Animals have developed a place in social services directed to some of the most vulnerable populations in our societies. Therapeutic and service animals have been used for decades as seeing-eye animals, in seniors’ homes, in programs for people with a range of disabilities, and even to help reduce stress for university students (Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University has a puppy room during exam season where students can go to de-stress. Amazing).

The huge successes these initiatives have had make it unsurprising that other kinds of programs would also find ways to incorporate animals. What’s interesting is that the kinds of contexts in which animals are getting attention suggest that it’s not just about what animals can do for us anymore. It’s become much more common to think about forming partnerships with animals, which suggests that human services are recognizing a more ecological model of working with the nonhuman world.

Social programs that foster partnerships with animals

Programs like New Leash on Life in Pennsylvania, or Safe Humane Chicago matches hard-to-adopt dogs with incarcerated inmates and juveniles in the justice system, respectively. Inmates and young offenders socialize the dogs and instill basic training to make the dogs easier to adopt out. In turn, the dogs teach their human partners about managing emotions, positive relationships and taking leadership without using violence. The programs also give the human participants a skill they can use when they transition out of prison. There’s an emphasis on reciprocity—that the programs develop environments in which both humans and nonhumans benefit equally because of the connections they build with each other.

Domestic violence and animal abuse

Connections between vulnerable humans and animals can become incredibly strong, especially during crisis situations. Women who experience domestic violence, for instance, are much more likely to stay with an abuser for fear of what will happen to the animals when they leave. Domestic violence and animal abuse often go hand in hand. Recent studies show that as many as 58.97 percent of women who have animals and left their abuser for a domestic violence shelter delayed leaving the situation due to concern for their animals. One woman interviewed for an Alberta SPCA study said:

The animals were a big part of why I didn’t leave for a shelter, a really big part. I was their caretaker, it doesn’t matter how much stress I was in, they depended on me and supported me and I didn’t want to let them down.

While abusers use animals as a way of controlling women—threatening the animal to coerce a woman into doing what the abuser wants—many shelters that work with at-risk women have begun to acknowledge the importance of animals in the lives of abused people and their potential to help with the healing processes. In fact, the U.S. Congress is currently debating a bill called the Pet and Women Safety Act which would fund domestic violence shelters interested in building or renovating facilities to accommodate companion animals. It also calls for the inclusion of pets in federal laws regarding protection orders. This is an important step in recognizing the importance of cross-species bonding as a network of support that works for both animals and humans who experience violence.

Cross-species bonding and homelessness

Cross-species bonding is also a big feature in the lives of homeless people, as many as 25 percent of whom live with animals. A lot of people are judgy about this, arguing that homeless people shouldn’t own pets, but new research is recognizing that animals and people without stable housing can offer each other much better lives than they might otherwise have. Recent studies confirm that for people who are homeless, the bond they share with their animals is one of the primary motivators for positive change (in things like dealing with drug addictions), as people will overwhelmingly put the needs of their pets before their own.

Transient people with dogs often cite their lifestyle as better suited for dogs as opposed to domiciled people who are gone at work for long periods and have limited time and energy to interact with their animal companions. In one study, a homeless participant said of his dogs:

They get to run around and have fun. They get to see new things every day and they’re exploring nature like they were meant for. They weren’t born to live in a box. That’s why, when you see a dog in a house, they’re freaking out because they want to go outside, ’cause that’s their natural habitat.

That homeless people can provide animal companions with attention, exercise and mental stimulation to a much greater degree than the typical conventionally housed person is something researchers are starting to realize also develops a person’s sense of purpose and identity. Social services that offer assistance to homeless communities are likewise starting to catch on to the reciprocal benefits of animal companionship, and more and more organizations are offering free access to things like veterinary care and pet food when necessary.

It’s encouraging because in these small ways, people are rethinking relationships between humans and other nonhuman beings. Granted, companion animals have a special status in our culture and tend to be treated with more care and consideration than other species. But the idea that interspecies relationships are coming to be seen as primary to the well-being of each species suggests that we’re coming to a greater awareness of the human/nonhuman interdependencies that actually underpin our culture.

It makes sense that we’re seeing this most in vulnerable populations who suffer the greatest amount of stigma. Prisoners, women who use domestic violence shelters and homeless populations tend to also be people with the least amount of access to things like wealth and property ownership; systems that are predicated on the primacy of the individual. If tangible benefits keep coming out of these initiatives, a more ecological ethos just might spread towards the centre of our society.

Read more on this topic in FIRST LANGUAGE: A journey into animal communication»

image: woman and dog via Shutterstock