As a homeless man sleeping rough in London, Sam* had no way of paying for the essential products his beloved dog needed to be happy and healthy. “I used to shoplift for my dog’s food and have a criminal record for stealing it. I don’t do that any more,” he says.
Sam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is just one of the hundreds of homeless people who’ve been helped by DOTS (Dogs On The Streets) London, which provides free food, collars, leads, blankets, dog coats and more to pups without a permanent roof over their head. DOTS also has a dedicated team of voluntary vets and pet groomers who provide free weekly check-ups and emergency care for those who need it.
The London-based charity is celebrating its one-year anniversary this week after founder Michelle Clark set up the first help station in 2017. Today, DOTS runs weekly stalls at King’s Cross and The Strand and has mobile help vans that travel across the capital providing 24/7 support to the homeless community and their pets.
For many homeless people, their dogs are their closest companions - the ones who show them unconditional love through difficult times and help to ease the loneliness of life on the streets. Michelle says rough sleepers are always grateful for the help she and her teams offer.
“I think DOTS is just such a reassurance for them, it takes a huge weight off their shoulders, which then enables them to focus on themselves a bit more, because their whole focus - even food - often goes to their dog first,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Sometimes if they can’t access dog food they give their pets human food. The vast majority of them are not aware of the dangers of the human food for dogs, and they get quite upset when they find out they’re giving their dog something that really they shouldn’t be. But we understand it’s about survival.”
An avid animal-lover, Michelle started helping dogs on the streets in 2012 after repeatedly walking past a homeless man and his dog near her home in Crouch End.
“It was coming up to Christmas and I went to the local market and put all these little bits in a box for the dog, and done it all up in tinsel,” she says. “It took me a little while to give the box to him. I was the hesitant one - I wasn’t sure how it would be accepted. But one day I just plucked up the courage and gave it to him and it was like I’d given him and his dog a pot of gold. It was so overwhelming.”
For the next five years, Michelle became integrated with her local homeless community, independently giving rough sleepers food and other products to help with their dogs. But it was when she met one particular dog, named Poppy, she became determined to do more.
Poppy’s owner, who Michelle had met on one of her rounds, had collapsed on the street and was taken to hospital. When he was discharged he was placed in temporary accommodation, but wasn’t allowed to bring Poppy with him. Michelle agreed to take Poppy in to her own home to put his mind at rest.
“She was the most amazing dog - now this is going to choke me - but she taught me so much...she passed away two days after Christmas. I had her for just over a year,” Michelle says. “She was the one who inspired me to become a named organisation so I could give more.”
Michelle has teamed up with a long list of brands who donate supplies ranging from dog food to toys for her to give away at the stalls she runs, but a major part of DOTS is also the veterinary, grooming and training services the teams offer.
At each station, DOTS has obedience trainers on hand to give homeless people tips, reducing instances of dog-on-dog aggression, for example, and teaching dogs to be comfortable when being handled by groomers.
The groomers look after the general physical welfare of the animals, cutting their nails and giving them showers, while a team of trained, volunteer vets provide dogs with basic weekly health checks. The vets give advice to owners on subjects like nutrition if a dog appears overweight or malnourished and run weekly “weigh-ins”. “The owners get to put their dogs on the scales and are really proud when they’ve made an improvement,” Michelle says.
The vets also administer flea and worm treatments for any dogs who need it and if a more serious health problem is detected, dogs are taken to one of the local veterinary surgeries DOTS has partnered with. All treatment - including costly surgery - is covered by DOTS, primarily using money donated by the public.
All dogs who come into contact with the charity are fitted with a tag that has emergency contact details on it. If a dog becomes ill when a station isn’t open, “even if it’s one in the morning”, a homeless person can ring the phone number and a mobile vet van will be dispatched to their location.
The volunteers also go above and beyond to help the distressed owner in these instances, sometimes talking with them until the early hours and dropping them back to whichever location they choose.
Louise Collins, veterinary clinical director at DOTS, has helped dogs with serious illnesses, but says the incident that most resonates with her was helping a man who arrived at a help station with a very elderly dog.
“He was concerned about her health in general. Durning the examination, I would see he was becoming quite distressed and kept asking if she was going to be okay. I was able to reassure him she as very well for her age and he was doing a very good job looking after his dog,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“He could not thanks us enough for putting his mind at rest. It was a straightforward case, but the obvious relief knowing his dog was going to be alright was immense and rewarding.”
Knowing vets like Louise are on hand to help makes a huge difference to the homeless community in London.
“DOTS is phenomenal and without them life on the streets with my dog would be much harder and stressful not knowing how to access vet care. We both look forward to going to their station each week,” one rough sleeper, who wishes not to be named, says.
Another adds: “Dogs On The Streets haven’t just helped my dog they have helped me too, they have been more like a family to me. Their help is 24/7 and I can always call if ever there is a problem with my dog.”
Michelle says she’s also become attached to the many people she’s met through the charity. “I didn’t expect it to actually grow this big so quickly, but that proves to me how much we are needed out there,” she says. “It’s nice to hear from the homeless people that we are making a difference, but it’s a shame we’re needed at all.”
DOTS London is based on The Strand (between Rymans and the Zimbabwe Embassy, WC2R 0QN) every Sunday from 2pm-4pm. The charity is at King’s Cross Station (at the corner of York Way, Nw1) every Wednesday evening 7.30pm – 9.30pm. Find more about DOTS London or make a donation online here.
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