When Dogs Heal: An Interview with Jesse Freidin and Dr. Robert Garofalo

A new book uses powerful stories and photographs to show the difference dogs make to people with HIV. 

When Dogs Heal: A portrait of a man sitting on the floor hugging his happy brown pit-bull type dog. One of the stunning images from When Dogs Heal by Jesse Friedin and Dr. Rob Garofalo, interviewed here.
Adam and Laila, from the book When Dogs Heal. Photo: Jesse Freidin.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Through stunning portraits and moving stories, When Dogs Heal: Powerful Stories of People Living with HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them shares the joy of people’s relationship with their dog and how it helps with the challenges of living with a diagnosis of HIV. The book features interviews about how loving a dog has helped people learn to cope with stigma and to love themselves, alongside beautiful photos of those interviewed and their dog. I spoke to two of the authors, photographer Jesse Freidin and Dr. Robert Garofalo, about the idea for the book and how it all came together. 

When Dogs Heal: book cover. An interview with Jesse Friedin and Dr. Rob Garofalo

Zazie: How did the book come about?

Jesse: I met Rob almost a decade ago when he commissioned me to photograph him and his new Yorkie puppy, Fred, in San Francisco. I could tell there was a very deep, immediate connection between Rob and Fred, and like many clients Rob and I stayed in touch. Years later, Rob was in Los Angeles for work and stopped by my LA studio so we could catch up over coffee. He brought his colleague, writer Zach Stafford, with him and together we listened as Rob told us how foundational Fred was in his own journey toward accepting his HIV diagnosis. The three of us wondered if there weren’t many other HIV positive people around the country with similar stories, and with excitement and passion the idea for ‘When Dogs Heal’ was born. We quickly got to work photographing HIV positive people and their dogs across the country over the span of many years, which then turned into a traveling national exhibit and eventually a book deal. 

"He brought peace and joy back to my life when I thought they gone forever."

Robert: On a fall day in 2013 I traveled to Los Angeles with my friend and colleague Zach Stafford, as part of a charity event honoring Fred Says. While we were there, Zach and I decided to pay a visit to Jesse Freidin, an acclaimed pet photographer and friend I had met a few years earlier. The three of us talked about the challenges facing my non-profit group Fred Says (which raises money for HIV youth programs), of how to leverage social media to fundraise, by connecting a dog (in this case, Fred) to the broader mission of a nonprofit charity supporting those affected by and living with HIV. We struggled for a bit until suddenly, I knew I had it. “When Dogs Heal!” I blurted out. It was in that moment this project was born. Unlikely partners—a pediatrician, a writer and a photographer—we sat there, thinking creatively and ultimately envisioning a project where we would travel the country and tell stories of real people living with HIV and their dogs, using both photography and narrative to capture the healing power these amazing animals have in helping those grappling with a stigmatized, often chronic, and sometimes deadly disease. Along the way we added my niece Christina Garofalo to our team to help with the interviews and writing. From the beginning I knew we had a dream team to bring this to life.

When Dogs Heal: Co-author Dr. Rob Garofalo with his dog Fred
Dr. Robert Garofalo with Fred. Photo: Jesse Freidin.

There are some amazing stories in the book of how people's dogs have helped them through hard times. Can you share one or two things you've learned about the relationship between people and their dog from working on the book? 

Jesse: For the past 15 years I’ve been studying the healing bond between dogs and their people through my photography, so this topic is something I am deeply passionate about and excited by. The unique message that ‘When Dogs Heal’ has made clear is that dogs can not only be a true antidote for the loneliness and hardship created by stigma, they often act as a way back to ourselves when we are emotionally lost. I think that was the most profound theme that came about through this project - that by loving our dogs we are in turn learning to love ourselves. And by loving ourselves, even through sickness and trauma and stigma, we can survive. 

Robert: One of the things that I learned was that a dog is not enough. Healing is an active process that requires us as participants to make good decisions - sometimes daily - about the people in our lives and the things that we do. The stigma that surrounds HIV doesn’t just evaporate or disappear because someone gets a dog. But rather, a dog with its pure soul and unconditional love gives us renewed hope and confidence, in part because they see us as our ideal selves

When Dogs Heal: One of the stunning images from this book featuring a black woman holding her baby and with her little dog sitting by her feet
Lynnea and Coconut. Photo: Jesse Freidin.

Zazie: Why is the relationship with a dog so important for people who have a diagnosis of HIV? 

Robert: HIV? I think it takes on such a special significance for those of us living with HIV because of the stigma associated with the virus and the resultant shame and guilt many have following their diagnosis. With HIV, you question which if any of your friends and/or family are going to supportive or are going to understand. Many, such as myself, hide their diagnosis from friends and loved ones afraid that disclosure may result in fractured or abandoned relationships. But with a dog’s unconditional love there are no such fears. Our dogs see as we want to be seen, in some ways as our idealized selves, free of the stigma and shame and judgement that too often accompany HIV.

“After years of battling depression and anxiety that came with being a long-term AIDS survivor, my doctor suggested a companion dog might be good for me. I never felt alone when Harry was with me. At night, we’d lay nose to nose and I’d say “I just love you.” He would look into my eyes without blinking, and there was this complete trust that we would take care of each other always.”

-Gary, When Dogs Heal.

Zazie: Jesse, how did you approach taking the photos for the book? 

Jesse: This is one of the only projects I’ve ever created in color, as my speciality is black and white dog portraiture. I decided to shoot in color because I wanted to approach these portraits with a balance of true joy - pulling out the essence of happiness and connection in my subjects - with an elevated reverence for the survival and hardships of everyone I worked with. It’s a delicate balance, and certainly a challenge, to take an overly stigmatized story (the out dated, incredibly negative and harmful narrative surrounding HIV), and turn that on its head to show the true beauty within the experience of living through illness and thriving. As always, I wanted my subjects to feel connected to the message of our project and to trust me - so I kept the set up incredibly simple and let the personalities and love of my subjects simply exist in front of my camera. The intentional simplicity is what allows for such vibrant emotion to show up on the page. I also bring a lot of myself to every shoot, because if I can show up as present and with nothing to hide my subjects eventually mirror that energy as well. 

When Dogs Heal: A man hugs his little black dog, one of the photographs in the moving book When Dogs Heal. An interview with the co-authors.
Julian and Papi. Photo: Jesse Freidin.

Zazie: Dr. Rob, how has your own dog helped you with living with HIV? 

Robert: For me, my HIV diagnosis was the last in a series of unfortunate events in my Life: a cancer diagnosis, a horrific assault and sexual attack and a divorce from my partner. I was devastated. I honestly felt very much alone and unsafe in my own home and even my own body. I had become convinced that simple things such as peace and joy had been permanently erased from my life. Fred (my dog) reminded me of the good in the world. He had this pure little soul and boundless energy. He reminded me of myself as a child with in the world. He slowly brought me back to life. With him, I never alone. And even though he weighed little than 1 pound, with him I felt safe. In some ways it defied logic and that was part of its beauty. He insisted that I, that we, engage with the world. He brought peace and joy back to my life when I thought they gone forever

Zazie: This book has been almost 7 years in the making. What have you learned along the way?  

Jesse: I think we’ve all learned a lot along the way. This project has required an immense amount of hard work from all of us - traveling around the country a few times a year and shooting and editing, all pro-bono, took a lot out of us while we each balanced our regular careers. However, throughout the entire 7 year process from concept to book deal, each of us has always completely believed in the message and importance of When Dogs Heal. We knew we were changing lives, telling incredibly compelling stories and doing work to erase stigma. So, the biggest lesson for me was that patience and hard work pay off. Telling stories and creating art is never a guaranteed path to recognition, but when you believe in something like this you just do the work because it feels good and hope it strikes a chord in someone else. 

"By loving our dogs we are in turn learning to love ourselves. And by loving ourselves, even through sickness and trauma and stigma, we can survive."

Robert: What have you learned along the way?  Well, the first thing was the power of perseverance. We did not enter this project with a book as our goal. Our aspirations were much smaller hoping to do an art exhibit and shine a light on Fred Says’ charitable work. But after the first couple of photo shoots we knew we had something special. We knew that the people we met were telling us moving and powerful stories about their dogs that needed to be shared with the world. Stories of hope and survival and of love and strength, not the typical stories that one conjures up when thinking about HIV. So, yes, we hit some obstacles along the way. We even had some rejection, but we kept moving forward at our pace until we found a publisher in Lerner Publishing that felt the work was as special as we did.

When Dogs Heal: A young black man sits on the floor and kisses his dog. One of the stunning portraits in When Dogs Heal. Here, an interview with Jesse Friedin and Dr. Rob Garofalo
Sam and Zeus. Photo: Jesse Freidin.

Zazie: What do you hope people take away from the book?

Jesse: I hope that this book helps people understand both the incredible power of unconditional love in the form of canine companions, as well as the injustice and damage outrageously misplaced stigma can have on the lives of people living with HIV as well as other chronic illnesses and misunderstood identities. As an artist, I hope my work invites people to safely feel the deep joy within these portraits, the challenges of survival, and the immense uplifting message that with a dog at our side we humans can survive more than we might think. If you can love a dog, you can love yourself. 

Robert: Most of all, I hope this book shines a bright light on the powers of the animal-human bond. And acknowledges while dogs may not be the panacea to all that ails us, that the unconditional love and affection between a dog and his owner can under the right set of circumstances and decisions literally heal. I also hope this book shows a different side of the HIV pandemic, and highlights the diversity of the lived experience of those impacted by HIV. At the core of each of these stories is an HIV+ person facing and overcoming adversity through love, renewed hope and perseverance. Especially after the difficult year we have all had with COVID, I hope the book resonates with those who may be having their own struggles or difficulties. Hope sometimes is just around the corner. And sometimes it comes disguised as a furry 4-legged companion.

To purchase a copy of When Dogs Heal and register for the Virtual Book Tour starting March 4, please visit: www.whendogsheal.orgWhen Dogs Heal is by Jesse Freidin, Robert Garofalo, Zach Stafford, and Christina Garofalo, and is available in all good bookstores and the Companion Animal Psychology Amazon store.

When Dogs Heal: A black and white portrait of Jesse Friedin, the photographer who captured the stunning portraits for this book.

Jesse Freidin is America’s leading fine art dog photographer. For the past fifteen years his portraiture has studied the deeply healing power of the human/animal bond, telling a contemporary story of companionship and love that truly honors the role dogs play in our lives. Jesse’s dog portraits are in private collections throughout the United States, and have been exhibited in galleries from coast to coast. His photography has appeared in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and many more. He is the author of ‘Finding Shelter: Portraits of Love, Healing and Survival’ published by Lyons Press in 2017 as well as ‘The Doggie Gaga Project’ — a personal project that became an overnight media sensation. He no longer takes private photography commissions, but focuses on online Mentoring and Coaching for photographers around the world. 

For information on Jesse’s work and other books, please visit: www.jessefreidin.com

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When Dogs Heal: A portrait of Dr. Rob Garofalo, smiling and wearing a bow tie. Dr. Rob is co-author of the amazing book, When Dogs Heal.

Dr Robert Garofalo has devoted his career to caring for adolescents living with HIV. He is a physician and the professor of pediatrics at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine as well as the division head of adolescent medicine at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Rob co-directs the Lurie Hospital Center for Gender & Sex Development and is a national authority on the healthcare of LGBT youth and youth living with HIV. Dr. Garofalo has led sever-al HIV prevention research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rob founded Fred Says, a non-profit charity that supports organizations across the U.S that care for HIV+ youth. He named the charity after his dog Fred, who he credits for saving his life after his own HIV+ diagnosis.

For more information on ‘Fred Says’ visit www.fredsays.org

Follow 'Fred Says' on Twitter Instagram Facebook 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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