When a Homeless Person Owns a Dog

January 22, 2013 at 4:59 PM 12 comments

I admit (embarrassingly) that I am someone who, when I see a homeless person with a dog, I think one of two things:  (1) That a homeless person has no business having a dog. If they have to beg for their own food, what in the world are they doing trying to feed a dog too?  Poor dog.  Or (2):  The dog probably doesn’t know any other life so it’s no big deal; as long as they’re loved and with their “pack,” they’re probably happy.

I never gave much thought to what the homeless human gets out of the relationship. Until now:

Homeless man with dog via buzzfeed

(Image via BuzzFeed.com)

My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals


A new book by University of Colorado sociology Professor Leslie Irvine is the first to explore what it takes to live on the streets with an animal. Using interviews with more than seventy homeless people in four cities, My Dog Always Eats First reveals what animals mean for homeless people and how they care for their four-legged friends. …Dr. Irvine’s book provides rich descriptions of how animals provide social and emotional support and protection from harm (see also “My dog feels my pain“), and, in some cases, even helped turn around the lives of people who had few other reasons to live.

Dr. Irvine initially found this research to be very challenging. Because homeless shelters do not typically allow animals, homeless pet owners usually stay on the street and “under the radar.” Then, she made connections with veterinarians who hold street clinics for the pets of the homeless, such as VET SOS in San Francisco and the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless in Sacramento, California. She interviewed people at the clinics and even went on veterinary “house calls” into homeless camps, where she would not have ventured on her own.

Building on the work she began in If You Tame Me: Understanding our Connections with Animals, Dr. Irvine continues exploring 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.


Interesting.  I had no idea the relationship between a homeless person and a dog could be so complex or even potentially life-saving.  I’ll remember this next time and I won’t be so hesitant (or opposed) to giving a homeless person with a dog a dollar or two from now on.






Entry filed under: Animals (Other Than Us).

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. teenfashion113  |  January 22, 2013 at 6:58 PM

    Wow! Never realized the huge bond between man and dog until now!

  • 2. Say It Ain't So Already  |  January 22, 2013 at 7:24 PM

    I know. Amazing.

  • 3. Jerimi  |  January 22, 2013 at 10:12 PM

    What a lovely post! There was a brief time when I lived in my car with my cat. I credit her for my still being here at all. She gave me a reason to get up and keep looking for work. That was a lifetime ago. I make donations to a local cat foodbank, now, that one of the shelters puts on. I hadn’t really given it much thought, though. Thank you for sharing this.

  • 4. Kyle  |  January 23, 2013 at 12:43 AM

    hmm i see a little different perspective when I see a homeless person and their dog, I see two and wonder who found whom, or were they both evicted from the same home/ job/family they once had. depending on the relationship it could be just two strays sharing what little they have.
    The photo on the other hand is quite nice, very good control on the blacks and shadows, lighting was almost perfect.. nice work :)

  • 5. Christine deNeveu  |  January 23, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    To say nothing of how they keep each other warm and safer at night. Think three dog night, and you know our roots are intertwined with these four legged human-wired animals. Our dogs comfort me in the worst of times, more surely and honestly than any human relative even could–silently–steadily–without question or fear or false hope.

  • 6. nicojah  |  January 23, 2013 at 9:31 PM

    I’ve always known about what dogs can do as friends, but I’ve never felt serious loneliness, and I imagine that is where dogs truly shine. If I were homeless, I would be like the pirate in that Steinbeck short novel, Torilla Flat. He had 6 or 7 dogs.

  • 7. Rand Wisku  |  January 24, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    Possibly another reason that the homeless have a dog, especially homeless women could be for the protection factor. I can only imagine how very difficult it must be for those that are homeless but I would think that the difficulty (and danger) is more of a factor for the women.

  • 8. Say It Ain't So Already  |  January 24, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    Good point.

  • […] Roe v. Wade turns 40 as several states rush to ban legal abortion, the last abortion provider in Mississippi, a new ruling on Stop-and-Frisk and how S&F is a form of sexual assault, MLK is used to promote militarism, and the relationship between homeless people and their dogs. […]

  • 10. Kip W  |  January 24, 2013 at 9:44 PM

    I had a friend who was sometimes homeless, and sometimes lived in the most wretched places. He got by through industriously scrounging and recycling cans and such. I realized that his pet was the luckiest dog I knew. He was totally devoted to her, and she was his number one friend — a one-man dog at that. Anybody breaking into his place, or his car, would have been making a mistake.

  • 11. Say It Ain't So Already  |  January 24, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    Wow. What an amazing bond.

  • 12. tc  |  January 26, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    I’m not crazy about pet owners in general, and their lack of regard for the rest of us (the world and our gardens are their toilets). But I think those homeless dogs must be 100 times happier than dogs that spend their lives cooped up in a house or apartment with complete and utter boredom for 20 hours of the day. Even yard dogs must be bored shitless and lonely too.
    Besides, dogs’ favorite foods are human shit and cat shit and lots of other nasty rotten things, and their only real hardship is mother nature. They are animals, they can’t even imagine that they are missing out on a comfy home life.
    If a homeless dog is unfortunate, it is only ever because they are stuck with owners who are jerks…

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