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For People Living With HIV, Dogs Can Be the Best Medicine

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In an age when support animals are now commonplace in airports and restaurants, it’s no secret that animals, dogs in particular, can provide enormous therapeutic benefits to their human counterparts. And now a new book geared toward young adults delves even deeper into the subject by featuring it from the viewpoint of people living with HIV.

When Dogs Heal: Powerful Stories of People Living with HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them is a powerful portrait of a diverse group of HIV-positive people and their canine companions. The book highlights how dogs offer not only numerous health benefits to people — including decreased blood pressure and cholesterol levels — but significant mental health boosts as well. The ability of dogs to combat loneliness is especially important these days, as many struggle on their own during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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When Dogs Heal is a group effort created by writer Christina Garofalo, award-winning dog photographer Jesse Freidin, adolescent HIV specialist Dr. Robert Garofalo, and LGBTQ+ advocate and journalist Zach Stafford. Freidin’s beautiful and moving images are certainly a highlight of the work — as are the intimate and inspiring stories offered throughout.

Recently, Plus got a chance to catch up with the book’s coauthors to discuss how the project came to be.

“Rob Garofalo commissioned me to photograph him and Fred many years ago in San Francisco, when Fred was just a puppy,” Freidin recalls of first meeting his coauthor and his dog, also featured in the book. “That started a long friendship that not only kept us in each other’s lives but helped open my eyes to the ways in which dogs help heal humans from the deepest of hurts and illnesses. From then on, my focus has truly been to uncover the ways in which humans and dogs heal each other simultaneously — and to remove hurtful stigma from the pains and challenges that we all go through in life.”

Dr. Garofalo shares why it was especially important for him to be a part of the project.

“It’s my personal journey living with HIV, as well as the healing brought to my life by my dog Fred, that inspired this project,” he says. “It’s an honor to be among the participants in this book. However, the book is decidedly not about Fred or me. Over years of researching this book, we had the good fortune to meet so many brave and beautiful people who risked being vulnerable and told us absolutely mesmerizing stories of survival, gratitude, and hope. The people in this book have often gone unseen and their stories therefore, too, often untold because of the stigma and fears that surround being honest about HIV…. Each person you will read about was once broken by a devastating diagnosis but, with the help of a four-legged companion, found the strength to rise and heal and overcome.”

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Stafford, another contributor to the book, explains why he also has emotional attachments to the project.

“Most people don’t know this, but I have lost two family members from the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” says Stafford. “The first person being my maternal grandmother and the second being an uncle on my dad’s side. Both of their deaths had a profound impact on how I saw the world, and in many ways helped steer me to wanting to tell stories of those of us that the world decides to ignore or erase…. As we set out to meet more people like Rob, people who adopted dogs after being diagnosed, I was overwhelmed with how vast and diverse the stories were. And the one thing they gave to me, in each interview, was hope.”

Coauthor Christina Garofalo says that for her, the work is very personal as well. In fact, it’s a family affair.

“Well, first off, Rob is my uncle,” she says. “I saw the ups and downs since his own diagnosis and how his relationship with Fred inspired him to bring more good to the world, and that moved me…. But really, I met the participants — many of whom told me that, given the choice, they wouldn’t change their diagnosis. Through the darkest, loneliest moments of their lives, with the help of their dogs, they found a chance to redefine their purpose…that is the kind of exquisite, human truth every writer dreams of capturing.”

“Their stories speak to every one of us that’s ever feared we aren’t worthy of love,” she adds. “Thanks to the participants, When Dogs Heal captures a subject that for 40 years has been about death, and transforms it into a love letter to life.”

When Dogs Heal: Powerful Stories of People Living with HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them will be released March 2 from Zest Books, and is available for pre-sale on Amazon. A portion of the proceeds from the book’s sales will benefit Fred Says, an organization founded by Robert Garofalo, dedicated to financially supporting health care for teens living with HIV.

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