AS IS TRUE of so many cities in the Western world, there are thousands of homeless people living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest city in Brazil. They include families, children, solitary men and women, the old and the young. Many have been homeless for years with little prospect of an exit, especially now that the country faces worsening economic distress, met with often-cruel austerity measures. Homeless people are abundant in most neighborhoods, including the upscale ones most frequented by tourists.
Homelessness in Rio is, in many ways, virtually identical to how it manifests in other large cities: It entails unimaginable material and emotional deprivation, hopelessness, societal invisibility, and utter isolation. But one aspect of Rio’s homeless population stands out: A huge number of them have dogs that were previously living as desperate, unwanted strays on the street.
Many have lived on the street with their dogs for years. They care for them as well as, and in many cases better than, the average middle-class family with a pet. The profound bond that forms between them is like nothing else one will find, and is thus deeply revealing.
Some of the homeless people are couples who nurture their dogs like their children. Still others are protected by their dogs as they sleep in dangerous areas, while some put their dogs to work with them as they panhandle or put on shows for donations. But in all cases, the brutality of homelessness combines with the particular ways dogs relate to humans to create a remarkable emotional and psychological connection that is often literally life-saving for both.
Rio, of course, is not the only city where people who live on the streets care for homeless dogs. Leslie Irvine is a sociology professor at the University of Colorado who has devoted much of her academic career to studying that unique relationship, including why so many homeless people credit their dogs with “having changed or saved their lives.” Her book on the subject, My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals (just released in paperback), documents how “homeless people report levels of attachment to their animals that may surpass those found among the domiciled public.”
There’s a U.S.-based nonprofit group “focused completely on feeding and providing emergency veterinary care to pets of the homeless,” and it estimates that at least between 5 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. homeless population live with pets; in some areas, it is as high as 25 percent. There are occasional U.S. media reports highlighting how many homeless people insist that “their animal companion is their best friend and oxygen without whom life wouldn’t be worth living.”
But there’s much more to learn from it. To examine how the homeless form bonds with their dogs is to understand, as Irvine put it, “the unique relationships with their animals and unique stories of the self within those relationships.”
This subject also enables us to better comprehend the universal human need for love, companionship and social integration; the destructively false nature of stereotypes we implicitly embrace about human beings who live on the street; and the special ability of dogs to penetrate, touch and fulfill the exact emotional and psychological realms which humans often protect most vigilantly.
Being open to these insights requires the setting aside of many entrenched preconceptions. Professor Irvine recounts the cynicism and even anger she felt after interacting for the first time with a homeless man and his dog. Worried about the dog’s exposure to severe heat in the Colorado desert and assuming she lacked food and water, Irvine first tried to “save” the canine by offering the homeless man money to buy her. When he angrily refused her money, she actually called Animal Control hoping they would “rescue” the animal, only to be told that they were unable to act since she wasn’t being harmed.
Only later, after she began studying the relationship, did she realize that dogs are often more important to homeless people than they are to domiciled people and thus they care for them better. So intense is this devotion that many homeless people refuse offers of shelter if the facility bars them from bringing their dog. They’d rather sleep on the street with their dog than in a bed without him.
For dogs, living on the street with a devoted human companion can entail little or no deprivation at all. Houses are a human construct, not a canine one. “Dogs of course need food, medical care and shelter from the elements,” Irvine told me, “but they don’t need a house. What they need most is human companionship, and they often get that more from the homeless than from those who own houses.”
Birdie insists that dogs who live on the street with a beloved human are “happier” than those who are cooped up in a house. “More at ease, more agile, bolder,” he says. “Plays more and takes more risks.”
When, many years ago, I began noticing how many homeless people in Rio have dogs, cynicism drove my reaction as well. I tacitly assumed it was a ploy for sympathy and thus more effective panhandling aimed at dog-lovers. That ugly assumption quickly dissipates upon speaking to them, or seeing them when they don’t realize anyone is looking as they hand-feed their dogs, administer medicine, jovially play with them, kiss them or be kissed, or sleep in a mutual embrace.
Humans most cherish that which is most important to them, and for someone living on the street without anyone or anything else, their primary devotion is to their dog. And that devotion is returned from the dog who also has nothing.
Physically losing your dog, becoming permanently separated, is the nightmare of every dog-lover. As a result, I’d typically offer to buy a leash. The reaction was almost universal: “I don’t need that. She follows me wherever I go. We’re almost never apart. And when we have to be, she waits here for me until I return.” The person/dog connection in the homeless context is one of complete togetherness, which in turn produces a physical and mental bond as reliable as any leash.
In lieu of an unnecessary tethering rope, they’d typically ask instead for medicine the dog needed or for dog food. At least in my experience, not a single homeless person ever attempted to convert an offer to buy something for the dog into something for themselves: that had to be separately pitched. It quickly becomes apparent that the welfare of their dog is their highest priority and most pressing concern. In other words, those with the greatest personal needs are simultaneously driven by immense levels of self-sacrifice for another living creature.
It’s common to see homeless people take dishes of food someone gives them and, despite being hungry themselves, instantly divide it in half and give it to their dogs (hence the name of Irvine’s book: My Dog Always Eats First). It’s equally common to see homeless people in squalid clothing sitting next to their well-groomed canines. Many of their dogs stay up while the human sleeps to guard against thieves or other threats, something of great value in many parts of Rio. The homeless person and the homeless dog find each other and bond in shared deprivation and self-sacrifice, fulfilling needs that would otherwise go completely neglected. The care-taking is not a one-way street; it’s mutual.
When homeless people talk about their relationship with their dogs, they are very clear about its value. Many — probably most — identify the worst part of homelessness as being not the material struggle but, rather, enduring total social invisibility and isolation. Most people, out of a combination of guilt and fear, simply pretend the homeless are not there, passing them on the street without even registering their existence. This process is dehumanizing in the purest way: They are not even visible to other humans, let alone worthy of communion. They have no societal function or role; it’s total detachment.
Their dogs provide a bridge to human contact, which individuals need as much as food or water (that’s why prolonged solitary confinement is torture and inevitably breeds mental illness). People who love dogs are often drawn first to the homeless dogs, and then to the indigent humans who care for them. The fact that their fellow dog-lover is homeless quickly becomes irrelevant.
Humans from radically different socioeconomic backgrounds often perceive one another as almost extra-terrestrial, having nothing in common. But the opposite is true for animals. Dogs who live on the street have far more in common with dogs who live with middle-class or rich families than they have differences. It’s not absolute, but in general the factors that create rigid hierarchies among humans have no impact on dogs. “Animals accept other animals,” says Birdie, while “human beings don’t accept other human beings.”
It’s thus not only easy, but inevitable, that any dog-lover will — regardless of their background — find common experiences, perspectives and emotions with a homeless individual whose dog is also important to them. The experience of caring for and loving their dog becomes one of the few means homeless people have to find a connection to the broader society that otherwise shuns them. It’s sometimes the only connection.
For sociologists such as Irvine, dogs serve as a “social facilitator”: bringing people together who would otherwise never interact. “When people talk about their dogs,” she said, “all differences disappear and people are on equal footing. For a homeless person whose existence is almost always ignored, this has incomparable value.”
Birdie describes his experience this way: “If I lie there on the sidewalk, nobody talks to me. They even change their path to avoid me. … But if the dogs are playing, they’ll say: ‘oh, how cute.'” Even knowing that it is the dogs, and not him, that trigger the interaction doesn’t dilute the importance of being seen. This relationship with his dogs enables a critical human need: to be acknowledged by other humans.
One of the most striking aspects to the testimonials one hears is how often the dogs are credited with literally saving people’s lives. The dog is often the catalyst that liberates them from self-destructive drug or alcohol addictions, or suppresses the suicide impulse, or alleviates depression, or creates a determination to stabilize and improve their lives. Professor Irvine told me, “This is the redemptive value of the relationship, which one hears over and over as you talk to the homeless.”
How can a relationship with a dog achieve such monumental successes where psychology, medicine, and standalone human desire so often fail? One explanation is that the responsibility to care for another living creature provides purpose, focus and thus self-esteem — all vital human needs. Another is the validation and self-worth that comes from the love a dog provides. Irvine put it this way: “We construct dogs as ideal beings — they love unconditionally, they don’t lie, they don’t judge people — so if a being this noble loves us, then there must be something OK with us.”
The non-judgmental quality of the dog is central. To live on the street is to endure constant, implicit condemnation. The homeless know exactly what society thinks of them. They see it embedded in every effort of avoidance, every expression of police suspicion, every gesture of condescension and discomfort even from those who stop to give them money. They’re sometimes told that they’re not worthy even of having pets.
Dogs think none of those things, harbor none of those judgments. Dogs strip away the extraneous and artificial metrics: They simply love and adore and protect those who treat them well. As Birdie puts it in the film: “If the other is more beautiful or uglier, richer or poorer, people always talk about each other. Dogs don’t.” For people living on the street, being showered with love, affection and appreciation can fundamentally alter the world, and many get that only from their dogs.
Ultimately, we don’t fully understand the human/dog relationship because we don’t and can’t fully understand dogs. They perceive the world differently, think about it differently, react to it differently. And they certainly respond to humans far differently than other humans do.
We know even less about the relationship in the context of homelessness. As Irvine writes: “Scholars have come to understand a great deal about the dynamics of human-animal relationships, but thus far the research has focused mostly on how they occur in middle-class contexts. We know little about how these relationships occur at the margins of society, among those who live not in houses but on the streets.”
But what we do know is that dogs have evolved by living as close companions to humans for thousands of years. The essence of dogness is inextricably linked to their relationship with humans. As Irvine explained to me, “Abundant research proves how dogs need our gaze, how they will look at what you’re pointing at because they want to know what you’re looking at. It shows they share intersubjectivity: the sense of ‘I want to know what she’s thinking.'”
Because they’re predisposed to have this close social relationship with humans, everything about them — their facial expressions, their body language, their tactile sensations, their means of expressing emotions — can trigger emotional and psychological responses that, for many people, are otherwise inaccessible. In industrial-age Western societies, the traditional hunting and herding functions of dogs has diminished, but the human/dog relationship has become increasingly more popular and more prioritized (both Brazil and the U.S. are at the forefront of that trend). That’s because dogs uniquely provide something deeply valuable to humans.
It’s tempting for any human being to harden oneself: to construct a rigid, self-protective shell around our most vulnerable emotional and psychological needs in a futile effort to make them disappear, thereby eliminating the pain that comes from their sitting unfulfilled. That effort never succeeds — those needs are intrinsic to being human and can’t be willed away — but what that self-hardening process can produce is fear, bitterness, lovelessness, and infinite frustration. The temptation to self-protectively close oneself off this way is particularly compelling for someone who lives on the street and has little prospect for fulfillment of those emotional and psychological needs.
Dogs break through all that. They reach and enliven the psychic and emotional parts of humans that are often the most neglected. For those who live in a state of extreme deprivation, that is an immense gift, one that produces both happiness and gratitude. Those emotions in turn produce their own set of gifts for the stray dogs who attach themselves to homeless humans, creating a reciprocal, self-fueling cycle of mutual care and affection that constantly fortifies the bond.
We can obviously learn a great deal about homelessness, and about dogs, from watching glimpses of the lives of people like Birdie and Karollyne. But we can also learn critical insights about ourselves.