They say that the experience of owning a dog is quite unique and very different to other relationships, a life affirming friendship that promotes physical and mental wellbeing - something that has become even more important in these times of pandemic lockdown and personal isolation.
We spoke to Gina Biggs (38) who is originally from Kettering but who moved to the West Midlands in 2000. Now, eighteen years later, Gina is the founder of Rainbow Pooch Pride, a not for profit group whose vision is to bring the LGBTQIA+ community together through their shared love of dogs. Gina said, "It all started with the Birmingham Pride event back in 2018. I was walking the parade and I realised that there was something missing. It was the dogs. I realised in that moment how dogs are such a big part of the support system for our community. So, I decided to set up Rainbow Pooch Pride to thank the dogs and bring our community together through them".
Rainbow Pooch Pride recognises that canine companionship can make a big difference to the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals. In some instances a dog may have been the first living being a person might have 'come-out' to, they may constitute integral members of an 'alternate' family structure that goes beyond valuing only biological blood ties, they may also provide a sense of family and belonging where there has been estrangement due to societal and familial encounters of stigma and discrimination. Whatever the circumstances these four-legged friends are always there offering their silent support service, lending a non-judgmental ear in times of need, providing unconditional love and acceptance.
Run by Gina and other volunteers, the groups' informal, fun, and friendly social events are open to anyone aged 16+ years. Whether it's a walk in the park or a coffee shop meet up their purpose is to bring the Birmingham LGBTQIA+ community together to truly celebrate, as Gina puts it, "our superheroes-in-dog-disguise".
Gina said, "Ageing Better funding has given us the money to improve our professional profile and raise our game with a website and digital presence, enabling us to access an even wider community and to apply for further funding. Looking to the immediate future, I want to create the Rainbow Pooch Portal; an online space where we can host some virtual Pat and Chats. These online meet ups would invite guest speakers to provide participant experiences that celebrate the many different ways in which the connection to dogs improves physical/mental wellbeing. For example, this might include learning how to connect with your dog through canine massage, learning mindfulness techniques that are supported by your dog's presence, or taking part in Doga (yoga with dogs) workouts."
Some of the funding for the group paid for specialist volunteer training provided by Birmingham-based, award-winning speaker and animal behaviour consultant, Hannah Molloy. Hannah is an expert dog trainer, founder of the Dog Education Project, and also appeared recently in last year's 4-part Channel 4 series "Puppy School". Gina hopes that further funding will support the development of this training to include not only dog behaviour training but also disability awareness, and mental health first aid.
Evidence suggests that due to societal and familial encounters of stigma and discrimination LGBTQIA+ lives are at higher risk of experiencing poor mental health including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and mood and alcohol/substance abuse disorders. Gina said, "During these times of the Covid pandemic, a large percentage of people are having to pay extra special attention to the management of individual wellbeing". Rainbow Pooch Pride hopes to continue to bring the community together during these challenging times because evidence also suggests that dogs bring comfort and help minimize the negative symptoms of emotional and psychological distress.
Gina said, "I've recently moved to Cardiff, Wales, to engage in an academic research project looking at the maternal. I specifically bring a queer perspective to that, supporting the maternal values of caregiving, care-taking, inter-connectedness and reciprocity to be valued beyond the limitations of only biological relations. In this sense I affirm the importance of our human relation with a more-than-human world and my work with Rainbow Pooch Pride reflects these values. I would love to now set up a group in the Cardiff area, as well as continue our work in Birmingham, eventually linking the two cities with a common vision and understanding about the constancy and affirming nature of the very special relationship between human and dog".
Gina added "…there's a really special and unique bond between a dog and a human being. No matter what is going on during the day, having a dog means that you have to go outside at some point. It's then that we experience a connection with the outside world, to nature, to something greater than ourselves".
Talking to Gina it is clear that to share your life with a dog is not just like having a pet. It is more than that. It is like having a mirror of love and compassion, a constant companion, someone who is always there for you no matter what… and that's surely something we all need at challenging times like these.
Rainbow Pooch Pride is an association with a mission to champion dogs as emotional support animals and acknowledge them in service to LGBTQIA+ lives.