The Healing Power of Dogs

New book showcases dogs’ role in making the daily lives of people who are HIV+ better.
By Susan Tasaki, November 2020, Updated February 2021
when dogs heal book

Dogs are often our staunchest allies. They comfort us, they keep us connected to the world around us, they ground us in life’s daily routines. That’s a lot to expect from any companion, yet they do it instinctively, without being asked. And when our world is shadowed by illness, isolation, grief or anger, the love and solace we receive from our dogs—unconditionally and unquestioningly—make the days more bearable.

The power of that relationship is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming book, When Dogs Heal: The Healing Power of Dogs Within the HIV Community, by award-winning photographer Jesse Freidin. Produced in collaboration with adolescent HIV+ specialist Dr. Robert Garofalo and journalists Christina Garofalo and Zach Stafford, and published by Zest/Lerner Books, it showcases people living with this condition and the dogs who help them navigate it.

Freidin began documenting his subjects’ lives in 2014 as part of a special project initiated by Fred Says, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Garofalo and named in honor of the Yorkie he credits with helping him heal from his own HIV+ diagnosis and, as he says, “creating a space for peace and joy in his life.” The nonprofit’s mission is to ensure that HIV+ adolescents receive the services they need to live healthy and productive lives.

To memorialize the many ways dogs create similar spaces of peace and joy in the lives of others living with this condition, Freidin and his team traveled hundreds of miles to photograph and talk to those willing to share their stories.

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Freidin, the country’s leading fine-art dog photographer with work in more than 150 private collections across the country, was a natural choice for this project. At the heart of his art is his interest in the deeply healing power of the human/animal bond and a desire to honor the roles dogs play in our lives. His commitment, not to mention his skill, is displayed throughout this inspiring, life-affirming book, which is rich in examples of the ways dogs guide us through life. Below are two examples.

when dogs heal lynnea coconut

Lynnea + Coconut (excerpt)

I found out I was HIV-positive when I was seven. It was 1992, and all I knew about HIV was what I heard in the news: Magic Johnson had retired from basketball because he’d been diagnosed with HIV (a death sentence at the time), and Ryan White had been kicked out of school for going public with his own HIV diagnosis. Back then HIV only meant AIDS, and it meant you were dying. 

For 10 years I struggled to get out of an abusive relationship because I believed that because of my diagnosis I should be grateful—lucky, even—to have anyone at all. I thought: I’m HIV-positive; who would want to be with me?

Then I got Coconut, who changed all of that.  Coconut showed me that I deserved more out of a partner—not just for me, but for the baby girl growing inside of me. Soon my daughter would be looking at me as the example of who she’s supposed to be; I would be responsible for showing her what a healthy relationship is.

Lately, I’ve found myself not hiding in silence anymore. I no longer look at HIV as something negative in my life, or as a reason to push people away. Instead of looking for a person who’s okay with my status, I look now for a person I can be happy with. Coconut has shown me I can be loved by another living thing—that I deserve a love that doesn’t hurt.

when dogs heal rob and fred

Rob + Fred (excerpt)

I kept both the secret of my HIV diagnosis locked away for more than a year, because I was paralyzed by shame. As a doctor, I’d helped hundreds of young people confront and overcome an HIV diagnosis and its stigma. Once, in 1990, I had close to 20 patients die of AIDS while on-call in just one night.

I’m not sure where it came from—maybe because I had just been around my brother’s dogs over the holidays—but one day I had a crazy thought: Maybe I should get a dog. Within 48 hours, Fred was in my living room.

Fred is a miracle of a dog, but he’s not a miracle worker. Healing requires my participation, and we work on it together. Over the last eight years, Fred has been my partner in crime, my co-pilot, and my guardian angel. He’s shown me an unconditional love that I don’t think is possible from a human. People internalize hurt and have a hard time moving on, but not dogs. I have not always been the best father, but no matter what kind of father I am, Fred is always there for me. When you’re grappling with an HIV diagnosis, there is no way to overstate the importance of that kind of support. 

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

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

All photography by Jesse Freidin Photographer

Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.