Dogs have brought an immeasurable amount of comfort and companionship to those who have adopted them during the pandemic, and a new series of photo essays and narratives created by the owner of a Boston-area company specializing in dog photography and visual storytelling is exploring this still-ongoing phenomenon.
Mindy Dutka, founder and chief storyteller of “Dogs I Meet,” like so many others, found herself without steady work after the onset of covid and wanted to find ways to keep herself busy. Searching for a new project, she began making personal observations of people finding great solace in their newly adopted canines. She soon set to work on “Tales of Support,” a series of photo essays and accompanying narratives that, said Dutka, focus on how dogs have been supporting “their humans” during the pandemic and essentially “turned every dog into a therapy dog.”
“I felt like dogs were some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic,” said Dutka. “They played a critical role during this time, and it was their moment to shine because people were home all the time and could acknowledge how much comfort their dogs were bringing them.”
Dutka drew additional inspiration in creating “Tales of Support” from the loss of Bailey, her beloved golden doodle who died in September of 2020.
“The silver lining of the pandemic was I got to spend the last five months with her,” said Dutka. “A few months later, I couldn’t stand being without a dog, so I went to adopt another one. But I found it was a different process during the pandemic because everyone wanted to adopt a dog.”
Dutka eventually found Sadie, a “double doodle” (goldendoodle crossed with a labradoodle), she adopted when the dog was 1 year old.
To find the 25 subjects profiled so far in “Tales of Support,” Dutka reached out to Tufts University, which has a program, she said, that focuses on the “human-animal bond,” and asked the program’s director if they could suggest anyone to interview. She also talked to people she knows from the animal community, and to community centers, as well as to animal rescues she had previously worked with. People also started coming to Dutka with their own stories, or with the names of friends who adopted dogs during the pandemic. Once word got out about the project, a group called Sober Voices even contacted her to tell her about how dogs have been helping its members in recovery.
Once Dutka has identified a possible a dog and owner to potentially profile for the series, the process for her is to talk to them briefly after they have first shared a description of the bond they have with their adopted dogs. Dutka then sends each participant a questionnaire to fill out and schedules a Zoom interview with them so she can see firsthand how they interact with their dogs.
Among those ultimately selected for the series were Back Bay resident Jenna Blum and Henry Higgins, the Black Labrador she adopted at 12 weeks during the pandemic.
For Blum, co-founder of A Might Blaze, an organization dedicated to connecting writers with readers during the pandemic, as well as a New York Times best-selling author, Henry has become her faithful companion, staying by her side during workdays that can stretch to 16 hours as she sits writing at her keyboard, while walking Henry has also helped her meet a number of other area dog owners.
“Having Henry helps provide structure for my days and enter into a community of dog parents in my neighborhood, people I might not have had the good fortune to meet if I didn’t have a dog,” Blum told Dutka in describing this “dog foster community,” as she calls it. “I’m very lucky to have a warm and vibrant one here in Boston’s Back Bay,” she added.
Blum and Henry’s story also hit a personal note for Dutka, since Blum herself also recently lost a dog – in Blum’s case, Woodrow, the beloved Labrador she will pay tribute to in her upcoming book, “Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog,” which is expected to arrive next month. “It was similar to story to me and what I went through of her dog aging and eventually dying before she got a new puppy,” said Dutka.
Dutka has also profiled several residents of a condo building in the Fenway, who all adopted dogs during the pandemic and subsequently became friends after having never previously met as neighbors.
In addition to Ana and her new puppy, Wall-E, the new group includes Whiney and her new dog, Libbie.
“Libbie taught me how to see things from a different perspective and appreciate the small things in life,” Whitney told Dutka. “It makes me so happy to see her running around with her friends, getting excited about going on walks, or getting a new toy. It reminds you to appreciate the little things.”
The group also includes Ashley and her now-fiancé, Andrew, who had decided to adopt their dog, Aspen, in February of 2020 – just one month before the pandemic struck.
In April of last year, Ashley lost her father to Leukemia within a week of his diagnosis, and she spent 18 months working by herself remotely due to the pandemic, but during this time, Aspen provided a “beacon of light and hope,” as Dutka describes it, for both Ashley and Andrew.
Aspen, as it turns out, also gave their social life a boost as they got to know their neighbors and fellow dog owners.
“We’ve become great friends with our neighbors who are also dog owners and dog lovers,” Ashley told Dutka. “They are amazing people and we’ve loved spending time with them.”
Moreover, Ashley added: “We’ve started to travel together, and they’ve added a really great group of friends to our lives. If we hadn’t had covid and we hadn’t all been locked down in our apartment building I’m not sure we would have become such great friends.”
As for the future of “Tales of Support,” Dutka believes the project could eventually evolve into a book or even an exhibit gracing the walls of the Boston Children’s Museum while also providing future partnership opportunities for interested organizations and individuals.
“It’s something a sponsor could do, or an organization that tells stories,” she said. “There are a lot of ways for a business even to bring this in.”
And if there’s been any takeaway from “Tales of Support” for Dutka, if anything, it has just reaffirmed what she already knew about the deep connection between dogs and their owners.
“Dogs can read the energy of people,” said Dutka, and they can provide different kinds of comfort to people depending on their needs.
“The biggest thing is they don’t even know how much they’re helping – they’re just being dogs – but they do help people so much,” said Dutka. For more info on Dogs I Meet, visit www.dogsimeet.com or follow them on Instagram @dogsimeet; read more on “Tales of Support” at dogsimeet.com/tales-of-support; or contact Mindy Dutka at [email protected] to suggest a dog and their owner to profile for the series.