For many women, the trauma of having to abandon their beloved pet keeps them trapped in violent relationships. But this groundbreaking project offers an escape, as Anna Moore reports.
The first time Sally Roberts* left her abusive husband, it was because she’d been hospitalised with a mental breakdown. When she was discharged, instead of returning home, she went to live with her friend, where she hoped to start afresh and rebuild her life. Within a month, though, she had returned to her marriage. One thing alone had pulled her back. Her husband had their dog, and Sally couldn’t leave her behind.
‘I’d had Maggie, my collie, since she was a puppy. We’d bought her six months before we married and she never left my side,’ says Sally, 37, from London. ‘When my husband was shouting at me, she would put herself between us, with her back to me, trying to push him away. When I lay in bed crying, she’d lie there next to me. There was no way I could leave that dog with my husband.’
There were plenty of reasons not to trust him. Throughout their nine-year marriage, Sally’s husband had been cruel and controlling, isolating her from friends and family, withholding money, rationing petrol and checking mileage to make sure she never went too far, slowly destroying every ounce of her confidence.
‘He’d say that I’d never leave him because I was too weak, and that I’d never find anyone else who’d agree to wake up next to me,’ she says. ‘Over time, I believed him a million per cent.’
Her husband also used Maggie as a weapon. There were constant small acts of cruelty. ‘He saw how close we were and how much I cared about her,’ she says. ‘When she barked at the door, he’d pull her collar so hard that she’d choke. He’d back her into a corner with the hoover and vacuum her fur – she’s still terrified of hoovers. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house to take her on walks as he said I couldn’t manage her – I always felt so guilty about that as he was too lazy to do it himself, but luckily we had a large garden. He wouldn’t allow extra money for Maggie so I kept a secret stash that was entirely for her, in case she needed treatment at the vet.
‘People might not understand this; they may say, “It’s just a dog,” but Maggie had been my friend, my support, my daily source of love. She was a massive part of my life,’ Sally explains. ‘I don’t have children – she is my child. My mum calls Maggie her “grand dog!” My husband wasn’t physically abusive – more psychologically controlling – but he’d shout and throw his weight around. I’d have taken a beating to stay with her.’
In fact, this isn’t unusual. Animal rescue services and domestic abuse professionals have long established the strong link between abuse to animals and abuse to humans but new findings from the Dogs Trust puts it beyond doubt. Its research suggests that 97 per cent of domestic abuse professionals have supported women whose pets have been used as a means of control – and 49 per cent of them have known pets to have been killed by the abuser. Almost all (95 per cent) have supported women who wouldn’t leave abusive partners unless their pets were safe. Yet few women’s refuges are able to accept dogs.
Amy Hyde is an outreach manager for the Dogs Trust’s Freedom Project, which exists to bridge this gap by giving dogs like Maggie a temporary home. She has seen multiple heartbreaking cases. ‘We’ve had dogs with stab wounds and cigarette burns, and dogs who have needed veterinary care over many years but not been allowed it,’ says Amy. ‘We’ve also seen cases where women have returned to abusive partners because of threats to kill the dog. I remember one where the man did take the dog to the vet and had her euthanised on the day his wife left him. It was a punishment for her.’ (Hyde doesn’t know what the vet had been told in order to do this.) The Dogs Trust’s recent survey of domestic abuse professionals highlighted cases where abusers had drowned pets or thrown them from a great height and sent photographs of their dead bodies to their former partners.
The Freedom Project can be contacted directly by women in need or through the Domestic Abuse Helpline. When it takes on a case, the dog will be collected from a safe location and placed with a foster carer, freeing the owner to leave the relationship and rebuild her life. Throughout the separation, they will send photos and updates until the dog can be safely returned. (This takes on average six to nine months.) The whole service is cloaked in secrecy, with all messages passed between intermediaries – and it has to be. If perpetrators could trace the dogs, there’s a real risk that they would harm them in order to hurt their former partners.
Caroline Smith, 36, is one of the Freedom Project’s foster carers. She and her partner, who live in Sussex, signed up last March. ‘I grew up with dogs and really wanted one in the house,’ she says. ‘I work from home in digital marketing and finally had the space and time. I wanted that companionship, that reason to get out and have fresh air each day.’ Her partner wasn’t too sure, so Caroline started looking at foster programmes. ‘With the Freedom Project, I loved the fact that we were helping families as well as dogs.’
For dog lovers, there are many advantages to signing up as a fosterer. Once you’ve been accepted (this involves an online enquiry form, a chat on the phone and a home visit) you can expect a constant supply of canine companionship without any expense at all. Food, vet bills, beds, blankets, even poo bags are paid for. If you have a holiday or need a break, the Freedom Project will arrange cover.
‘Our first dog was just holiday cover for another fosterer but we immediately fell in love with him,’ says Caroline. ‘Since then, we’ve had a huge variety of breeds come to stay with us – huskies, terriers, several staffies. I hadn’t had much experience of staffies before, but they’ve been our favourites – the friendliest and happiest dogs we’ve had. We’re told about any anxieties a dog may have – some might be frightened of loud noises or nervous around men at first – and some take a little while to settle but, on the whole, we’re struck by how incredibly adaptable they are. They’re just so happy to be with us. Their resilience is amazing.’
For Sally, learning about the scheme was all it took to allow her to leave her marriage. A friend had encouraged her to contact a domestic abuse service which had then referred her to a refuge and put her in touch with the Freedom Project. Her husband believed that she was staying with a friend to think about the relationship. ‘At that point, he was being charming, trying to get me back, so he let my mum collect Maggie to visit me,’ she says. Instead, her mum delivered the dog to the Freedom team. ‘Within a week I was getting updates and photos of Maggie out in the fosterer’s garden, rolling around, playing with a tennis ball – she’s mad about tennis balls,’ says Sally. ‘Seeing she was happy and knowing she was safe meant so much.’
Maggie spent five months in foster care until Sally had moved into a place of her own. ‘Getting away from the abuse was great but when I got Maggie back it was amazing – absolutely the best day of my life,’ she says. ‘She was taken to my new home, she jumped all over me and I was bawling my eyes out. The Freedom Project gave me my life back.’
Josie, 47, from the West Midlands, feels exactly the same. When she and her son fled abuse and moved into a refuge, their dachshund Mia spent over a year with a foster carer. ‘It’s such a massive decision to leave and we were losing so much,’ she says. ‘All we took was a suitcase with a few clothes. We couldn’t lose Mia as well.
‘For all that time we were sent photos of her – being groomed or playing with her favourite toy. We stuck them all over a wall. When we finally had a home and were able to have Mia back, I thought she’d have forgotten us – but she was crazy-happy, running around, tail wagging. It’s a year on and she’s such a chilled, happy-go-lucky dog. She sleeps with my son and follows him everywhere. They’re a unit. She’s a family member.’
For Caroline, each reunion means saying goodbye to the dog they’ve been caring for, but this certainly hasn’t put her off. ‘When we started, we thought the fostering would be temporary – just so my partner could experience life with a dog. But we’ve enjoyed it so much that we’ve no plans to stop,’ she says.
‘The main emotion when you return a dog is happiness that it has all been a success and the dog is going back to its family. And there’s always a new dog coming in.’
Give a dog a home
Could you offer an at-risk animal a safe temporary refuge?
The Freedom Project is looking for new foster carers. If you live in Greater London, the Home Counties, Yorkshire, the Northeast or Northwest of England, or the Central Belt of Scotland, have experience with dogs and are at home most of the day (for example, either working from home, in shifts or are retired), call 0800 298 9199 or go to dogstrustfreedomproject.org.uk
If you need to access support
Call 0808 2000 247 or go to dogstrustfreedomproject.org.uk
*Some names and details have been changed