A charity fostering dogs belonging to women fleeing domestic abuse says it has seen an increase of almost a quarter in the use of its services in Scotland over the last 12 months. 

Dogs Trust runs an initiative called ‘Freedom Project’ which provides temporary fostering for dogs belonging to victims of domestic abuse, allowing them to access safe accommodation without worrying about what might happen to their pet if they leave it behind. 

Its Scottish service has seen a 23% increase in dogs being brought in from owners seeking to flee an abusive home over the last year. 

Experts working with domestic abuse victims say pets are commonly used as a tool for coercion against women and children. 

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In a survey of professionals working in support services for domestic abuse victims conducted by Dogs Trust, 97% of respondents said that animals are often used as a means of controlling someone in an abusive situation. Pets are often abused and even killed in efforts to control and coerce the victim.

Since the Freedom Project launched in 2018, a total of 177 dogs in Scotland have been fostered through the scheme, which has helped 135 people to escape situations of domestic abuse. 

The costs of looking after the animal for the foster owner are covered by Dogs Trust through the scheme, including vet bills, food, treats, grooming and bedding. To protect the anonymity of the dog’s original owner, they are placed in foster care in different areas to their home.

To respond to the increased number of domestic abuse victims coming to them with their dogs, Dogs Trust is now calling on more people in Scotland to consider becoming foster owners.

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Neil from Glasgow joined the scheme as a foster carer as a way to do something positive after his own dog died: “We lost our own dog about five years ago, and while we had a dog shaped hole in our hearts we didn’t want to commit to another dog of our own. My wife found out about dog fostering for the Freedom Project online and we realised this was something we could do to support people in a difficult situation.

“Being a dog fosterer gives us the opportunity to be more sociable outdoors, and it’s incredibly rewarding seeing the dogs settle and to know you have provided a safe place for the dog. The owner doesn’t need to worry about where their dog is or how they are being cared for, and they are a much loved part of the family until they go home.”

Another fosterer from the scheme, Susie from Falkirk, said she had “previously not thought about the situation dog owners must find themselves in when fleeing domestic abuse. “

“I love everything about fostering through the Freedom Project, from getting to know each of the dogs, their good company and knowing they will be reunited with their owner once everyone is safe. I’ve benefited too; physically by getting more exercise, mentally through meeting other people with dogs,” said Susie.

Laura Saunders, Freedom Project Manager at Dogs Trust said: “We’ve seen first-hand the ways that perpetrators use dogs to coerce, control, physically harm and threaten within abusive relationships. This is incredibly frightening for survivors and is often aimed to leave people isolated. 

“By providing temporary foster homes for dogs, we support survivors to access safe accommodation with the reassurance that their dog will be taken care of until they can be reunited.  

“Whilst we are pleased to have been able to help so many people, there is still very much a need for our service, and we urgently need more foster carers across the UK so that we can continue this life-saving work.”  

A spokeswoman for Scottish Women’s Aid said: “As ever, figures are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scale of domestic abuse happening across Scotland. But we do know that perpetrators commonly use animals as one of their tools to coerce and abuse women and children – including threats or actual harm to the much loved pet, or else threatening to keep or harm the pet if their partner leaves.

“There is already so much loss for a family experiencing domestic abuse, including for many having to leave their home, and one of the problems for survivors accessing housing or refuge is the fear of what will happen to their pets if the refuge doesn’t accept animals. So, having a service like the Freedom Project is invaluable in helping to increase choices and space for action while providing stability and safety for survivors and their dogs in the process of recovery.”