We know how important relationships are, and most of us can name at least one person who has made a difference in our own lives. You may remember our campaign during Care-Experienced Week 2018[1] asking people to tell us about the one relationship that mattered to them, and our Importance of Relationships project[2] focused on the relationships between young people and their workers. But what about the animals in our lives?

As the owner of a dog and three cats, I can relate to many of the suggested benefits to owning a pet[3]: I am fitter from having to take the dog for walks; I certainly have a sense of purpose and responsibility to ensure they are all well-fed and cared for – the cats have even formed a choir to remind me when it’s dinner-time; and I always get the biggest, warmest welcome when I come home, even if I’ve just stepped outside for 10 seconds.

There are so many stories of how pets and animals have helped people in positive ways. Below are some examples which show the importance of relationships between care-experienced young people and their pets and animals.

Connecting Voices

During our Connecting Voices East Ayrshire project, we spoke to a young person about his interest in animals. He has been interested in animals since he was a child, and has had a number of dogs including German Shepherds, a black Labrador, and a poodle. He talked about his interest in dogs being sparked when he started volunteering at a rehoming centre.

“I wasn’t that interested in [dogs] at first, but once I started working at that dog place, they just kind of got to me. Most of the dogs were homeless or just getting treated bad. I think it was once a week I went up there. It was every Monday. If the weather was lashing down I would go up as well. One day when it was lashing down the guy told us to go home because he didn’t think it was a good idea to walk the dogs. But I still went up to see them anyway. I didn’t care what the weather was like, I just cared to go up and spend time with them.”

His role at the rehoming centre was to help with the rehabilitation of the dogs so they could be rehomed, including taking them for walks and getting to know the dogs.

“The dog's trust place was just like a social worker place for dogs. Because my life was just the same, you know, I got treated bad as well. So I saw the dogs place as a home for them to get them back out into the world. I was just like a social worker to them: going in; seeing them; get to know them; getting to hear about their life stories and what kind of life they were in.”

He talked about how he builds relationships with the dogs and gains their trust.

“There’s only one way to get a dog to trust you is actually to spend a lot of time with them and get them to trust you. It’s the only one way you and the dog are going to have a great relationship with each other.”

During his time at the shelter, he found a dog that reminded him of himself.

“One dog I did meet was called Kenny, and I thought he was kind of the spitting image of me because he was completely shy, he wouldn’t trust anybody. When I took him for a walk I found he would look back every five seconds to make sure I was still there, because he wanted to make sure I was still there with him. But he was a bit like me because his background was a bit like me.”

He also talked to us about his relationship with his worker:

“Our relationship is not exactly like a dog but she has always been there for me. She’s an amazing worker. Sometimes she might be a bit bossy, but she’s always been there for me. The same trust she’s had in me, that’s the same trust I’ve had in the dogs.”


“the unconditional love of a dog healed me when I was too damaged to love or be loved by humans” (Ishbel Holmes)

Ishbel Holmes (also known as ‘World Bike Girl’) is an adventurer, author, speaker and animal rescuer from Stirling, Scotland. In 2014, Ishbel set off to cycle the world. In an article in the Telegraph[4], Ishbel talks about when she was cycling across Turkey. She realised she was being followed by a starving and injured street dog.

Trying to focus on cycling the world, Ishbel tried to ignore the dog and even attempted to take it back to the village it came from. Yet Ishbel described her horror as she watched four dogs attack the stray at the same time, and the dog’s reaction to the attack was to lay down and accept it.

“In that moment I was transported back to when I was sixteen years old, in foster care, surrounded by strangers, with not one person who loved me, and I had allowed people to hurt me. I threw down the bike and charged towards the dogs, scaring them off with a force I didn’t know I was capable of.”[5]

Ishbel decided to rescue the dog (Lucy), and put her in a vegetable crate attached to the front of her bike with the aim of taking Lucy to a shelter over 400 miles away. After receiving the donation of a dog-trailer, Ishbel and Lucy travelled over 1000 miles together, and encouraged the people of Turkey to look after street dogs[6]. Ishbel believes that she was able to heal from her own trauma by rescuing and travelling with Lucy.

“…there were times I had up to 20 dogs running for Lucy. And each time I would throw down the bicycle and I would charge towards the dogs with a force that I never knew, screaming “Lucy is not going to die today!” And this confused me. Why would I risk my life to save a street dog when I struggled so much to protect myself in my life? And then I realised. It was because I loved Lucy. That was it. That was the difference. Love. And I realised that I didn’t love myself. And I decided there and then that I would love myself and care for myself the way that I did for this street dog, and that’s how I learned to do it.”[7]

Lucy helped Ishbel with her decision to help dogs as she cycled the world. In 2017, Ishbel rescued a dog in Brazil, Maria, who now travels with her[8].

“My experiences of helping street dogs as I travelled empowered me to believe I can use the strength and wisdom that comes from such adversity in my earlier years, to do my part in helping create a better future for those going through what I went through, whether that be humans or animals.”[9]

Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care (Canada)

In Autumn 2018, Melanie Doucet (PhD candidate at the McGill School of Social Work who is care-experienced) published a report entitled Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care[10]. Throughout 2017, Doucet led a collaborative project, which involved the use of photography and accompanying captions, to take a closer look at the relationships that matter to care-experienced young people and how these can be developed, nurtured and sustained over time. In the accompanying video for the project, Doucet explains that the definition of 'family' had to be expanded to include pets and mentors[11].

In an article online, Doucet noted that “pets came out as one of the most important relationships for youth who aged out of care…I’ve had a cat ever since I aged out of care…and even me, as a former youth-in-care, I didn’t think of that.”[12]

One young person talked about what their cat meant to them:

“As a youth in care, I didn’t get a lot of time with people…But with animals, they give you such unconditional love and it’s always going to be unconditional. Like it doesn’t matter if I change the type of food she’s eating or if I don’t give her pets one day or I accidentally step on her tail – yes she’s going to be mad at me if I step on her tail, but in the end, she’s still going to love me because she’s that type of cat…She means the world to me, and she’s my baby and I love her.”[13]

Another young person talked about the ‘family’ they have built:

“I feel like I can relate to the animals when they’re rescues because I was kind of a rescue, you know. Like, if I wasn’t put into the foster home I was in, I would probably not be here today. They’re my little kids…It’s like super important – family…I feel like I’ve created a new family for myself.”[14]

Animal Magic – Care Inspectorate

In 2018, the Care Inspectorate published a report entitled Animal Magic: the benefits of being around and caring for animals across care settings[15]. This report highlights stories from a range of people in and using care services across Scotland, and the benefits to individuals on having animals in their lives.

Millie, Action for Children Scotland

Millie owns two rabbits, Daisy and Toffee and is responsible for looking after them both[16].

“She’s brought a bit of happiness into my life to be honest…They’re both a joy to have. Since having Daisy and Toffee, it’s like having another person to speak to, even though they can’t speak back. But it means that they can sit there and listen, which helps because with any other adult they will interrupt you and wouldn’t listen – wouldn’t take things in. Since I’ve had my two rabbits, for over a year now, they’ve helped with me speaking to even just staff here…and they’ve been even helping me speak to some of the young people here as well.”[17]

My name is Kenny and I love animals

In a blog post from October 2018[19], Kenny Murray asked a number of care-experienced young people to talk about what their pets mean to them.


“Luna is my best friend. She helps with my mental health – I have BPD – due to childhood abuse –she helps keep me in a routine – she’s the reason I have to get out of bed even on my worst days. She brings me so much joy, and unconditional love.”


“My dogs are my best friends, they are my family. They are loyal and they love me unconditionally and I feel the same way towards them. They are a huge source of comfort for me. My oldest dog, Mr Pumba, was standing at the top of the aisle on my wedding day!”


“Willow is one of the best things to ever happen to me. She is my best friend and I love her.”


“…the bond my dog and I have is unbreakable. I’ve loved him from the moment I met him, and I know he loves me too.”


While spending time with pets and animals isn't for everyone, it is clear from these stories (and the research) that there can be some real benefits for care-experienced young people. Being able to put trust in an animal who only has unconditional love to offer can be a first step in learning to trust and open up to other people.


Photo: Teaching my dog, Zoe, to Swim, Cheryl Leggett


[1] Staf (2018) #OneRelationship Twitter Campaign

[2] Leggett, C (2018) The Importance of Relationships

[3] National Center for Health Research (2017) The Benefits of Pets for Human Health

[4] Holmes, I (2018) How one sad dog led me to travel the world rescuing strays on a bicycle [The Telegraph]

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin, J G (2018) Meet the woman who travels the world on her bike rescuing dogs [Lonely Planet]

[7] Who Cares? Scotland (2018) The Global Care Family Gathering – Ishbel Holmes

[8] Ibid.

[9] Holmes, I (2018) How one sad dog led me to travel the world rescuing strays on a bicycle [The Telegraph]

[10] Douchet, M (2018) Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care: Research Report

[11] Doucet, M (2018) Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care: Project Video

[12] Hyslop, K (2018) Want to Fix Foster Care? Ask Kids Who Have Been Through the System [The Tyee]

[13] Doucet, M (2018) Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care p38

[14] Ibid. p39

[15] Care Inspectorate (2018) Animal Magic: the benefits of being around and caring for animals across care settings

[16] Ibid. p35

[17] Care Inspectorate (2018) Animal Magic – Millie (Land Street, Buckie)

[18] Care Inspectorate (2018) Animal Magic: the benefits of being around and caring for animals across care settings p35-36

[19] Kenny Murray (2018) My name is Kenny and I love animals

Credit: Main Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash