Kendra Coulter is associate professor in the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ont.
In late October, something unprecedented happened in Sweden. The country's largest union held a seminar about working not with humans but with animals in the health-care and social-services sectors.
Kommunal, the union representing municipal workers, brought together researchers, front-line workers, animal advocates and policy makers to think about ways to ensure that the well-being of animals is being recognized and respected.
The history of unions and animals is complicated, but some unionized workers have long worked to care for animals. Yet this is the first time a union has played such a significant leadership role by asking important questions about the work lives of animals and their involvement in providing care for people. What is needed for animals to enjoy work? What protections should be in place? Who is responsible for ensuring that their well-being is respected? These questions have relevance well beyond Sweden and should be asked in every nation.
Northern European countries have the most therapeutic workplaces and programs that involve animals, such as care farms or group homes for youth in crisis with horses on-site. Yet in Canada, we increasingly see animals being enlisted to provide care for people. Equine-assisted activities are growing and diversifying, with horses being recognized as co-therapists that can help those facing post-traumatic stress, physical and development disabilities, and other challenges.
Service, emotional-support, assistance and guide dogs are tasked with life-changing and often life-saving labour. Therapy dogs and institutional dogs usually have shorter shifts, but they are also being asked to help people in very trying and emotional situations. In early November in London, for example, Ontario's first courthouse dog, Merel, started her new position. She will take on the important work of supporting child witnesses asked to testify in difficult cases.
Legions of animal lovers will tell you that their four-legged friends and family members provide much-needed emotional support and care. For women fleeing domestic violence or living on the streets, the protection and care provided by animals is immeasurable.
Without question, animals have an impressive ability to understand our physical and emotional states, and they provide unique and meaningful care in homes and formal workplaces alike. Animal-behaviour researchers have found that dogs become stressed when they hear a person crying, and that they approach and touch the distressed human in response. This will not surprise most dog lovers.
Relationships and workplaces underscored by care play a crucial role in the well-being of our shared communities and deserve greater respect. Recent trends suggest that we are going to increasingly involve companion animals in formally providing care to people. Undoubtedly, such animals are treated better than the millions who end up on death row at shelters, or on dinner plates, but we humans still have an ethical obligation to their well-being. Many of the people who work with animals providing care understand this but there is still more to be done, especially since we are only beginning to really understand the depth of animals' minds, emotions and experiences.
We should respect their specific species as well as their individual abilities and interests, and recognize that these can change over time. Animals' work experiences are shaped by a range of factors, including their co-workers and supervisors, the tasks they are required to do, and their own preferences, choices and personalities. Although domesticated companion animals such as dogs and horses have demonstrated a willingness to work with and for us, this does not mean everything we ask of them is justifiable, or that every dog and horse is suitable for or interested in every job.
Animals make a huge difference in the quality of our lives. At a minimum, the animals who care for us deserve fair working conditions, time away from work and dignity after their formal working lives have ended. Of course, these are the basics that all workers in Ontario, regardless of their species membership, ought to be guaranteed.
In that spirit, let's take both people's and animals' well-being seriously, and find ways to not only cultivate more caring multispecies workplaces and humane jobs, but a more caring and humane society.