Society – A woman’s best friend – dogs and domestic violence

A dog (or other companion animal) is often a woman’s best friend when it comes to escaping and recovering from domestic violence.

A new book, Companion Animals and Domestic Violence: Rescuing You, Rescuing Me, explores the role that dogs and other companion animals play in women’s recovery from abuse, and the impacts on the animals themselves.

A dog (or other companion animal) is often a woman’s best friend when it comes to escaping and recovering from domestic violence. Women were interviewed by University of Canterbury Associate Professor Nik Taylor, and her co-author QUT Associate Professor Heather Fraser. They spoke of companion animals as part of the family which played an important role in helping them to heal after domestic violence.

The link between domestic violence and animal abuse is well documented in social work research, so the authors focused instead on the loving connections between human and animal survivors for their initial project: Loving You, Loving Me: Companion Animals and Domestic Violence.

“It is clear that these woman have a deep and profound relationship with their animals that helps them get through their experiences of abuse,” Dr Taylor says.

“For more than a few caught up in domestic violence, these relationships can literally provide victims/survivors with the will to live, to eat, sleep, keep caring for others, and in the process, maintain the will to rebuild their lives.”

Mistreatment of animals can also be the catalyst for women to leave.

“Women who say they can take the abuse themselves cannot see their animals suffer abuse, and that is ultimately good because it gets everyone out of the abusive situation,” Dr Taylor says.

Co-location following abuse might be just as important for animals, which are often impacted after indirectly or directly experiencing abuse. Dr Taylor wants people to remember that animals are victims, too. This was evident in the project, when participants spoke of their animals’ recovery process.

For example, one dog waited for the children in her family to come home after school and then licked them thoroughly. “It is just what she needs to do,” a woman explained in an interview.

Keeping women, children and animals together, however, is challenging. The Northern Domestic Violence Service (NDVS) in Adelaide is one of the few facilities that offers a pet-friendly shelter for domestic violence victims. Other shelters commonly offer a fostering service for pets, which keeps pets safe from abusers, but nonetheless separates women and children from their animals.

NDVS contacted Drs Taylor and Fraser after hearing them speak at a conference.

“They said ‘we offer a pet-friendly residence. We know that the women really value it but we don’t have any research showing that – are you interested?’ So we got together with them and the project was born,” Dr Taylor says.

NDVS created a photography exhibition of women, children and companion animals, and the interviews were conducted alongside that. The project, Loving Me, Loving You, then developed into the book. Featuring images from the photography exhibition, the book Companion Animals and Domestic Violence: Rescuing You, Rescuing Me is published by Palgrave Macmillan and will be launched on May 8 at Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Australia, with a panel discussion hosted by ABC Radio National’s Paul Barclay in conversation with Dr Taylor, Dr Fraser and social worker Christine Craik.

UC Professor Annie Potts, co-director of UC’s New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, has called the book a “compelling landmark text”.

Rescuing You, Rescuing Me is a comprehensive, honest, compassionate and respectful study of a difficult and disturbing subject,” Professor Potts says.

The book will inform various academic disciplines including social work, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, geography, as well as to professionals working in domestic violence or animal welfare service provision.

However, the work also explores empathetic connections between humans and animals in the context of domestic violence.

For Dr Taylor, the impacts of domestic violence on animals has been a lifelong interest, since she first volunteered at an animal shelter in Northern England as an undergraduate student.

Dr Taylor is an internationally recognised critical and public sociologist who has published over 70 articles, books and book chapters. She recently joined UC and teaches topics in the Human Services programme that focus on human-animal violence links; scholar-advocacy; social change; and crime and deviance, particularly domestic violence and animal abuse. She is a convenor of the Human-Animal Studies.