Without Masks, It’s a Dog’s Life

As we begin to reenter the world, let’s treat each other the way we treat our four-legged friends.

Every evening, after some wrangling to get out the door, my family walks five blocks from our home in the Outer Sunset to Ocean Beach. We cross the Lower Great Highway at our new stop sign and the blissfully closed-to-cars Great Highway, and scamper up and over the dunes to the beach. We’ve been working from home all day — not quite on top of each other thanks to my small office in the garage — but still navigating work and care and errands and feeding and nap times, and where it will be quiet and uninterrupted enough to get on Zoom. Our daily beach outing is one part of our routine that we can look forward to doing together without the extra COVID-era logistics. These days, we can even ditch the face masks.

The Outer Sunset beach, during the week at sunset, is a locals-only joint. Even on the foggiest, windiest days, we’re out there, the lack of parking lots preventing even the hardiest of tourists from camping out in our quiet avenues. Before the pandemic, we’d maybe all miss each other due to after-work events and in-person obligations, the busyness of our lives preventing us from the simple outing to the beach at the same time every day. Now, our sunset routine is the quintessential quarantine activity. No planning involved, no awkward conversations about mask-wearing and food sharing and who’s been where and around whom. We can greet each other with a wave and either keep walking in our separate directions; or, we linger for a bit, making the dying art of small talk, stretching legs, and enjoying a bit of company after our isolated days. 

We don’t even have to find things to talk about — we comment on play behavior, on current learning challenges, on favorite toys and the latest mishaps. We don’t ask about jobs or what anyone does when they’re not here, on the beach. Only rarely is there a mention of the pandemic, and it usually comes in the form of wondering what a year in quarantine will mean for our families. Will there be anxiety when we start leaving the house again? Traveling? Inviting other families over? How will behavior change?

In true awkward social-distance fashion, we don’t even know everyone’s names. Well, we know the names Bear, Boogie, Sonoma, Lincoln, Penny, and Scout. We’re known as “Sequoia’s parents;” similarly, we know very few names of the other humans standing in an approximate circle, holding leashes and poo bags, throwing balls and frisbees, and breaking up scuffles.

The dogs run off and return with goofy smiles on their faces, tongues out and tails wagging. We can observe all the different canine personalities: those who face the waves head-on and those who are more hesitant; those who want to run and those who prefer to wrestle; those who love to chase and those who love to be chased; those who will steal an entire plastic baggie of boiled chicken out of my pocket and then panic and swallow the whole thing, bag and all. 

It’s also possible to leisurely observe the other humans, in a way that is rare during this pandemic year. Those who apologize when their dog steals a ball and those who actively encourage it; those who are concerned when their dog goes ten feet away and those who don’t notice when their dog is a quarter mile up the beach; those who play with all the dogs and those who barely acknowledge the other dogs let alone the other humans. I return home from the beach realizing I haven’t thought about work or politics or the virus—not because I’m denying the existence of problems, but because I can live in the moment and see the world through the eyes of Sequoia.

We haven’t been able to observe our own kind in the wild for over a year. And when we have, it’s been under the conditions of a pandemic. It’s as if we’re all in a sort of experiment: caged and exposed to abnormal stress in order for some scientist to learn about our responses. Who wears masks, who socially distances, who stays home, who shuts down, who thrives? As restrictions ease, we have a new set of conditions to navigate: should we really take our masks off, who is it okay to see, what is the correct etiquette when you don’t know if someone’s vaccinated? We’re observing our fellow experimental subjects with judgment and disdain and jealousy, forgetting that we’re operating under the most abnormal of conditions that were imposed on us nearly overnight, and now that have extended for 14 months. 

Think about observing dogs in a shelter versus when they’ve been adopted. Those in kennels gnash their teeth, or cower, or lash out. Even several months after being adopted and having much improved, Sequoia is still reactive on his leash and barks more than we’d like at things that pass by our windows. The FedEx truck may always be his nemesis, and he may always be a different dog off-leash than on. But, he no longer loses his mind at the garbage truck or street cleaner, and there are more and more times when he’s more interested in his treats than the dog on the other side of the street. So, progress.

For us humans, progress looks like a vaccine. I hope that progress also looks like it does for Sequoia: perhaps still triggered for inexplicable reasons but learning, slowly, how to adapt to a new way of life. One that allows him to look at the world in wonder, not with fear. The same way my husband and I did, when on the first night after the restrictions were lifted on wearing masks outside, Bear’s dad said, “I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen your faces.”

A few weeks ago, I was alone walking Sequoia down to the beach. He was in a terrible mood and was reacting to absolutely everything out in the big bad world: people, cars, bikes, leaves, ghosts. As we were walking down a particularly narrow section of sidewalk, caught between a wooden fence and parked cars, a gray-haired woman got out of her car and into our path without enough time for me to placate the dog with treats or move him away. He pulled, growled, barked, in what my husband and I call Cujo-mode. I was trying to calm him down, and this woman decided she wanted to have a conversation with me about him. Is he a rescue? Was he abused? The longer she stood in his bubble of anxiety, the more he lunged. I was trying to get him down the block, where I could calm him down and have him refocus. He was finally sitting, looking at me with his cute expectant face, when she approached again. Snap, he was back in Cujo mode (and I was back in “leave me alone” mode, which, truth be told, I had perfected even before the pandemic).

“Sorry, I just want to say, he’s lucky to have you.”

This stranger, despite witnessing this poor dog’s anxiety and reactivity, saw the most important thing: that, frazzled as I was, I was just trying to help him. I wasn’t doing it perfectly, and someone watching might have been able to point out things I was doing wrong, but I was doing the best that I could.

This pandemic has made it impossible to observe our own species–or even individually function–in our natural state. But, on the beach, with our dogs, we’re all one step closer to that state. As the world starts to open up again, we default to our innate personalities: cautious, adventurous, gregarious, shy, chill, hyper, talkative, watchful. Personalities that inform how we will react to the transition out of quarantine: diving in headfirst to social engagements and travel, delaying that first meal back at an indoor restaurant, or leaving the mask on just a little bit longer (or, forever, if we haven’t missed having a cold).

I wish we humans could see each other as we do the dogs: observing, knowing what behaviors may surface, without judgment, celebrating when we make progress, and giving each other grace when we don’t understand each other.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.

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