spent the year of pandemic tracking the mounting data for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, part of the USA Today Network of newspapers of which my daily, The Palm Beach Post, is part. Her work meant understanding the virus better she ever wanted to know and listening to more heartbreak than she ever wanted to hear. Then, it came for her 100-year-old grandmother, and Ms Watts’ own heart broke.

The two worlds I strive to keep separate came crashing together: my job and my family. I was face to face with COVID-19, a set of genetic codes contained in a virus strand that brought the modern world to its knees. And now it had my grandmother, my Mimi. I had dutifully avoided seeing her for a year, even as I worried it would be her last. She was, after all, 100 years old.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Here is a portion of the article Micaela Watts wrote about her grandmother’s final hour. I found it so touching that it needs no more words from me. Please read through to the end, as the final line broke my heart, too.

The COVID-19 unit was bright and clean. And though Brett had warned me I might hear a lot of different alarms and beeps, it was eerily quiet.

As my gaze moved toward the top of the bed, I first became aware of the dull roar of her oxygen supply. It reminded me of the closed-air system on airplanes, the hiss they make when planes are idling on the runways. I went up to her. Underneath the oxygen mask, her lips were dark. She took a ragged, gravelly breath. I heard her drowning in her own body.

The palliative care doctor, Dr. Blair, placed a hand on my back. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable. She won’t be in any pain.” I burst into sobs. I looked over at Dr. Blair. To my surprise, I saw her eyes fill with tears. After a year of the pandemic and her career in palliative care, she was still moved by a granddaughter saying goodbye.

“If this is too hard, and you need to leave,” Brett the nurse said, “I’ll stay with her. I promise you, she will not go out alone.”

Over the next hour and a half, I held her hands and talked, loudly. Between her faulty hearing and the whoosh of the oxygen, I knew I needed to shout. I wondered if anyone passing outside her room could hear me yelling Psalm 23. “I love you,” I yelled. “I love you and it’s OK to go now.”

I watched as a single tear started to spill out of the corner of each of her closed eyes. She tried speaking, tried sitting up. She was already halfway gone. At 100, time was already coming for her, that was true. But did that make watching your loved one die any easier? Not for me.

When Brett next entered the room to administer her next shot of morphine, I knew it was time. “Brett …” I began, turning toward him. “You can turn it off now.” Brett nodded and pivoted toward the control panel for her oxygen. The hissing stopped. The silence that followed was the loudest sound I ever heard.

“She’s going to go quickly now,” he said. I nodded and kept Mimi’s small hand in my grip. She gripped back, hard. I watched her draw fewer and fewer breaths until there were none noticeable. Her grip went slack. I felt a hand on my back again. It was Brett. I looked at him, and he nodded. He didn’t have to say anything.

I slumped over in my chair, and he folded me into a hug. He reassured me that, since there was no intubation, no drawn-out fight, Mimi’s passing was one of the most peaceful he had seen in a solid year of watching people die.

At precisely 10 a.m. that day, the health department sent out their customary tweet with the day’s COVID-19 numbers as well as the daily press email. I opened it up.

There was one new reported death due to complications from COVID-19.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Micaela Watts and her grandmother, Evelyn Watts

Family Friday: Why It’s Always Time to Say Thank-You

Six months ago, we were masked into pandemic lockdown, locked in and fearful as the coronavirus stalked the world. I could not have imagined that a vaccine would reopen the world to our family this spring, but here we are, vaccinated and awaiting the visit of our vaccinated daughter and her vaccinated fiancé. Just yesterday, the CDC announced that we can move mask-free through the outside world.

Science should win all the prizes this year.

I’ve begun wondering how long it will take us to forget how grateful we must be for the rest of our lives. I’m going to try very, very hard to remember what it was like to be in quarantine as I move out into the populated landscape once again. And, as I do, I’m going to thank everyone that got us through the storm to safe harbor.

Musical (Thank-You) Notes

The enforced aloneness of the Coronavirus pandemic gave us a new appreciation for the people that make our lives possible. The apartment-dwelling residents in big cities applauded front-line workers from their balconies. Drive-by birthday parties became “a thing.” Musicians — like Yo Yo Ma, who kicked off #SongsOfComfort on Twitter — serenaded their neighbors.

Yo Yo Ma, playing Dvorak’s “Going Home”

Thank-You Notes and Holiday Cards

Last fall, we were not going anywhere, seeing anyone, doing anything. No parties. No visits. No people. And, yet, I sent out thank-you notes.

I had recently organized my stationery drawer, discovering a stash of note cards inherited from my mother’s treasure trove years ago. Thank-you notes, blank notes, Christmas cards, some with envelopes were so old that the adhesive had flaked off.

In between sewing masks and making phone calls for the Biden campaign (yes, thank you Georgia!!!!) I sent notes to some 50 aunts, uncles, cousins on the family mailing list maintained by our family scribe, Aunt Snooky.

I sent out holiday cards without a real holiday in sight and thank-you notes just because. It’s time to do it again, to the neighbor who delivered food from the grocery store, to my pool buddy who texts me when she’s going over for a swim, to the neighbors who have helped acclimate our rescue Lab Kumba to the dynamics of our community. To our daughter, whose genuine concern and interest in our lives shines through in her frequent calls, I sent an unbelievable New York Times Nutella banana bread.

Who do you know who could use a thank-you note?

Thanking Amsterdam

Two years ago this week, my husband and I were completing our two-week crossing of the Atlantic. We had no idea that my heart would stop on May 5 while we were in Amsterdam, or that a compassionate community of nurses, doctors would save my life and that the Turkish family of another ICU patient would adopt my husband into their fold.

Yesterday, finally able to safely stand in a long line at the post office, I mailed my Amsterdam doctor, nurse, and physiotherapist copies of Kaleidoscope WoJo’s anthology In My Shoes including my story, Surviving Amsterdam. And, to celebrate the new lives created since we left Holland, I also mailed my friend Julie Iribarren’s charming children’s book, Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog, to my doctor’s baby girl and to the baby girl of our Turkish friend.

Pre-order from Amazon through Wednesday!

Random Acts of Kindness

So, as the world re-opens, let us not get so busy that we forget how much we treasure each other. I was touched by the words in a lovely obituary that ran in my newspaper in February, and will close with them.

Life is a song. Love is the music. Jayne was a blessing of light and love to all who knew her. In Jayne’s memory, please consider a random act of kindness today.

Obituary of Janice (Jayne) T. Balma, The Palm Beach Post

Family Friday: A Conversation With the Creative Team Behind “Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog”

Several years ago, I wrote about an abandoned Golden Retriever, Levi Journey, who was rescued by a retired teacher and became a therapy dog. Last year, I wrote the happy news that Levi’s story was becoming a book. Now, I am thrilled to announce that Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog has been published here .

I recently spoke with Author Julie Iribarren, Illustrator Martin Peers (Toast Cartoons), and Palm Beach County Library Children’s Librarian Vanessa Rossel about how this charming and touching book came to be.

Julie lives in Florida and Martin lives in the UK, but the illustrations fit the story so well.  How did you find each other?

Julie: That is pretty remarkable. I discovered Martin on Facebook through his mother, who is on the page devoted to commemorating the development of the Golden Retriever breed in the 1860s by Lord Tweedmouth in Scotland. Browsing Facebook last March, I found a charming Golden Retriever cartoon that had been posted by Martin’s mother. I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew I had found my illustrator! 

Martin: I’ve been drawing cartoons all my life, and I especially enjoy drawing animals.  Ever since my family owned the first of several Golden Retrievers, I have been drawing cartoons of this characterful, handsome dog breed. When Julie reached out to me in March, it was perfect timing, because I had just quit working for the railroad and was devoting myself to cartoons and illustrations full-time. I loved the idea behind her book, and accepting her invitation to be the illustrator was a commission from heaven!

What were your concerns and expectations going into the project?

Julie: Well, this was my first book, and so it was a rough start. I knew the story I wanted to tell — in fact, I’d been telling the story to children across Palm Beach County when Levi and I visited for the Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program. It was one of the Royal Palm Beach  librarians, Vanessa, who pushed me to write the book.  Each time Levi and I visited Vanessa’s library, she had a new idea, a new approach, how it might begin, a website to check out. She was marvelously relentless! 

Vanessa: I watched how the children and their parents reacted to Levi’s story, and I knew Julie needed to tell the world this inspiring tale — from abandoned and alone, to rescued and loved, to  serving a greater purpose as a therapy dog. I adopted my own dog, so the story broke my heart. It was amazing how Levi calmed the children’s nerves and helped them want to read just by his presence. Telling the story seemed a fitting tribute to his journey. And when the pandemic hit, the libraries closed and ARF was suspended, I knew Julie was going to use the break to create the book. 

Martin: Last year, I set myself up as a freelance illustrator and this was my first big commission.  I was not at all concerned by this project – on the contrary, I thought it was a brilliant story and I couldn’t wait to get going!   I knew exactly how I should approach the illustration work and went through Julie’s manuscript in meticulous detail to work out how the illustrations should look, what sections of text would be best served by illustrations, and most importantly to capture a character design of Levi in cartoon form that Julie was happy with. 

Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons
Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons

How about the project’s challenges and joys?

Julie: I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know how. As a retired teacher, I wanted the book to be a teaching tool, but I got bogged down in the details and Levi’s sad beginning made the story so dark. Then, the West Boynton/Wellington Florida Writers Association critique group and another writers group that also meets at the library gave me some starting points, but it was when Martin and his artistry came on board that the story sprang to life.

Martin: I knew right away that the “voice” needed to be Levi’s, and when Julie made that change the book became much more fun and engaging and suited the illustrations even better. She gave me room to create while providing me with photos of all the people and places in Levi’s life, so that the illustrations could have the right look and feel.

Vanessa: I’m in the illustration of the library ARF program!

Julie: And our neighbors and their pets, rescue volunteers Joe and Diane, and Dr. Del La Torre (aka Dr. D.) from the animal clinic used by Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue have all loved seeing themselves in Martin’s cartoons. 

Martin: I am very particular in everything I do for clients, so it was really important to get these images right. I began with sketches, then full page layouts that showed where the text should go. I was heavily involved with the approval of the final draft with the publishers, as I was adamant that my illustrations should be presented in a certain way, with the correct sections of the text, and that the font sizes were consistent. There was a lot of back and forth with the publishers to sort out these technical changes. I imagine it must have been so frustrating for Julie! But it was definitely worth all the effort. 

Julie: It was intense at times. I am fussy and picky, and it was frustrating not to have direct control on the design side of the publishers, but they were overwhelmed with work — the pandemic brought out the inner author in a lot of us.

Vanessa: The book really captures the emotions of this story. 

Martin: The best part of being an illustrator is that my work brings people so much joy. The positive reactions this book has garnered on release and the enthusiastic response to my drawings feel wonderful!

Julie: It is more than I ever expected this book could be. I’m thrilled with it.

So, what’s next?

Julie: Well, the book is now available through BookBaby. Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges). I’m beginning to schedule readings at schools, libraries, and community center to promote the book. In fact, we’ll be in Kelly’s neighborhood later this week and again in May. 

Vanessa: We are thrilled to have Julie and Levi kick off the library’s virtual summer reading program, and we’ll bring them back to the ARF program when we resume in-person programs.

Martin: Levi’s story has been such a tremendous experience for me as an illustrator, and working with Julie has been great.  It has really shown me what I can be capable of after so long drawing pictures in a non-professional capacity.  I really feel I have done the right thing in transitioning to illustrator and I hope that my work on Levi’s story will be the first of many illustration projects – either working with other authors or, ideally, illustrating my own children’s book!

Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi his story
Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi Journey his story

Julie: This was a labor of love. On the good days during this past year, I could envision a whole Levi series — “Levi Goes to the Beach,” “Levi Goes to the Farmers Market.” But there were so many challenging days that my husband made me promise that this was going to be the only book, otherwise the Levi series would have included “Levi Meets His New Daddy.”

Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog is available through BookBaby, and Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges).

Family Friday: How to help your unsocialized dog say hello

A dog on a leash encountering another dog is like a person in handcuffs walking into a party.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

Alison Chambers knows dogs, and she shares her expertise to help us better understand and live with our pets. In my March post, she gave us tips on helping pandemic dogs through separation anxiety. We’ve had great success using her tips to wean our rescue Lab Kumba from our constant presence. Things to chew on help!

Our rescue Lab Kumba and his chew toy
Our rescue Lab Kumba and his very well chewed toy

Today’s advice is on helping socialize our pets. We discovered that our sweet new boy had a wild streak of aggression when confronted with another dog. The pandemic has helped keep such encounters at bay. But as life opens back up again, how can we help our dogs meet each other? Here’s Alison’s advice.

Rule Number One: Don’t let dogs go nose-to-nose. Human look each other in the eye and face each other when we speak. To a dog, a direct stare is an invitation to conflict.

Rule Number Two: Keep the leash loose. Restraining a dog sends the message that what they are greeting is dangerous.

Rule Number Three: Limit the transaction to two seconds. Then recall your dog with his name, not a yank on the leash. Remember Rule Number Two?

Rule Number Four: Not all dogs want to say hello. Read your dog and the dog you have encountered.

Rule Number Five: Always ask permission before approaching another dog. Use the social distancing skills we’ve learned during pandemic to keep aware of personal space.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

We’ll be working on these tips as we help Kumba navigate his environment in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned for a progress report and tips from Alison Chambers on how to understand our dogs.

Alison Chambers and Otto

Family Friday: What I Learned About My Grandfather in His Eulogy

He was what you saw: a simple, forthright, kindly, gentle man of utmost integrity. In fact, he leaned backward to avoid any pretense.

Reverend Harold Rekstad’s eulogy of James T. Robb

I was bent on surviving seventh grade as a first-timer in a Maryland junior high when my mother’s father, Grandpa Robb, died in April, 1967. He was only 69 — three years older than I am now — brought down by prostate cancer. I didn’t know that his illness was the reason for the trip my sister and I made with our mother from Bogotá the summer before sixth grade, or that the last time I’d see him would be in a Winona hospital, where he noticed my stylish pale pink lipstick. Brief visits to Winona were all I’d known of Grandpa until the week that my grandparents spent with us in Colombia, when we connected as fellow writers in a way that felt very special.

Grandpa had a quiet smile on his face as he wandered over to a bench and pulled his notepad and pencil out from his jacket breast pocket. I recognized the unseeing gaze — he was building a poem. I hoped he would share it with me, like Mom shared my poems with him in her Monday letters home.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Bogotá, 1964

Dad was five thousand miles away setting up press for the Pan-American summit in Uruguay that April, so my sister and I stayed with next door neighbors while Mom flew to Minnesota alone.

Laying in the Murrays’ guest room bed, I realized that I would never again hold Grandpa’s soft, creased hands, never again hear his voice reading my poetry back to me over the telephone, never again seek his counsel on a rhythm or a rhyme. The void was as big as the night sky over the White House the night we stood vigil for President Kennedy.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, The Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Rockville, 1967

Just this week, I discovered the typed-out eulogy that Grandpa’s pastor and close personal friend, the Reverend Harold Rekstad, delivered on April 13 at the First Congregational Church in Winona. Reading it, I felt that I was sitting in those pews but also sitting with Grandpa.

Quality of character

Jim would be greatly distressed if he thought this would be a sad or mournful occasion. He would dislike even more any kind of flowery eulogy. However, he manifested many qualities of character which we want to recall, not in eulogy, but as an inspiration for ourselves in the years to come!

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Soul of a poet

There was neither sham nor guile in his makeup. Jim had the soul of a poet. He sensed and saw the world about him and felt deeply what is missed by the casual observer.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Compassionate man

Jim was a man of genuine compassion. He cared about others, and expressed his concern In quiet, thoughtful, unobtrusive ways. He was a man of genuine religious faith, the kind that comes from the heart by deed and thought, not rote or ritual. Of all the possessions he might bequeath his loved ones, this would be the choicest, for it was was plain and simple.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Grandpa’s Bogotá poem: A Call and Farewell (1964)

I cannot leave this place

This town

Or any land

But must look back

And then I see

One beckoning

And gently waving hand.

Family Friday: My Easter Orchids

These orchids bloom once a year. They watched us leave home in 2019 to cross the Atlantic on that fateful cruise and they bloomed again last year as I marked my one-year anniversary of surviving a near-death illness in Amsterdam. As Christians commemorate Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, I bow my head to the powers that made it possible for me to be here.

My husband brought these bunny-enhanced orchids home as a present on Palm Sunday, the 43rd anniversary of the day we went to a Spanish-speaking Mass in Jackson Heights — even then one of the world’s most diverse neighborhood — followed by an elegant lunch at White Castle. Ah, Queens!

The blooms on this white orchid, with tints of yellow and pink, look like fine linen haute couture Easter frock.

The blooms on this white and yellow orchid look like layers of fine linen.

Family Friday: Does Your Family Yodel?

My Latino husband can yodel. He taught himself in the backyard of his Brooklyn house in the 1950s, while playing cowboys by himself, pretending he was sitting around a campfire with Gene Autry and his pals. I had no idea he could yodel until we were married and visiting my Midwestern family, when R chimed in with family yodeler Aunt Clarice’s refrain during an impromptu songfest while washing dishes. Wow, did this Brooklyn boy connect with my folks, you betcha!

Thanks to Aunt Snooky (aka Mavis Mildred Irene Amerson Voigt) for pulling together the Amerson family story that includes yodeling and lots more. Here are excerpts that show why we cannot wait to be back in the same kitchen, singing and laughing and maybe even doing some dishes.

We sisters sang harmony together, sometimes joined by Clarice, who could yodel, or by Ruby, who taught us hymns in hopes that we might go to church some day. 

Aunt Snooky

Irene loved singing, especially church songs, and told how she and Ruby or Clarice would often sit in the hayloft and sing. She and other family members also sang while washing dishes and listening to country music on the radio.

Jeanie Olsen (my cousin)

I was 3 when our family moved to a big house to a small one. Family lore is that when I saw the house at age 3, I said “I’m not going to live in this damn house.” I must have learned that from my mother, who cleaned, scrubbed and painted to make it more livable. It had no closets, but as my sister Jean said, “Luckily, we had no clothes.”

Aunt Snooky

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, my mother often said to me, “Don’t go hitchhiking. It’s dangerous. You could get kidnapped!” Fast forward to the year 2008 to the Amerson/Casjens family reunion in South Dakota, when I met up with a friend of my mother’s. When I was introduced as Margie’s son, she said “Oh, Margie. We used to go hitchhiking together!”

Jack Karsmeyer (my cousin)

I was the Middle Sister of three. Elaine was pretty, Jeanie was smart, and I was good-natured and funny. That was my role in life.

Aunt Snooky

We are so lucky that Aunt Snooky she was born the middle daughter, because her good cheer and people-connecting have carried our family forward during this very tough year.

Here, to close, is a Norwegian yodeling cows song by full-time yodeler Kerry Christensen. I’ll bet you won’t forget it!

Family Friday: How I Found A Cousin I Didn’t Know About

My mother was half-Scottish, a member of the Robb clan that claims the MacFarlane tartan. The family roots go back to Kilmarnock and Paisley, Scotland, where James Robb and Margaret Morton were born about 1830. My sister has the paisley shawl Margaret wore during her travel alone from Scotland to her intended’s side. Our great-aunt Marion recounted it as “eight weeks in a sailing vessel” followed by arduous travel by land to the Mississippi to meet James in Fountain City, a place she would certainly have imagined differently from the small, dark town on a bluff from which James’ swinging lantern told her she’d made it. 

The Robb side of our family is smaller and quieter than the Amerson side. My mother and her brother, Jim, and his wife, Beth, are gone, leaving my sister and me and our four Robb cousins — Ricka, Becky, and Molly in Minnesota, and Eve in Kansas — to the job of connecting. Facebook helps.

So I was happy to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from Becky saying, in part, this:

Could you tell me if Grandpa Robb was related to Gordon Robb from Winona? I ran into a vendor today who’s name is Sean Robb and he is the grandson of Gordon.

Becky

The name didn’t ring a bell and I thought the answers might lie in the eight binders of correspondence and related family papers I sent to the Winona County Historical Society this past year. However, there was one file still on the bookshelf, and it contained a hint.

Our grandfather’s grandparents, James Robb and Margaret Morton, had 12 children, including William John Robb (1860-1946) who had a son, William Gordon Robb (1923 -). The trail runs out there. I’ve attached two pages from Mom’s binders. 

Jane Kelly

And, guess what, the hint did the job. Here’s part of the email Becky got from Sean.

William Gordon Robb is my grandfather on my dad’s side. Getting super emotional now. God bless you for following up on this. It seems you and I share the same blood!

Sean

As I told Becky, this connection would have made my mother very glad indeed. In fact, I thought I heard her dancing up there. Knowing where she was from, and transmitting that knowledge to me and my sister as we grew up abroad, mattered a great deal to our mother. This was why. Now, if someone wants to clarify how the “once removed” etc. definitions work, Sean, Becky, and I will formalize our newly discovered relationship!

Rear, left to right: Susie, me, Ricka. Front, left to right: Molly, Eve, Becky. We are at our Robb grandparents wearing Grandma Robb’s dress up costumes. Photo: our grandfather, James T. Robb.

Wildcard Weekend: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Living Today

‘I didn’t think that it would take years.’

12-year-old Darelyn Maldonado, quoted in an AP article by Michelle R. Smith and Andrew Ledrum, After Pandemic Year, The World Looks Back

Few of us understood a year ago what lay ahead. We forget that living one day at a time is the only way life works. As world looks back at the year of pandemic, here’s what I see.

  • Two years ago, my husband and I sailed for Europe on a trip that nearly ended my life.
  • One year ago, I was finally strong enough to resume normal life when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
  • One month ago, my surgeon told me that the lump she removed from my breast isn’t cancer.
  • Yesterday, two weeks after our second Moderna vaccine, my husband and I emerged into new normal life.

Here’s what hasn’t changed.

I will do everything in my power to stay healthy for the rest of my life: exercising, eating right, and staying away from risky situations. Three months in a hospital, nine months of recovery, and twelve months of partial living are enough.

I’m still under the care of the University of Florida Shands Hospital. My one-year follow up is in August. I am planning to be discharged.

For the rest of my life, I will be at high risk for bacterial infections. My spleen was killed during the surgery that saved my life. I keep a supply of antibiotics close at hand and will stay vaccinated for everything.

We have an amazing daughter who we speak with often and dear family across the United States with whom we’ve stayed in contact throughout these two long years.

We live in paradise.

Here’s what’s different.

The bureau next to the front door contains a drawerful of masks.

Going to Target feels like emerging into the Technicolor Land of Oz.

Our daughter is engaged to a man we love for caring so dearly for our girl. Although V is now vaccinated, we are waiting for her fiancé to also be immunized, and what a hug lies ahead when we can finally get together.

We have a new president, a man who overflows with empathy and good will, and a congress that supports him.

We won’t cruise again, and it will be some time before we feel safe getting on an airplane. But when we do, we’ll go to Amsterdam to hug the people who saved my life.

‘I’m starting to get that feeling: It’s time to go back and do something.

96-year-old Jean Allen Queen Anne Healthcare in Seattle, quoted in an AP article by Michelle R. Smith and Andrew Ledrum, After Pandemic Year, The World Looks Back

Family Friday: How to Train Your Pandemic Pup

In Daniel Bortz’ recent New York Times article, Pandemic Pups Swamp Trainers, he cites the American Pet Products Association’s number of 12.6 million households that took in pets between March and December. That’s a whole lot of new dogs locked into homes with their humans 24/7 during the past year.

Before the pandemic, they would have needed to hire daytime walkers or find pet-friendly workplaces. Under current circumstances, they are getting time to bond, and the dogs are helping to ensure that their humans get outside at least a few times a day.

Daniel Bortz, The New York Times
Kumba in our yard, so happy to be waiting for a ball that he completely doesn’t care about hitting the lanai. His glossy coat is helped by a omega oils product Alison suggested, Shed-X

We adopted our Lab rescue, Kumba, through Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida in February. This sweet dog was weak, anxious, and had aggressive tendencies around other dogs, which Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training had just begun helping us with when the world went into lockdown. Here’s what we’ve done over the past year on our own to address these issues, and advice from Alison on how crate training may be the single most important thing we can do for our canine friends.

Socialization

Alison has found that, counterintuitively, the pandemic has done wonders for dog socialization.

The six-foot mandate has given dogs exposure to people, dogs, and places without being expected to interact. Being able to keep neutral — what I call ‘elevator behavior’ — is a great skill to give our dogs.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Having that space sure helped Kumba, who was docile and sweet around humans but nervous and downright aggressive around other dogs. Getting him accustomed to seeing other dogs without reacting was the first step.

Alison taught me to interpret Kumba’s reactions and reward him when he let down his guard as she and her dog walked parallel to us and at a distance. Although the pandemic cut short our in-person training, I continued the process in the subsequent months as I walked Kumba through our community. I looked forward to seeing other dogs as a training opportunity, instead of fearing the encounters. Slowly, Kumba relaxed, and one day he made his first dog friend: Reese, a wonderful little bundle of golden/dachshund happiness. Adam, the community’s friendliest French bulldog, and Leo, a new pug down the block, are also Kumba’s pals. My best friend, Coni, and her Goldendoodle, Linda, now take weekly walks with us. One day, they will be friends.

Separation Anxiety

Kumba had been abandoned by his family at a shelter in Puerto Rico, so having his humans leave was traumatic. For the first few weeks, we hardly noticed: I was was home 24/7, and my husband left only periodically to do pandemic hunting and gathering. But on March 13 we were gone for several hours — picking up a car we’d ordered — and he barked non-stop (a neighbor told us) and chewed through whatever he could find, including this book. Clever dog.

Since then, we’ve made huge progress. Although Kumba came to us crate-averse and people-connected, he has learned that he gets a chewy treat when we go out (a filled Kong which we reserve for this special occasion), that his bed is his home, and that we’ll be back. We clear clutter to make it easier to behave and there is less and less amiss when we return. He no longer barks. And his greeting!

Crate Training

Alison is a huge proponent of crate training. At some point in their lives, dogs may need to be confined, in a kennel, in a vet’s office, at a friend’s. In our recent conversation, she got me thinking.

Being home all the time isn’t normal to us, but our pandemic dogs think it is. However, their humans’ constant attention may give us emotional support, Alison says, but can make them attention-demanding. The close bonds that have formed between house-bound humans and our canine companions may actually hamper our dogs’ well-being. In making dogs our emotional support, we forget that they need our support to become independent creatures, able to self-soothe and have down time.

A separate kennel gives a dog space to become independent.

Before the pandemic, I used to tell people, get a dog, then go on vacation so the dog becomes accustomed to being in a crate. A kennel becomes the dog’s home, for eating, for down time, for resting.I know that people resist confining their dogs, but they are truly den animals — anyone who has seen their dog digging in their bed or making a hole in the backyard or at the beach has seen den behavior.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

She recommends that people begin crate-training by having their dogs eat their meals in them, as well as be in them to rest after walks, after training, and randomly. If you’re working at home, put the crate in another room so the dog has their own space. This way, the kennel is not just the place you put your dog when you are leaving the house.

Which, now that we are vaccinated, we can do a whole lot more safely!

Alison Chambers at Complete Canine Training, (781) 424-2590,
alisonchambersdogtrainer@gmail.com

Alison Chambers and friend