Tilly the puppy cost $850 and 6,000 math problems.

To earn the golden retriever-lab mix, 11-year-old Hana Johnson had to meet a challenge from her parents. Johnson’s school offered students an independent skill-building program in addition to regular classwork.

“I was working on Level Six and they said we could get a new dog if I got to Level Eight,” said Johnson, an incoming sixth-grader. “I put in, like, 80 hours to hit it.”

“To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I was on board, but Hana lived up to her end of the bargain,” said her mother, Maya Nishikawa. “With my husband and I working remotely and Hana’s lacrosse and music activities on hold, we all have time to give to a new member of the family.”

But when the Maple Grove mom went looking for a puppy to fulfill her promise, she discovered that puppy love is in short supply.

She submitted adoption applications with various online sites and contacted animal rescue groups, even some in neighboring states, but kept getting rejected.

“Our other dog, Teddy, is a rescue; so is our cat. We’re big rescue people; we foster kittens and volunteer at the Animal Humane Society,” said Nishikawa. “I believe in giving an animal a chance. But it felt impossible to get a rescue puppy.”

Finally, she spotted an ad on Craig’s List and snatched up the 9-week-old puppy from a seller in Brainerd, Minn. “She’s so playful and sweet. I loved her right away,” said Johnson.

Since the pandemic started, families have been looking for canine companionship. That’s driving demand for four-legged friends at a time when the number of adoptable dogs of all shapes, sizes, breeds and ages has shrunk because of a pandemic-clogged pipeline.

“In Minnesota — because of the spaying and neutering practices and the education about animal welfare — we don’t have many adoptable dogs,” said Mary Tan, public relations manager for the Animal Humane Society. “So we rely on bringing them from mostly Southern states where they would be euthanized. The shelters and rescue partners we work with there to recover the dogs and get them ready to travel have slowed down or stopped.”

The Humane Society’s designated transit team, which typically brings 600 dogs a month from out-of-state source shelters, has been idled since April and won’t resume transport duties until mid-August, and then not at its pre-pandemic numbers.

Its shelters in Golden Valley, Coon Rapids and Woodbury were shuttered for six weeks. Now partly reopened with a small number of Minnesota strays and owner surrenders, the dogs are viewed and placed online, with families coming in only to sign adoption paperwork and collect their new pet.

“That tradition of walking through and picking out your animal is over,” Tan said. “Right now we have 200 applications to adopt every dog, 600 for a puppy. If the application is in order, to be fair, we go with first-come, first-serve. So that’s going to be a long wait for people just getting in line.”

Unconditional love

It’s no wonder that in this time of unprecedented uncertainty, more people want to forge a human-animal bond for themselves.

When you stroke a dog’s fur, your heart rate lowers and your blood pressure drops. You also release serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals that contribute to a sense of well-being. One research study concluded that people performing stressful tasks managed them with more equanimity in the presence of a dog; another study confirmed that dogs ease tension between spouses.

“We have this desire to nurture and be nurtured and ultimately, dogs are the only creatures capable of unconditional love,” said Athena Diesch-Chham, veterinary social worker in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “Humans give lip service to the phrase but our relationships are complicated. With dogs, they love us no matter what.”

Diesch-Chham understands the craving for an animal’s affection from a personal as well as an academic standpoint. She’s been working from home since March, more than busy with two preschoolers and her job. But when they adopted a brindle pug puppy in April, Diesch-Chham’s outlook brightened.

“Everyone is looking for something to hang a coat of hope on, and a new puppy is drenched in hope,” she said. “We need that brightness in our life during this scary time.”

Rescues to the rescue?

The best bet for people eager to adopt may be to hound some of Minnesota’s 500 rescue nonprofits, which have continued to retrieve dogs from other states.

Ruff Start Rescue in Princeton, Minn., has continued to collect 80 to 100 dogs a month from Texas and Oklahoma, using volunteers driving rented vans instead of relying on their traditional transportation partners.

When the dogs arrive in Minnesota, they go to Minnesota foster families.

“We’ve seen a 50 percent increase in adoption applications,” said Ruff Start founder Azure Davis. “We do virtual home visits with families that want to adopt and that in itself has streamlined our process.”

Davis said that if people can be flexible, they are more likely to take home a dog.

“Right now it’s the medium to large dogs that need help. The small breeds are more likely to get adopted in the South and leave the shelters there first,” she said.

The Second Hand Hounds rescue organization also has continued to receive animals from high-kill shelters in other states, but has experienced another slowdown in placing them in the hands and homes of eager owners.

“When all veterinary services were shuttered for two months, we could not get the dogs spayed or neutered, which we do before they can be adopted,” said Second Hand Hound’s executive director, Rachel Mairose. “Once they opened back up, there was a backlog that was crippling.”

To ease the situation, Eden Prairie-based Second Hand Hounds has allowed prospective owners to foster their dog before its surgery, waiting to finalize the adoption until the animal is spayed or neutered through the rescue organization’s veterinary clinic. (Owners-to-be are charged an extra $200 fee that is refunded once the dog has had its surgery.)

Beware scams, consider kittens

Although animal welfare organizations and rescue groups rigorously screen before a dog is adopted, not every placement proves successful. Mairose is already seeing some newly adopted pets being returned and worries that more will be surrendered.

“When people return to work and the kids go back to school, if that happens, some will come back to us because it’s not working for them,” she said.

“We try to help. We pay for training sessions for people who are struggling and don’t want to give up. We do our best to make good pairings, but not all of them take. We are not in the business of shaming people. We take the dog back and look for a better fit.”

Whenever there’s a stampede for a product — even a cute furry one — there’s the potential for scams.

“We’re hearing about people who give a deposit to a breeder before they meet to take possession of the dog and the breeder never shows,” said the Humane Society’s Tan. “If people do choose to go to a breeder, they should research them carefully. Reputable ones don’t rendezvous in parking lots or demand payment upfront.”

If the current dog-eat-dog environment surrounding adopting sounds daunting, she has a suggestion to circumvent it: Look into becoming a foster family or revise the species of companion animal you’re willing to snuggle.

“There’s an overpopulation of cats and kittens in Minnesota, so people can adopt them right away,” said Tan. “We have some really cute kitties ready for forever homes.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.