The healing power of dogs

Dogs are often our strongest allies. They comfort us, they keep us connected with the world around us, they ground us in the daily routines of life. That’s a lot to expect from any companion, but they instinctively do it without being asked. And when our world is overshadowed by illness, isolation, sadness or anger, the love and comfort that we receive unconditionally and unquestionably from our dogs make the days more bearable.

The power of this relationship is wonderfully documented in the upcoming book “When Dogs Heal: The Healing Power of Dogs in the HIV Community” by award-winning photographer Jesse Freidin. It was developed in collaboration with the young HIV + specialist Dr. Robert Garofalo and journalists Christina Garofalo and Zach Stafford produced and published by Zest / Lerner Books. It shows people living with this disease and the dogs that help them navigate.

Freidin started in 2014 as part of a special project initiated by Fred Says, a non-profit organization led by Dr. Garofalo was founded and named in honor of Yorkie. He credits him for helping him heal from his own HIV + diagnosis and, as he says, “creating a space for peace and joy in his life.” The nonprofit wants to ensure that HIV + youth receive the services they need to live healthy and productive lives.

To commemorate the many ways dogs can create similar spaces of peace and joy in the lives of other people living with this disease, Freidin and his team traveled hundreds of kilometers to take photos and speak to those who are ready to share their stories.

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Freidin, the country’s leading fine art photographer with work in more than 150 private collections across the country, was a natural choice for this project. At the center of his art is his interest in the deep healing power of the human-animal bond and the desire to honor the role dogs play in our lives. His dedication, not to mention his skill, is evident in this inspiring, life-affirming book that is rich in examples of how dogs guide us through life. Below are two examples.

Lynnea + coconut (extract)

I found out I was HIV positive when I was seven years old. It was 1992, and all I knew about HIV was what I heard on the news: Magic Johnson had retired from basketball because he was diagnosed with HIV (a death sentence at the time) and Ryan White was out the school has been thrown for IPO with its own HIV diagnosis. Back then, HIV just meant AIDS, and it meant you died.

For 10 years I struggled to get out of an abusive relationship because I believed my diagnosis should make me grateful – even happy – to have someone in the first place. I thought: I am HIV positive; Who would want to be with me

Then I have Coconut, who changed all that. Coconut showed me that I deserved more from a partner – not just for myself, but also for the little girl growing inside of me. Soon my daughter would use me as an example of who she should be; I would be responsible for showing her what a healthy relationship is.

I haven’t been hiding in the silence lately. I no longer see HIV as a negative thing in my life or a reason to push people away. Instead of looking for someone who is okay with my status, I am now looking for someone to be happy with. Coconut showed me that I can be loved by another living being – that I deserve a love that doesn’t hurt.

when dogs heal Rob and Fred

Rob + Fred (excerpt)

I kept both of the secrets of my HIV diagnosis a secret for more than a year because I was paralyzed with shame. As a doctor, I had helped hundreds of young people face and overcome an HIV diagnosis and its stigma. Once, in 1990, nearly 20 patients died of AIDS in just one night while on call.

I’m not sure where it came from – maybe because I was with my brother’s dogs on vacation – but one day I had a crazy thought: maybe I should have a dog. Fred was in my living room within 48 hours.

Fred is a dog’s miracle, but he’s not a miracle worker. Healing requires my participation and we are working on it together. For the past eight years, Fred has been my crime partner, my co-pilot, and my guardian angel. He showed me an unconditional love that I don’t think is possible from a human. Humans internalize injuries and have a hard time moving on, but dogs don’t. I wasn’t always the best dad, but no matter what kind of dad I am, Fred is always there for me. When grappling with an HIV diagnosis, there is no way to overestimate the importance of this type of support.

When I go to sleep at night and Fred curls up in my arms and I feel he is at peace, I know my work is done for the day.

To learn more about this incredible project, visit: whendogsheal.org

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