The love and loyalty of a dog are two of the most rewarding elements of being a dog owner. For less fortunate individuals however, a dog is not just a companion, but a lifeline.
Currently there are an estimated 100,000 dogs without homes in the UK. Some of these will be stray dogs, abandoned by their owners, while others will serve as companions to Britain’s homeless.
With rough sleepers increasing by 15 per cent between 2017 and 2018, Britain has a significant problem to address – without overlooking the animals that help these people get through their toughest times.
The social stigma behind homeless dogs
Unfortunately, the general consensus is that dogs that are looked after by homeless people are neglected, with many believing they should be taken away.
However, studies reveal the opposite is true: in 2016, the Pet Behaviour Science Journal studied 50 dogs living on the streets and 50 living in the home. The results showed that dogs living on the streets were healthy, less likely to be obese, and showed less aggression towards strangers and other behavioural issues.
Of course, while none of us wants to see a dog on the street, it is heartening to see these dogs being looked after, with more and more measures to help them being introduced every day.
Why do homeless people have dogs?
One person who supports the view that homeless dogs can be perfectly healthy is Michelle Southern, founder of Street Paws. The Newcastle-based organisation, which is currently undergoing the process to become a registered charity, helps to feed and provide veterinary care for vulnerable dogs.
“These people will look after their dogs better than themselves,” says Michelle, who also works in Manchester, Leeds, Wales and Ireland. “A lot of these people may have mental health problems, and a dog gives them companionship without judgement. It doesn’t see them as a failure.
“People will feed their dogs before they feed themselves. If they’re turned away from a shelter because of a dog, they will spend the night with their pets.”
How dogs end up on the streets
For some street dogs, their owners have found themselves in vulnerable situations which lead to homelessness. “They cannot bear to give them up,” says Michelle. Others may be people who previously did not own dogs. Michelle cites an example of a homeless individual who noticed a dog regularly sitting inside a restaurant by itself – he had a chat with the owner and took the dog under his wing.
How are these animals treated?
Dogs are referred to Street Paws in many different ways, says Michelle. Some people notify Street Paws via telephone or on Facebook, with others even calling them in advance to warn them that they are about to become homeless. Street Paws also pairs up with local soup kitchens and homeless charities to identify new people who may need help.
“We feed dogs; we vaccinate and neuter them; we treat them for any condition,” says Michelle, who operates where possible on location, unless the dog requires surgery. When dogs are rehoused, they also continue to see Street Paws for veterinary care.
“Staffies are very common. Most people are happy to have our help, but occasionally they ask us not to intervene. In these instances, we simply tell them that that’s their decision, but we will offer them food and have a veterinarian look over the dog,” says Michelle.
How you can help
Though Michelle has seen her fair share of sad situations, she also has plenty of heart-warming stories from her veterinary work. “We work with a dog named Kiki who wears a duck hat! When she hears us coming down the street, she gets incredibly excited!” says Michelle.
With more and more scientific evidence to show the mental health benefits of dog ownership, it’s important that we make sure these dogs are taken care of as much as possible for their own benefit and their owners’. You can do your bit to help by donating at www.streetpaws.co.uk.
This blog for canine boutique Bertie and Bella’s explores the role dogs have to play in helping homeless people feel safe. I interviewed a charity spokesperson and researched UK homelessness to create the finished product.
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