Lifesaving Dog Helps a Family in Crisis: Pets in Women’s Shelters Offer Unconditional Love

By Steve Dale

The smoke was so heavy Sheila* could barely breath. Call it adrenalin or instinct, but she wasn’t about to leave her burning home without her children. And, the family shepherd-mix, Nyla, wasn’t going anywhere without Sheila. Moments later, as the fire worsened, Sheila heard her oldest daughter scream from outside, “We’re all safe.”

Now the problem was getting herself to safety. Sheila couldn’t see through the thick smoke to find her way, but Nyla could as she herded her toward the door. Whenever Sheila lost track of Nyla, the dog simply barked.

Sheila, her voice cracking with emotion, said, “Nyla could have left anytime, instead she chose to stay and risk her own life and faced death to save me. I didn’t know dogs really do that in real life.”

Her home and belongings were destroyed in the fire. But the fire was nothing compared to the violence of her abusive husband, which Sheila had been living with for years in Ohio. Now, she was finally ready to take her kids and make the courageous break. However, the first woman’s shelter she visited in Florida ” the state where her brother lives – wouldn’t accept Nyla.

For starters, her husband had already threatened to harm Nyla. Sheila knew he could and would, so leaving Nyla with him wasn’t an option. When Nyla had puppies, her husband had severely harmed the puppies by throwing them against a wall. He didn’t hesitate to kick Nyla whenever he felt like it.

The good news is her husband hadn’t harmed the three kids, a 10-year old son, and two daughters ages 16 and 13.

“It’s called ‘the Link,’ the relationship between animal abuse and violence toward people,” Allie Phillips, director of public policy at the American Humane Association, said.

According to a 1997 study conducted by Frank Ascione and Phil Arkow (and published in “Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention”) between 71 and 85 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that a partner had threatened or harmed the family pet. Other studies have subsequently confirmed this finding. “Abusers practice on pets, but also use the pets for control,” Phillips said.

American Humane was the organization that first funded the research to discover ‘the Link,’ and on Feb. 13 announced a program called Pets and Women’s Shelter Program (PAWS). This landmark program is a national initiative to promote on-site housing of pets at women’s shelters.

In part, the PAWS program is based on the success of four existing shelters; one of those shelters is the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples, Fla. where Sheila found protection for her entire family. “I can’t tell you what it’s meant for all of us to allow Nyla to stay here,” she stops and attempts to gain her composure. “I made some poor choices in my life, but this wasn’t Nyla’s fault. How could I give her up?” Again, she stops talking to gain her composure. “I’m sorry. This is so emotional. Nyla saved my life. And I had Nyla from when she was a little puppy. I could hold her in the palm of my hand. She’s one of my kids too.”

Nyla doesn’t sleep with the rest of the family, but lives in a kennel at the women’s shelter with a spacious yard to romp in. Marci Sanders, director of operations at the Shelter for Abused Women & Children, said, “We designed this building, which opened in 2002, with the idea of being able to house pets. We’ve learned it’s a huge benefit to keep the entire family intact.”

On average about 100 pets stay at the women’s shelter annually. The pet list has included gerbils, hamsters and chinchillas.

“Having a pet offers at least some stability,” Sanders adds. “In most cases, the kids have very few toys, maybe even only the clothes on their backs when they arrive here. And they don’t know exactly what’s going on or why.”

Phillips says that an overwhelming amount of women’s shelters don’t allow pets. “We want to address their concerns and find solutions to change this. We believe the PAWS program, which is free for shelters, is a valuable resource. The nation witnessed during Hurricane Katrina how families in crisis value pets. Maybe if more women’s shelters allowed pets, more women would escape their situation knowing they could take the pets with them.”

That turns out to be the case for Sheila. “This is such a hard time, and for the kids to wake up and see their dog is important,” Sheila said. “We’ve lost everything, but losing Nyla too would have been unbearable.”

Her son has Asperger syndrome and Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder. “Nyla has been particularly therapeutic for him,” she said. “And (therapeutic) for all of us, because every day, Nyla tells us she loves us.”

*Sheila is not her real name, but used to protect her privacy and potentially her safety.

Learn more about Pets and Women’s Shelter Program (PAWS),


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