A new project by Street Nurses investigates whether animals can be used to facilitate contact with homeless people.

As you may have noticed, homeless people often have a dog with them. This four-legged friend is very important to its owner: it offers protection, of course, but most of all, its presence offers comfort and affection that makes the difficulties of street life a little easier to bear.

One day, one of our patients told us about his dog which he had lost a few years ago. He thought back of it with a lot of love, because he had experienced so much friendship from it. He missed his dog, that much was clear.

The story stuck with our colleague, nurse Gaëlle, who herself enjoys the company of Walter, her seven-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. It gave her the idea of taking Walter for a walk in the woods with a patient.

Love at first sight

The meeting went perfectly. It was love at first sight for both of them. The peaceful environment of the forest and nature played a calming role, but the presence of the animal also made it possible to discuss various topics in a relaxed manner. In other circumstances, this would have been more complicated, if not impossible.

This first experience opened our eyes to the role that an animal can play in contacting troubled people. "The dog is an exceptional medium between us as carers and the patient. Its presence facilitates certain conversations and gives rise to problems that can be approached from a different angle," explains Gaëlle. "Such a dog is actually a creature that needs attention and care. Patients will show interest in him and ask questions like: 'How is he doing? What is he eating? ". There is then an immediate reason to ask them these questions too. For those who, for various reasons, do not speak much, the dog can facilitate the exchange."

A dog sets in motion

After those first tests, Street Nurses recently decided to officially turn it into a new project: "mediation through animals". We thus have a new tool for approaching our patients and stimulating them physically and psychologically. Keeping the dog on a leash immediately gives them the urge to stand up straight and adopt a better posture. At the same time, it also gives a sense of control and responsibility, feelings often long forgotten by our patients.

Walter, the dog

In addition, a dog provides an answer to another obstacle in our patients' lives: lack of exercise. Entrusting a dog to them is a good way to get them moving.

"On a psychological level, the impact is also almost immediate: the person in question assumes a different role: from someone who lived on the street and was followed by street nurses, to someone like you and me who walks his dog. The person transforms from a carer to a person who cares," says Gaëlle.

A fine new colleague

So far, the meetings between Walter and the patients have always gone well, without any reluctance on the part of the patients. The reactions vary, but what strikes most is that they really want to care for the animal. They want to stroke it, feed it, know how it is doing, etc. Sometimes they do not even realise that they are petting the dog. It really is a natural stress reliever.

Today Walter is a real colleague! He goes with us to see our patients, but sometimes he also comes with us to the office, much to the delight of the colleagues.

However, we must also continue to pay attention to the welfare of the animals, as the meetings with our patients can be considered work. We must not overburden them either, and thus they too are entitled to adequate rest breaks.


A dog with an education

In order to develop this project, we first of all started to inform ourselves on the basis of the literature: what does an animal bring to the care process and how do you integrate a dog in a working environment he is not used to?

Currently, we are working with a single dog, who is not specially trained. However, due to his social and playful temperament, Walter fulfils his role as a mediator. In the coming months, we will introduce a second dog, who will have received basic training.
We are also guided by several specialists, such as a behaviourist and a student at the school for animal mediation. The latter will follow us up to evaluate the project as objectively as possible. Finally, we are also calling on the services of a veterinarian. He will follow up on our dogs and make sure that they adapt correctly to the different situations and deal appropriately with the emotions they are confronted with.
Of course, we do not just confront our patients with the animals. Before we bring the dog and the patient together, we ask the patient's permission and we check to make sure he or she is not afraid of dogs or has any allergies to animals.
Support us in our animal mediation project