Tales of Dogs and Their Homeless Companions


My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals By Leslie Irvine. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2015.

Leslie Irvine aptly builds a sociological understanding of the importance of human/animal interaction in her book, My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals. In her previous articles and books, she broadened symbolic interactionism to encompass the animal mind and self, extended analytic perspectives on animals to include theoretical issues of social structure, and examined the plight of animals in disasters as a window into larger questions of responses to disasters. My Dog Always Eats First continues her research agenda and extends symbolic interaction perspectives to cast light on the complicated and compassionate relationships that homeless people have with their animals, and she provides insights into how these relationships inform our understanding of homelessness.

Through a narrative approach, she gives voice to homeless people with animals, while dispelling misunderstandings about the capabilities of the homeless to care for their animals. She begins by telling about her initial contact with a homeless young man and his dog as he held up his sign begging for assistance as he stood with his dog on the median of a busy street in Boulder, Colorado. Believing the man was endangering his pet, she tried to intervene, even offering to purchase the dog, only to be rebuked. The young man's passion and connection to his animal caused her to rethink stereotypical understandings about the “cruelty” that an animal dependent on a homeless person must endure.

Irvine relates how she gained access to homeless people in the cities where she conducted her interviews, Western cities where veterinarians offered free care and food to the animals of the homeless. She traveled with the mobile care units and, thereby, gained entree to a population that is largely invisible. Relying on literature about the homeless, she identifies different types of homelessness, for example, the recently dislocated, straddlers, settled outsiders, and travelers. Her use of these types is important because they allow her to situate the narratives of her interviewees in social contexts.

Focused on interactions between the homeless and the domiciled, she evokes the concepts of stigma, identity and stigma management. She shows how the homeless use their dogs, and less often their cats, as “props” to minimize stigma. As the only group stigmatized for having pets, the homeless have developed several responses: open defiance, contained defiance, and redefining. Each strategy is illustrated with stories told by the homeless, stories of resistance to stigma, and even positive aspects of homeless and domiciled interactions such as donations and opportunities to resist stigma by association.

The remaining chapters of her book illustrate the meanings and functions that animals may have for homeless people: animals (mostly, dogs) take on the meanings and some functions of friend and family. As a homeless woman put it, “There're my best friend. My children, too.” Dogs also function to form a cohesive social unit (a pack of two), and they become protector and even lifechanger and lifesaver.

Narratives are associated with different types of homelessness, for example, travelers rely on their dog to act as barrier between a sometimes-hostile world and their private space. “The dog barked. I was safe.” More settled homeless folks tend to define their animals as family members, while mobility gives rise to a tight bond between human and animal that constitutes a “pack.” Narratives of long term relationship and sacrifices that the homeless make on behalf of their animals are described for travelers and the settled homeless.

In a separate chapter, she relates moving stories of how dogs rescued their people from drug abuse, violent relationships or even served their human as a life changing experiences. For instance, Pali (an informant) remembers her dog, Leadbelly, because “he helped me learn to take care of myself by taking care of him.” Now she runs a dog rescue operation in his honor, and is committed to staying sober. Of course, Irvine carefully points out that these tropes are those of the homeless, and they are important to the identities and sense making interpretations that homeless people construct for themselves and others.

Readable and anchored in symbolic interaction theory, Irvine's My Dogs Always Eat First illustrates that animal/human relationships are not just peripheral concerns to a full accounting for homelessness. Through the stories of the homeless and their animals, she reveals to her reader insights into motivations and life styles of the homeless, and she raises broader issues of societal responses to homelessness.

As I read this book, I recalled Spradley's study of a once common form of homelessness, the tramp. Spradley's tramps did not have dogs, at least he did not mention them. I recalled his You Owe Yourself a Drunk because of his insistence on preserving the perspective of the informant, using the actual words of tramps to depict their way of life. Spradley started with folk terms and arrived at the cultural meanings and social practices of tramps; Irvine starts with stories, and interprets these narratives through the conceptual lens of symbolic interaction, situating types of homelessness in social contexts. Both paths lead to authentic understandings of the lives of homeless people, their resourcefulness and the hardships they endure. I believe Spradley would enthusiastically endorse Irvine's book. I do that in his stead.


  • Jeffrey E. Nash is professor emeritus (Missouri State University) and former chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is author of The Meanings of Social Interaction with James Calonico and he co-edited with Paul Higgins two editions of Understanding Deafness Socially. He has articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics from bulldogs to barbershop singing. With Charles Edgley, he is co-editor of The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.