By Tyrese Wedderburn
On a September afternoon after a four-hour wait in the Pearson Airport cargo area, Julie Craig’s precious cargo arrives. Aboard a plane from the Dominican Republic, her adopted dog Vita is now in Canada after facing frequent delays due to COVID-19 restrictions. Vita, a tiny chihuahua mix, has a golden-brown coat with a white belly, big brown eyes and bat-like pointed ears. At the airport she is visibly scared, shaking when Craig picks her up. Over the next few months, Craig experiences the challenges and rewards of dog ownership, while helping Vita adjust to life in Canada. Before COVID, Craig had always wanted to adopt a dog, however, like many people, she has a long commute– about one hour each way by bus from her condo at Bloor-Islington to her office in Mississauga at a medical supplies company. With the pandemic, Craig now works from home that allowed her to search for a dog to adopt. She relied on, Canine Haven, an organization that brings rescue dogs from Mexico and the Dominican to be adopted in Canada.
Craig is not alone thousands have adopted pets since pandemic lockdowns began last March. There has been a surge in people seeking to adopt pets, for companionship, entertainment or to exercise more. And studies show dog ownership has numerous benefits for physical and mental health. Preliminary data from an MDPI study shows during COVID young people used “pet interactions as a strategy for coping with stress.” The numbers speak for themselves. According to the Toronto Humane Society, since pandemic closures began last March, an estimated 11,000 people made a request to adopt animals. The demand even overwhelmed the agency’s resources meaning adoptions slowed but “the interest is definitely there,” says Hannah Sotropa, communication director with the Humane Society. Demand has also increased for services catering to pets. Nicola Smith works for a Toronto dog walking service that needed to hire 25 percent more, staff to walk individual puppies. On Google, searches for pet adoptions peaked in March and April 2020 rising to 100 meaning peak interest. This interest remained high through summer only declining in fall and winter.
Vita’s backstory can help to illustrate the challenges she has faced in Canada. For starters, her original name is Covita but Craig felt it sounded too much like COVID, so she shortened it. In the Dominican, Vita was a street dog who roamed the beach. It was a rough life and she needed to fight for food and was found near death, suffering from mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites. Vita received treatment and lived with a foster family although the culture around dogs in the Dominican is different than in Canada. On the island, dogs are typically left outside free to roam and are fed table scraps. When Craig first brought Vita home, “She didn’t even know how to play with toys or jump on the couch.” And for the first two weeks, she was afraid of elevators, doors and stairs. This was especially tricky to overcome because Craig lives on the fifth floor of her condo building. She would throw treats in the elevator and down each step to take Vita for walks. It worked – Vita now associates elevators and doors with going outside and is excited by them.
The biggest challenge was getting Vita adjusted to Canada’s cold weather. Being from the Dominican, Vita “lives for the sun,” says Craig and would go out on the balcony to sun herself. Come winter, being a small dog, she needs to bundle up with a coat and boots. But Vita hates wearing her winter coat and runs to hide whenever she sees it. Thankfully, she does wear her winter boots and can play in the snow until she gets too cold. Before Vita, Craig had ample experience with dogs. Her favourite pup as a child was Chandler, a schnoodle (schnauzer poodle mix). Whom Craig describes as “the best dog … such a free spirit,” recounting how they would go kayaking together during the summer.
Craig would dog sit for her parents, friends and co-workers, including a colleague with a lab. In high school, Craig’s first job was at Global Pet Foods where she learned a lot about dog nutrition. She embraced a more natural approach to pet food, with less artificial processing. Craig uses this philosophy with Vita who gets “more natural things” like antlers, yak cheese, pumpkin and liver treats.
Like many pet owners, Craig has established a schedule for Vita, that includes three daily walks. At seven Vita will go for her morning walk then have breakfast back at the condo. She will spend the remaining morning playing with toys her favourite is a kong filled with delicious peanut butter. Followed by two other walks at noon and the evening. On the weekend, Vita will go to Tom Riley Park to meet and play with other dogs. When she first arrived in Canada, Vita was shy and territorial around other dogs. Being from the Dominican she is especially protective of her food. Craig says Vita would “growl and show her teeth” upon meeting her parents’ dog, Max. However, after some time at doggy daycare Vita “came out of her shell” and became much more confident and trustworthy around other dogs. Vita and Max are now firm friends who play for hours doing zoomies around Craig’s parents’ house in Orangeville. This is promising as dog experts have worried about pet socialization due to the pandemic restrictions. Smith has dealt with dogs who do not want to leave their homes, becoming “anxious and aggressive.”
Vita even holds her own while playing with bigger dogs. At the condo, she has made friends with Theodore, a cavalier King Charles spaniel with a cinnamon-brown back, white belly and floppy ears not much bigger than Vita. The two will chase each other up and down the condo halls. Vita is still defensive around her food as old habits die hard – you can take the dog out of the Dominican but you can’t take the Dominican out of the dog. Because Craig is home all day, she and Vita have established a firm bond. She shadows Craig always following her from the couch to the kitchen. Even when Craig scoots off to the bathroom Vita, is nipping at her heels wanting to come along.
Despite the challenges, Craig loves Vita and cannot imagine life without her. The two have big plans for the future in 2021. Craig is considering selling her condo and moving to a house in the suburbs so Vita will have a backyard to run around. When lockdown restrictions are lifted she looks forward to taking Vita to off-leash dog parks plus road trips to the cottage and the beach. She wants to show her furry friend from the Dominican what Canada has to offer.