“He has eyes like the ghost of a little Victorian boy,” my partner said. Here in our home is a wisp of a dog, just weeks off the streets and thin as a dime. He’s a foster, and he still has quite a few rough edges, but we’re working on it. We take it one walk at a time.
On one trip around the block, he barked at a woman in her garden. She looked up, startled.
“He’s a foster,” I apologize. “He’s only just been rescued from El Paso, and he’s still learning how to be a dog.”
Her eyes soften, and she wants to try to pet him. He lets her once she puts down the trowel.
“You can tell he’s been through a lot,” she says gently, more to him than to me. “A lot of trauma in those eyes.”
This is not the first time that a person has quickly melted upon meeting this scrap of a dog. Almost everyone who has met him has remarked on how much he’s likely been through, how hard it must be to adjust from a life of constant fear, hunger, insecurity and distrust to one of blankets, all-you-can-eat peanut butter and fawning.
Around the fourth or fifth time I heard someone meet him at his level with empathy, I found myself wondering why it is that these neighbors — some with yard signs for political candidates promising sweeps and “tough love” — can find this degree of grace for a little dog but not for a human person.
Is it because we think of dogs as helpless products of circumstance while we moralize poverty in people and assume homelessness is a matter of choices? Or because homeless dogs don’t threaten our understanding of our own place in the economy?
As I think about the pet adoption process, it occurs to me that it’s not that different from the psychological (and physical) process that people undergo when they get housed. In both people and pets, key elements of the transition from homeless to housed are consistency, time and understanding. It includes concrete steps like engagement in regular enjoyable activities and creating stable, secure connections with others.
We have entire structures built for this when it comes to dogs. There are volunteers and organizations just working to provide a pathway to a good home. Hundreds of families take in stray pets to help them find a better life. And everyone understands that it takes time.
With people, though, we expect the recovery to happen immediately and within very specific parameters. We expect instant success, past trauma be damned. A dog can still be a little raw as it makes the leap into living inside. But a person? They get no grace at all.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Sept. 7-13, 2022 issue.