Dogs of the Homeless

I just got back from a trip to the local market, where I stopped to chat with a homeless man. Normally I’m more likely to donate some spare change and go on my way, but I’ve chatted with this man once before—and it’s all due to his dog. Winston is a handsome rottweiler mix whose broad, sweet head just calls out to me for petting. I can’t resist saying hello whenever I see him. I found out that next week is Winston’s birthday. He’ll be 12, and according to the man (whose name I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know), Winston is in great shape.

The encounter got me to thinking about the homeless and their dogs. Winston is most likely in great shape because he gets plenty of exercise; after all, he’s doing plenty of walking every day. I think of the dogs who live in near mansions out here in southern California, whose owners are so busy with their businesses and social lives that they don’t have time to pay attention to their dogs, much less walk them. Who do you think is happier, those dogs or Winston?

Down on the Third Street Promenade, a popular shopping area in Santa Monica, there used to be a homeless man whose dog would come over and take an offered dollar bill from your hand and drop it in a hat. People were quite impressed, and I’m betting the guy took home more money each day than most. The dog was completely friendly, and I’ve noticed the same is true of the majority of dogs belonging to the homeless. After all, by default they’re extremely well socialized from a very young age. They meet all manner of people, are exposed to plenty of sights and sounds, walk on all sorts of surfaces, and I’m sure, meet plenty of other dogs.

I’m sure having a dog is a great benefit for a homeless person, as the dog can offer protection as well as being an ice-breaker that allows people to come over and chat and perhaps lend a hand. But I’m thinking that being homeless isn’t such a terrible thing for the dogs, either, as long as the person takes good care of them. A house may be defined by four walls, but home, well, that’s being with someone you love who loves you back, and taking good care of each other. I think Winston is one lucky dog.


7 Responses to Dogs of the Homeless

  1. Nicole, I agree with you completely. A few years ago, I thought about creating a dog training program for the homeless youth in Seattle, to teach them how to work with their dogs without prong collars, etc. I then scouted around the areas where they hang out to see what they might need. Turns out, not much. The dogs were all in harnesses, they weren’t pulling much on leash, they were *incredibly* well socialized to dogs and humans…

    I completely had to revise my assumption that the dogs would be worse off in the hands of the homeless. Needless to say, that particular ‘help the homeless’ program never happened. The rich and famous would be probably better off having their puppies spend all day with teenager on Seattle’s ‘Ave’ than home alone, not socializing.

  2. @K9_Kirsty says:

    I’ve found the same to be true. Perhaps it’s the amount of time a homeless owner can dedicate to their dog?

    I feel awful when dog & owner are separated, because homeless shelters cannot accept pets. In the UK Dog’s Trust run a lovely project, called Hope Project ( ). It provides routine vet care, advice, food, a reuniting service and more.

    If we can help make sure the dogs get the right vet care & food, I don’t see that their standard of life is any worse than a pet in an average home; in fact it could even be better in some cases.

  3. Really agree with you on this. I run Irish Cavalier Rescue (for CKCS in Ireland) and find some of the worst homes I take dogs from for rehoming are the busy upmarket families who think they have offered a great home but I find leave the dog to live alone in the garden, ignored once the novelty for the children wears off (the dog is always for the children, not a family commitment). The dogs are so sad and neglected and starved for attention, typically poorly socialised with many bad habits. And I find some of the best homes I have put dogs into are lower income/unemployed homes where the dog is absolutely cherished, the children adore their new family member, and that dog will reign on comfy sofas and children’s beds and be walked to school to collect the kids every day, and be visited by all the neighbour kids. Happy well socialised dogs are the result. I also find many such families will really work to meet vet needs etc — and save for pet insurance — while some of the better off owners I know debate whether to take an obviously ill dog to a vet ‘who after all just wants to charge for everything…’!! Argh! Obviously one finds good and bad situations in all walks of life but it is too easy to dismiss those less well off for all the wrong reasons and overly value the better off ‘perfect home’ that is nothing of the sort.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  4. wildewmn says:

    It’s interesting that whether it’s in Seattle, the UK, or Ireland, the same seems to apply. There was an interesting article in the APDT Chronicle of the Dog this month about dogs living at a dump site in Mexico, some with owners, some not. Apparently the dogs were very well socialized, and stayed with their people off-leash without being given any cues other than the people moving away. Sometimes I think our modern lifestyle, spending so much time at home in front of the computer or at the office, is at odds with what would be best for our dogs–excluding, of course, people who realize that and go the extra mile to give our companions what they really need.

  5. I totally agree. Seeing the stress many owners put their dogs under to conform to the restrictions of their own lives, I too think Winston is a lucky dog. Too many dogs these days are bought on a whim (even heard of a lady buying one to match the colour of her couch!) and because they look ‘nice’ but they are not allowed or expected to behave like dogs, or the novelty wears off. The dogs of the homeless are someone they can rely on – and I presume are not taken for granted but cherished for their company. They probably experience far less mental stress and pressure and are all round better dogs for it. Even as an educated and positive dog trainer I question the emphasis and stress people put on dogs in the name of training when I see how these dogs walk at heel off lead or stay on their bed in busy city centres, having never attended a class!

  6. Jennifer says:

    I completely agree that most homeless (minus bad druggies) have very well mannered dogs. Many years back when I was too young and loved my dog more than life itself, I was homeless with him for about 5 month in San Francisco. I had money and a Job but no one would rent to me and my Rottie, boxer, pit mix. I didn’t want to be homeless let alone knew how to be. He taught me. I rescued him from a young homeless man about a year prior to us losing our place. This guy took very good care of him, but relapsed on drugs. He loved this dog so much he asked me to take him because he knew I would care for him….that dog Barney became the other half of me I had lost then found. So when NO ONE would rent to me I slept in friends cars sometimes if I was lucky on a couch, but mainly in the park. He protected me so many times I can’t count. We finally got lucky from hanging in the parks so much we met a woman who gave us a beautiful big place with a yard. We lived there for 11 years till a month after Barney Dog died. In 12 years of working with dogs I have never met his equal. He was homeless for the most part of his first 3 and a half years, had major back surgery at 11, lived till 14 and was unfixed his whole life. thanks for listening to gab about The King Barney

  7. wildewmn says:

    Jennifer,thanks for sharing your story. I can only imagine how tough that time was for you, and how deeply bonded you and Barney must have been. It sounds as though you rescued each other. 🙂

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