When Jill’s husband of nearly 25 years threw her out of the house, she had two belongings: her car and her dog.
She knew a shelter wouldn’t take her 65-pound yellow lab mix. But she was willing to sleep in the car with Scarlett rather than leave her behind with her abuser. They ended up couch-surfing among relatives and friends for a year.
Finally, they moved into an apartment through Lydia’s House, an organization that provides transitional housing for survivors of domestic abuse. (I am using Jill’s first name due to concerns for her safety.)
The years of living in an abusive situation had taken a toll on both of them. When Jill’s husband went into one of his rages, Scarlett would go outside and hide, refusing to come back for hours. Scarlett started throwing up and developed inflammatory bowel disease.
“She’s very scared of loud, harsh words,” Jill said. Even if she hears people arguing on a TV show, she will leave the room and hide.
“She absorbed everything in that house,” Jill said. “I left as much for her as I did for me.”
Only about 10% of domestic violence shelters in the country allow pets, according to a study by the nonprofit RedRover. And nearly half of victims report delaying leaving their abuser for fear of harm to their animals. More than 70% of women entering shelters say their batterer had either injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or control.
Purina has donated services and money to make four apartments at a St. Louis-area Lydia’s House pet-friendly. They’ve also added a dog park near the complex.
Their work has helped Jill and Scarlett recover and heal together. Jill is 61 years old and disabled. She said the desire to protect Scarlett helped her get through her worst days.
“I don’t know that I could have done everything I did just for me. I was responsible for another life,” she said. “I knew I had to be brave.”
Her dog’s emotional connection to people goes beyond their bond.
Jill has seen Scarlett’s deep emotional intuition in action with strangers. During support group meetings, Scarlett seeks out a woman to sit in front of. It always ends up being the woman who had something traumatic happen to her that week or the one who breaks down in tears while sharing her story.
Scarlett just knows.
A few years ago, they were walking in a park in Arkansas. A young man in his late 20s was sitting alone on a bench. Scarlett kept pulling toward him and wanting to go near him. This was unusual for her: She doesn’t seek out attention from strangers.
But she was determined to get close to this man.
Jill finally took her over to him.
Scarlett put her paws up on his lap, laid her body across him and leaned up against his chest.
The man buried his face in her back and began to sob.
He was a veteran and had a service dog to help him cope with PTSD. His 4-year-old dog had had a heart attack and died a few days earlier, on Christmas Eve.
“She stood there with her front half on his lap and let him cry all over her,” Jill said.
That’s just what Scarlett does.
Jill got her when she was a 3-month-old puppy, and she will be 10 years old in January.
“She’s the Clark to my Lewis,” she says.
They are best friends and survivors.