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Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and "Absorb Empathy"

An essay written with two formerly homeless men about dog-human relationships.

"Dogs who live in homes are pets. Homeless people don't have pets. Dogs are our friends or family. The dog is the owner and the person is the pet. We would not have it any other way." (Bryan Townsend-El)

I've long been interested in all sorts of dog-human relationships. In the class on animal behavior, compassionate conservation, and animal-human relationships I've been teaching for nearly 20 years at the Boulder County Jail as part of Jane Goodall's global Roots & Shoot program, I've had many formerly homeless students. (See references below for details about the class.) Recently, we've been talking a lot about dogs and homeless people, and it is my pleasure to publish this essay co-written with two of my students, Tanner Valdez and Bryan Townsend-EL.1

Source: Pixabay, free download
Source: Pixabay, free download

In an essay titled "My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals" I wrote some about the nature of dog-human relationships among homeless people, focusing on Dr. Leslie Irvine's seminal book My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals in which she reveals what animals mean for homeless people and how they care for their four-legged friends. (Also see "Dogs, Homeless People, and Love: A Picture Is Worth Many Many Words.") You can read the introduction to this landmark book here. Dr. Irvine's book, full of compelling stories and solid research, provides rich descriptions of how animals provide social and emotional support and protection from harm, and in some cases even helped turn around the lives of people who had few other reasons to live. She explores how animals serve as “significant others” for their human companions. Homeless people told her how their dogs encouraged interaction with others and kept them from becoming isolated. Former addicts and alcoholics described how their animals inspired them to get clean and sober. People who had spent years on the streets explained how they responded to the insults they heard from strangers who thought they should not have a pet. And they praised those who provided pet food and a kind word.

Homeless people have told me on more than one occasion that their animal companion is their best friend and oxygen without whom life wouldn't be worth living. For many, their animal friend is their only family. Last year while I was eating lunch in my hometown of Boulder (Colorado,) I started talking with a homeless man named Joe, and he told me that when he lost his job and became homeless he sold many of his very few possessions so that he could keep his dog, Clive, without whom Joe wouldn't be able to or want to live. I've heard similar stories in cities around the world.

Some notes from the field about homeless people and their dogs

During our class discussions I asked if some of the guys would write down their experiences as homeless people and their and others' relationships with the dogs with whom they lived. Here are some quotes that came out of these discussions.

"Who's to say a Chihuahua in a purse is happier than a homeless dog"?

"They're social animals and are meant to live in a social setting, like wolves becoming dogs. I bet free-ranging dogs are friendlier than most dogs who live on leashes in people's homes."

"My homeless places are my homes, and my dogs are royalty."

"Dogs absorb empathy among the homeless. They reflect emotions of the people around them and they feel what I feel."

"Dogs off leash are friendlier--they're liberated to be dogs."

"There's a community effort to care for the dogs, and they always eat first."

"Dogs help to resolve conflicts among homeless and bind us together. They soften us and help to fuel friendly social interactions."

"I've rarely seen stressed dogs among the homeless people with whom I've lived."

I was thrilled with what I heard and read, all of which was written without any prior knowledge of research on dog-human relationships or of Dr. Irvine's book. They contain information that has been borne out by studies noting that dogs are social beings and how they became domesticated, how shared emotions can function as "social glue," how social attachment relates to the attribution of emotions, and how dogs can serve as social catalysts or lubricants, and how we're learning from various research projects that unleashed free-ranging dogs are very friendly toward other dogs and humans, perhaps more friendly than dogs who are tethered and less stressed. (See "Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All," "Dog, Cats, and Humans: Shared Emotions Act As 'Social Glue'," "Personality Traits of Companion and Free-Ranging Bali Dogs," "Nuances of social interaction in free ranging dogs," Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible and references therein.)

Here are excerpts from two essays written by Mr. Valdez and Mr. Townsend, The first by Tanner.

"I tickle the soft, scintillating scruff of Delila's neck. Her eyes roll back and gently a wet mouth falls into my shoulder. She is happy, healthy. Delias's needs are provided without hesitation. Her vaccinations are current, and (in many ways) she lives a life incredibly similar to that of her ancestors. She is a lean orb of energy. Inherently social, they display empathy and compassion. There are many ways of radiating relentless love in the face of adversity."

"Jade and Delila are the perfect microcosm, an eccentric bond of understanding and resilience. Like Christmas lights hung from the same strand they add splashes of color to a not-so-perfect life. But if one were to shatter, well, they both might stop burning." (Tanner Valdez)

Mr. Townsend wrote:

Out in the world there are homeless people, but I believe there is no such thing as a homeless dog. I myself was homeless from 2012-2016. I had a brindle pit named Hershey who was a rescue dog. She had a fear of men, especially dark-skinned men. I myself am a dark-skinned man, Moorish American to be specific. I met her and she took an immediate liking to me, and I never betrayed that trust. Hershey made my being homeless bearable. She was my companion. She also kept me out of trouble. She helped me realize that I was not a complete failure because I did right by her, kept her safe and happy.

A good majority of the homeless I have met who have dogs care more for the dog than they do for themselves. They live for their dog. It's heartening to see people learn to take better care of themselves because of their dogs. The homeless community used to get together every Saturday & have a dog day at the park. We would bar-b-q and play with the dogs all day. That day, all the dogs ate before everyone...even the cook...I should know...I was the cook. LOL.

All in all, while homeless I never saw a dog issue arise from the homeless community. While I'm not homeless right now, I always stop to pet a homeless dog and talk to the owner. People who aren't homeless rarely trust people to pet their dog or have the time or patience to stop. Hmmm, I guess that is the main difference, especially among the homeless. Dogs who live in homes are pets. Homeless people don't have pets. Dogs are our friends or family. The dog is the owner and the person is the pet. We would not have it any other way."

As our last discussion wound down, someone said. "Among the homeless, dogs are unleashed and allowed to be dogs." I smiled and ask them why they said this. Their response was, "I lived among many dogs when I was homeless and I read your book Unleashing Your Dog you gave to us." I said thank you--what more could I say.

I hope this co-authored essay gets you to think more about the nature of dog-human relationships and also to think about just how important dogs are to people who are homeless. In the best of all possible worlds there would be no homeless people and no homeless dogs. (See "Mutual Rescue: Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Both.") I also realize that relationships among dogs and homeless people are not always 100% perfect, but neither are relationships among homed people and their dogs. (See Frequently asked Questions at the Pets of the Homeless website and the results of a survey they conducted.) I've long been impressed with the consistency of the stories I hear from homeless people about their and other homeless people's relationships with their dogs.

Thinking of dogs who live with the homeless as being homeless themselves is misleading, and I always come back to what Mr. Townsend wrote about his own experiences, namely, "Dogs who live in homes are pets. Homeless people don't have pets. Dogs are our friends or family. The dog is the owner and the person is the pet. We would not have it any other way."

1Both Tanner and Bryan have given me permission to use their text and names.


Marc Bekoff, Inmates and Art: Connecting With Animals Helps Soften Them

_____. Inmates, Animals, and Art: Creative Expressions of Hope

_____. Mutual Rescue: Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Both.

Caitlin Rockett, Roots and Shoots: A unique program at Boulder County Jail has inmates learning from nature

Jennifer Holland, Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion

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