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Dogs, Homeless People, and the Spirit of Empathic Kinship

Research shows having a dog can be beneficial and detrimental for the homeless.

Key points

  • A UK study reveals that homeless people and their dogs experience both benefits and challenges when it comes to the relationship.
  • Dogs can benefit their owners who are homeless by improving their mental health and providing physical protection.
  • Having a dog can be a detriment to owners who are homeless when it impacts access to services.

Because of my long-term work with inmates, many of whom have been homeless and have had various nonhuman animals (animals) as their best friends, I've long been interested in the relationships that are formed between homeless people—often cashed out as mutual rescue—and various companion animals, especially dogs.1

MART PRODUCTION, Pexels, free download.
Source: MART PRODUCTION, Pexels, free download.

I recently learned of a fascinating study published in Anthrozoös by the University of Nottingham's Dr. Louise Scanlon and her colleagues titled, "Homeless People and Their Dogs: Exploring the Nature and Impact of the Human-Companion Animal Bond" (available online) and was impressed by the depth and breadth of this important research.2

Here is a summary of what the researchers learned about homeless people and their dogs in the UK, based on 20 in-person "semi-structured interviews" with homeless dog owners conducted by Scanlon. The words of the homeless people (in italics) capture the nature of the serious and meaningful relationships they form and also the ups and downs of what it means to be homeless and at the same time a dog guardian.

Subthemes that were detected include:

Animals as kin: "One of my kids, he’s part of my family. He’s a family member. He’s … I don’t know, as much as anyone else in my family means to me, definitely." (Participant 14)

Responsibility: "You get a companion like a dog come along; it really changes everything. Because again you got company, you know, it’s a living, breathing thing you’ve got there and you’re not just thinking about just yourself now, you’re thinking about them." (Participant 2) Participant 14 notes: "They generally seem to care for their dogs. Like, anyone I know … they’d look after their dogs more … Our dogs would eat before anyone else. And that’s the people that I’ve met out on the street."

Anticipatory Grief: Some homeless reflected on the possibility of future grief or loss. "I'm losing him. He is dying … But in that weakness, you see my strength. I would do anything, to make sure that little [dog’s name] is alright." (Participant 16) Participant 5 told the researchers: "I already know her age, and it just made me upset now, just in case she goes. You know what I mean? If I lost my dog, then I’d probably follow her."

Mutual Rescue: "He was keeping him in unsuitable situations and beating him regularly. And then that was it. I wasn’t having it. I paid the man some money and I took the dog off of him. I never would have owned a dog before that moment. Yeah, I wasn’t prepared to let that happen." (Participant 15) Participant 6 said: "Well, he’s saved my life in so many ways. He bettered my life in so many ways. It’s just unbelievable."

The researchers also studied the implications of the Human-Companion Animal Bond (H-CAB) for the person's physical, psychological, and social health. Some of their findings include:

Owner Health – Physical: An increase in physical activity and getting outdoors. "Yeah, because you got a dog, and you got to be healthy. You’ve got to look after yourself, and it’s like looking after anything else. You’ve got to be strong. For a dog, you’ve got to be strong." (Participant 1) Participant 6 said: "I’m better off than some of the other guys, because I’ve got a portable radiator." Some also voiced that they felt safer with a dog: "If it weren’t for him … you know, within a few seconds I had been pushed in the tent, and the man would have right, had me where he needed me. But he obviously didn’t see that the dog was in right there with him … until obviously I heard him barking and growling, turned around, and he’s scaring the man off." (Participant 12)

Owner Health – Psychological and Social Implications: Some homeless spoke about positive social impacts. "She knows when I’m getting anxious. She will literally crawl up to my chest and put her head on my heart. She knows before it comes on sometimes, she’ll usually come up really slowly and she’ll go, 'bumph.'” (Participant 2)

The researchers also noted "a perceived close association between dog ownership and the desire for improved self-care and behavior change." According to Participant 6: "If you’ve got an animal who’s reliant on you, whether you’re homeless or not, you have to get up in the morning, you have to make sure that they’re fed, you have to make sure they’re walked, they’re watered, their health has to come first before your own. Because of those reasons, you have to think in the future, if that sounds right."

Impact on access to services: Most of the participants were hesitant to leave their dog for any length of time because this could produce separation issues for the dog. There also were problems getting the services the humans and dogs needed. "There isn’t any night shelter that I know of that would accept me with a dog. One used to, but the dog was in the cellar, and you was upstairs. I wouldn’t leave him on his own downstairs, even when we’d only been together a couple of years, because it’s not fair on him. So I wouldn’t use that facility. But now they won’t allow people with dogs to stay in there anyway." (Participant 6) Participant 5 noted: "We’ve rung nearly 50 odd landlords, and not one of them is interested because of the dog … Everything else is bang on perfect. Soon as you mention the dog it’s, 'Nope.'”

The importance of a mutually beneficial perspective

Research shows having a dog can be beneficial to the homeless by providing companionship—mutual rescue—and also can be detrimental because of a loss of access to support services to their nonhuman "family members." Clinical social work and the One Health and One Welfare programs stress the importance of caring for nonhumans and humans, and this study thoroughly supports the view that there are many reasons why people should care about human and animal suffering, and when they do it's a win-win for all.

The detail and care with which this study of homeless and their dogs was conducted can, and should, serve as a model for future research on a category of human-animal relationships that is growing in many different locations. I learned a lot about the nature of these sorts of relationships, and I look forward to learning even more.

References

1) Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and "Absorb Empathy"; Boulder Art Behind Bars.

2) A review of this study can be found in Dogs Can Be A Lifeline For The Homeless, by Sara Streeter.

Bekoff, Marc. Mutual Rescue: Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Both.

_____. Dogs, Homeless People, and Love: A Picture Is Worth Many Many Words.

_____. Social Work Stresses Companionship in the Human-Animal Bond. (A social work perspective is needed to help people in crisis, including the homeless, care for their pets.)

Green, Emily. Most cruelty complaints against homeless pet owners are baseless, says Multnomah County Animal Services. Street Roots, July 12, 2019.

Irvine, Leslie. My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.; Reprint edition, 2015. This book is a classic in this field.

Medlock, Chelsea. Empathy and Kinship: Animal Poetry and Humane Societies during the Victorian Age. In Victorian Pets and Poetry, Edited by Kevin A. Morrison, Routledge, 2021.

My Dog Is My Home’s second annual Co-Sheltering Conference.

The Street Dog Coalition provides free medical care and related services to pets of people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Using a ‘One Health’ approach to street medicine, SDC cares for the lives on both ends of the leash.

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