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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner Cath Shaw Truelove poses with her dog, Fred, at Bees on a Bicycle, her garden shop on Market Street. Fred is doing double duty as an at-home pet and workplace fill-in. Instead of using another human as a scale model to show the size of plants while the store is closed (except for online sales), Fred poses by the plants to illustrate their size.

In mid-March, thousands of Chattanooga-area workers traded office environs for the comforts of home in a bid to let teleworking help curb the spread of the coronavirus. In many households, children were also out of school, significant others were sidelined from jobs or likewise teleworking, and everyone was getting used to a new 24/7 full-house routine — including the family pets.

What many teleworkers might not have expected when they settled into their home offices was just how much these four-legged companions would rule the day. Often, they didn't see themselves as colleagues or associates, but as bosses with their own agendas. These cats and dogs, even the occasional chicken, paid no mind to the workday clock, disdained deadlines and showed little, if any, respect for personal boundaries.

Basically, they did what pets do.

A few weeks into this new arrangement, we checked in with a few pet people to see how things were going. Here are some of their stories.

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Who's the boss?

 

First in the pecking order

"Ever had a co-worker who was a chicken?"

Allie Howard couldn't have predicted she'd be asking that question when she started working from home, but such is life on her Rock Spring, Georgia, farm, where the family pets include cattle, horses, dogs, cats, ducks and chicks. This is the first time she's worked remotely with all of the animals around, but they seem to like it.

"They are getting spoiled and want all our time to be spent together," says Howard, who works for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, scheduling maintenance tasks to keep roadways free of potholes, guardrails intact and grassy medians mowed.

Tending to the animals' needs has become "more of an hourly thing" now that she and her three kids are home all day. Husband Bret, a fiber lineman with Ringgold Telephone Co., is still needed in the field to keep internet connections up to speed.

Working from home amid all the animals has been a big adjustment, Howard says. The pets want all her attention "and don't understand what a laptop is. The chicks like to roost up on top."

One chick in particular has become her "best friend/co-worker," she says.

Howard says she purchased the chicks and ducks as props for Easter photographs. Then the heat lamp went out and the chicks couldn't have survived in the cooler barn. So they came into the house. They were supposed to stay inside a dog kennel, but one chick regularly flies the coop to sit beside Howard while she works, as if she's chosen Howard as her mentor.

"All the others are like, 'Don't touch me. I'm a bird. Leave me alone,'" Howard says. But Chick Chick, as she's started calling her, wants to be in the middle of Howard's work duties, as if she's hoping to eventually scratch out a living with TDOT.

"She's so calm all the time," Howard says, laughing. "I think she's decided this is what she wants to do."

 

New leash on life

Chattanooga garden shop Bees on a Bicycle closed during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, but owner Cath Shaw Truelove goes in to water the thousand plants growing in the spring sun and to fill orders for the online store.

Fred the pit bull has always had the option to stay at home or head into the "office" with her. When it's paws-up, he'll run and wait by her bag. Other times, he'll go lie on the sofa "because he's not in the mood," Truelove says.

It's easier when he goes while the store is closed because Fred is very friendly and always eager for walks, and it doesn't much matter to Fred who's on the other end of the leash.

"I'd have him here more often [when we're open], but he often asks the customers for a walk, and that can be inconvenient," says Truelove.

Fred came to live with Truelove and her husband, Graham, seven years ago, after they had fostered 13 previous dogs. Deciding that Fred was a keeper was a matter of good timing and the dog's winning personality. "He was adorable and lovable and a great match for us," she says.

Even when the storefront is closed, Fred has work to do. When Truelove's human model is not available to pose for photographs with newly arrived plants for the online catalog, she uses Fred as a scale model to show the size of the plants, meaning he's been working more as of late.

But he may be happiest to spend these extra days at home with his humans — especially with the change in routine that came with her and her husband being at home more.

"He totally senses it," Truelove says. "He gets five friggin' walks a day. It's 'I'm here, you're here, and we're walking.'"

 

Keyboard keeper, paperweight

Greg Mayfield says this isn't the first time he's spent so much home time with his cat, Kitty Mitty.

"One year ago I had foot surgery, and she helped nurse me back to health," he says.

But her presence can sometimes be distracting when he's not convalescing and there's work to be done. Kitty Mitty loves to play, says Mayfield, and she helpfully reminds him of the importance of leisure time by stretching across the length of the computer keyboard when he needs to type or settling in as a paperweight for any printouts atop his desk when she thinks he needs a break from all that reading.

The biggest source of contention is the ownership of the desk chair, though Kitty Mitty seems to have worked out a compromise she finds favorable.

"Most days it is a fight for my office chair, which she thinks is hers, and she does not like giving it up for me to work," he says. "If I ever get up, she is in the chair and refuses to give it up without a treat."

Mayfield is the IT Department manager for Data Test Program Management, a Fort Payne, Alabama, company that tests coronavirus samples, so he and his colleagues have been on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic. He has mainly worked from home, but occasionally is needed in the lab or at his office.

He says he misses seeing all of his co-workers on a daily basis. "DTPM has a great staff from top to bottom," says Mayfield.

But Kitty Mitty has helped him cope. There's definitely been more cuddling when he's home. "She has been a great stress reliever during many rough days," he says.

 

Hitting the 'paws' button

When John Haddock was away at work and his children — Charlotte Ann, 14, Eli, 13, and Gracie, 9 — were in school, their dogs, Max and Mazie, either spent their time outside or in the basement. Now, the daytime scenery has changed.

"With everyone at home, they are inside nearly all the time," says Haddock, the chief financial officer for software company Trans-Card. "We also installed a doggy door on a screen door so they can go out on the back porch when it's nice outside."

Haddock says he's learned to "hit mute very quickly while on phone/video conference calls" since the dogs usually sit in a chair in his office and "they bark at every walker, squirrel or truck that drives by."

These days, Max and Mazie are "getting some serious exercise," he says. "Instead of a few walks a week, they are getting a few walks every day."

Besides the extra exercise, Gracie also has taught them new tricks, including spinning in a circle and standing or hopping for a treat.

All these new experiences might be taking a toll on the dogs. "There are times when we find Mazie under the bed and Max under my hanging clothes in the closet," says Haddock. "I think they really like the extra attention, but they also need a few long naps each day."

 

15 days of fetch, and counting

Kelsey E. Keef says she and her boyfriend, Patrick Wright, adopted their cat from McKamey Animal Center in January.

"His official name is Piewacket, but we just call him Pie," she says. "This is the first time we've spent so much time with him for days on end, as we both work full time as associate attorneys."

Working from home has been a bit of an adjustment, she says, because Pie loves to play fetch with his favorite toy, a small stuffed orange sushi cube.

"We have been playing fetch for about 15 days straight, and there's no sign of him tiring out," says Keef. "Sometimes when I wake up, I find his sushi under my pillow!"

She expected that Pie would eventually want a few hours all to himself, "but he loves having someone around to play fetch with. He has no problem taking naps wherever, and he loves to walk across my laptop when I'm typing. He's a pretty decent 'law clerk' if you ask us."

So far, the couple and the cat have been able to acquiesce to each other's schedules.

"Our biggest fear is that Pie will have a harder adjustment when it's time for us to go back to work full time since he's used to having us home," Keef says.

 

Slowly passing the sniff test

After her beloved Maltipoo, Gibbs, died unexpectedly on Feb. 1, Cindy Lowry hadn't planned to adopt another dog for a while, but Georgie's arrival now seems almost preordained.

Like Lowry, Georgie is in mourning, grieving the loss of owners who divorced and surrendered her to a veterinarian who placed her with Small Breed Rescue of East Tennessee. The transition for the tiny Maltese hasn't been easy.

"We are still bonding," says Lowry, who took possession of Georgie on March 14. "Bless her heart, it's been sad to watch. She was very shut down, lost, sad, confused. When I brought her home, she found a spot on the couch and curled up as tiny as she could make herself and stayed in the corner the first three or four days. I would pick her up and carry her outside to do her business, and she would fly back in the house and get back in the corner as quickly as she could."

Georgie eventually grew braver, but even after a few weeks, she still needed time to develop trust. Shelter-in-place restrictions provided plenty of opportunities to get to know one another, if from a wary distance at first.

"The day I got her, the whole quarantine was ramping up," Lowry says. "We did not leave the house [except for the fenced backyard] for the first 10 days."

Lowry is a clay artist who works from home anyway, but her normal comings and goings were curtailed by coronavirus concerns, a situation that has led Lowry to decide that Georgie probably thinks she's landed "in the most boring place."

"I would've spent time at home with her anyway, regardless of the quarantine, but I would have been going in and out more," she says. "The quarantine has forced me to be here 24/7. So I do think it's giving her a chance to get used to me and the environment."

Lowry says she's had enough dogs to know that in six months, after Georgie is all settled in, the Maltese, who turns 8 in June, will be "a completely different dog," full of life and love.

"It just takes time. And we've definitely got time," says Lowry. "One day she will jump up in my lap and love me. Until then, we'll just keep each other company and try not to get COVID-19.

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