When Dogs Heal—A Photographic Project

People Living with HIV and the Dogs that Saved Them
By Cameron Woo, November 2015, Updated December 2015

When Dogs Heal is a photographic project that tells the stories of people who believe that the best medicine may not always be found at a pharmacy or in the doctor’s office; sometimes it comes in the form of a dog.

Photographed by Bark contributor and award-winning photographer Jesse Freidin, When Dogs Heal (WDH) is a project of the non-profit charity Fred Says, whose mission it is to ensure that all young people living with HIV receive the services they need to lead healthy, productive lives. Fred Says was started in 2012 by Dr. Robert Garofalo and his dog, Fred, who he adopted shortly after surviving cancer and later being diagnosed with HIV. Doctor Rob, as his patients call him, is Division Head of Adolescent Medicine and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality and HIV Prevention at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Garofalo credits Fred, a rambunctious Yorkie, for getting him through some of his darkest moments and helping him rediscover peace and joy in his life—things he thought he may have lost forever. Today, Fred Says assists the HIV+ community through education, treatment and prevention. The organization’s 50,000 Facebook followers often share stories about their own dogs.

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In 2014, Garofalo together with photographer Freidin and writer Zach Stafford traveled to five U.S. cities—Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta—seeking people to be photographed with their dogs, and to share their stories about the healing power of their canine companions after being diagnosed with HIV. Whether it was to combat loneliness or stigma, to discover the importance of unconditional love, to manage one’s medical care, to overcome addiction, or to simply have a best friend in a time of need—each person’s story is a unique and empowering account of the incredible bond between a person and their pet. “There are stories of hope and healing, addiction and learning what unconditional love was supposed to be about, because so many people that get HIV feel that they are not lovable anymore,” Garofalo says. 

"WDH allows us to be a little creative,” Garofalo explains. He has noticed that things have gotten a little stale, when it comes to finding fresh ways in which to address HIV and AIDS nowadays. “Medications have become so much more effective,” he says, “but I don’t think there is an energy, at least in this country, in the sense of talking about HIV the way we used to. I don’t think you read news stories about HIV anymore in the mainstream media. Hopefully that’s because people aren’t dying anymore, and that’s a great thing. When Dogs Heal–People Living with HIV and the Dogs that Saved Them focuses on living. That’s a big change. It’s really about the dogs rescuing people.”

The participants’ stories will accompany their portraits in a series of exhibitions opening across the country. Three art exhibits are to open simultaneously on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), as part of the When Dogs Heal Project—at the LGBT Center in New York City; in Chicago; and in San Francisco, at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Plans are to take the exhibit on the road in the coming year, to universities, schools and communities, especially in cities that are the hotspots of new HIV infections. The project is another important chapter in the fight against AIDS and recognition of the important ways dogs can benefit those who open their hearts.

To learn more visit wdhproject.org.

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Photography by Jesse Freidin