Partnered in the struggle for a place to call home

Program helps abandoned dogs, homeless build trust

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / January 19, 2010

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Anya was neglected, and finally abandoned. Most of the two years of her life was spent locked in a garage. When humans approached, the large, gentle Leonberger-golden retriever mix cowered in fear.

Stewart Thorpe spent 30 of his 55 years on Boston’s streets, bundled in depression. He used to sleep in subways and on sidewalks. When Pine Street workers eventually reached out to him, he was too fearful to look them in the eyes.

These two homeless creatures - man and dog, both shadows in life - are finding that they have a lot in common - a history of abandonment, trauma, and distrust.

Over the past year, something remarkable has happened to Thorpe and Anya and a handful of other homeless men and dogs in a Pine Street transitional home.

Anya is finding out what it means to be cared for in a loving home, while Thorpe and 10 other men are discovering what it means to live again.

“I’ve committed myself to doing something again,’’ Thorpe said. “I’m thinking of something other than me.’’

Anya is the latest of six dogs once considered unadoptable who have had a foster stint at Pine Street’s Stapleton House, a four-story South End dwelling for men entrenched in homelessness.

The program tries to get men housed first, before addressing their medical, long-term housing, and emotional needs. The men, in their 50s through 70s, learn basic life skills such as sharing common space, caring for themselves, and looking people in the eye.

Barbara Davidson, who heads the effort, has spent years helping the homeless who struggle with paranoia and other psychiatric issues. The men she helps do not cause trouble, but they do not want help and do not talk about their lives - which makes assisting them difficult.

A year ago, she was working with a paranoid man who was refusing treatment. But he loved dogs. To put him at ease, Davidson and her client began volunteering at the nearby animal shelter. Soon he wanted a dog for himself.

“I told him that we could bring in dogs that, like everyone else here, don’t have homes, and work with them just like we do the humans,’’ Davidson said.

Dogs are the ultimate ice breakers. They teach the men to build trust and open up about their hidden lives, so the staff of five can get the humans the help they need. The dogs learn to accept love and temper their aggression. On their daily walks, the dogs are conversation starters with strangers.

These may be small feats in the annals of daily life, but for men and dogs who have spent much of their lives in the grip of homelessness, these encounters are giant leaps to newfound independence.

Amy Marder, a veterinarian with the Animal Rescue League who is not connected with the effort, said both dog and man are connecting and helping each other through their shared histories of isolation.

“It’s also saying to the homeless men that it is OK to get help,’’ she said.

So far, it is working. Five of the dogs have been adopted to homes across the state, and six men are getting the treatment they long shunned. One has his own apartment, and at least four are on their way to getting their own home.

“A lot of people are very secretive about their lives and histories, but if you talk through the dog, you begin to know the person,’’ Davidson said.

The bond between dogs and humans has long been documented, with studies showing how canines reduce stress, boost happiness, and brighten one’s outlook, said Katenna Jones, an animal behaviorist at the American Humane Association’s office in Rhode Island.

Across the country, specialists have been providing dogs to inmates and parolees as well as to children and elders who have difficulty coping with grief or loneliness. Pairing dogs with the homeless is new, though, she said.

“These relationships are mutually successful for the humans and the dogs,’’ Jones said. “The contact is nonjudgmental. . . . It’s something that you can’t necessarily get with another person, especially people with social anxieties and phobias and people who have a hard time interacting with others.’’

Different breeds have stayed at Stapleton House, most of them from All Dog Rescue, a Natick-based volunteer group that places abandoned dogs in foster homes.

Brady, a mixed breed with heartworm and depression, was the first dog at the house. Now he’s living pretty in a new adoptive home, Davidson said.

Spike Lee, a miniature poodle mix, had a bad attitude. “He was the meanest little street dog ever,’’ Davidson said. But the men calmed him down.

Then there was King, a cocker spaniel found wandering the streets with part of a backyard chain around his neck.

Something about King evoked a childhood memory for William S. Collins, 56, an Army veteran.

Collins doesn’t say much - but the homeless man has undergone a dramatic turnaround. When he came to the transitional house, he was severely depressed and hardly spoke, said Jacqueline Swanson, a case manager there.

It was a slow process, but the staff helped Collins get the right medication to treat his depression. Months later, he completed a janitorial training program and is on the waiting list for a job and an apartment.

“He stuck with it, he followed through, he didn’t give up,’’ Swanson said.

Collins didn’t give up on King, either. The dog reminded him of the German shepherd he had when he was teenager.

There have been other success stories, too. A man in his 70s finally began talking about his life after two years at the house, revealing that he had been an electrician for a big company. With the staff’s help, he is now awaiting his first Social Security check.

In the past few weeks, the men have been fostering Anya, who follows them around or finds one of them to curl up next to - her soft, brown eyes melting their hearts.

She has some aggression issues with other dogs, but the men are helping her with that.

Her new best friend is Michael O’Brien, who has a history of roaming from shelter to shelter. O’Brien, 61, thought some of the other dogs were too depressed or too yappy.

But Anya, he said, is just right for him.

“I like her the best,’’ he said. “I didn’t know about having a dog before. . . . She’s just good company.’’