No shelter for pets: Cross-Canada walk with dog highlights lack of options for homeless pet owners

Ten years ago, James Caughill lost his home after a workplace injury. Now, the St. Catharines, Ont., man is walking across the country with his dog to raise awareness about the lack of shelters for homeless people with pets.

James Caughill and Muck are walking from St. Catharines to Vancouver

James Caughill and his original dog, Muckwah, on the road in southern Ontario. (Submitted by James Caughill)

Ten years ago, James Caughill had a good job and a home. But after a workplace injury in 2016, he found himself on welfare and homeless.

But there was one thing the St. Catharines, Ont., man never gave up — his dog.

Now, Caughill and his dog, Muck, are walking across Western Canada to raise awareness about the lack of shelters for people with pets.

"When I first lost the roof over my head, my [social] worker told me I had to go to a homeless shelter and I had to give up my dog," said Caughill. 

"That's when I discovered that in 2016, there was absolutely not one homeless shelter ... that would take a pet." 

Giving up Muck is not an option for Caughill, who says his dog is the one thing that keeps him going.

"You can't be selfish and give up on life," he said.

"You've got a little furball that depends on you, so you got to suck it up."

'The greatest love of my life'

In 2016, he decided to take what might be the longest dog walk ever —  from St. Catharines to Vancouver — to raise awareness about the lack of shelter options for people with pets. 

He is currently stopped in Steinbach, Man. — about 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg — camping out in a friend's backyard. 

James Caughill started his cross-Canada walk with Muckwah, who died last winter. He and his new dog, Muck, pictured here, are continuing the walk to raise awareness of the lack of pet-friendly homeless shelters. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

But the dog travelling with him now isn't the one he originally set out on foot with.

"The greatest love of my life, my baby girl Muckwah, passed away this past winter of cancer," said Caughill. 

"I was just going to give up, pack it in, give up the walk and give up on life in general," he said.

"I thought of just hopping on the bus, going back to St. Catharines and looking up all my old drug connections, and just giving up." 

While coping with the loss of his dog, a friend of Caughill's convinced him to visit a dog shelter in Aurora, Ont.

"I go in the back [of the shelter], and what's the first face I see? Like a lightning bolt to my heart."

It was a case of love at first sight, Caughill says.

"Muck was not supposed to be there. He came from Manitoba, that's the irony … he's northern malamute, he was a sled dog that didn't make the team," said Caughill.

"This was meant to be. This basically saved my road trip because I was so devastated. He's filling in for [Muckwah], and he's filling the hole in my heart." 

James Caughill's dog Muckwah along the Trans-Canada Highway. (Submitted by James Caughill)

Since he started his trip in 2016, Caughill says a few pet-friendly shelters have opened across Canada, including the Fred Victor Bethlehem United Shelter in Toronto.

Danielle Ashby, program manager at the shelter, says that pets can have a profound effect on people who stay there.

"There are many instances where a pet just crawls up beside a client who is facing social isolation, depression or struggling with family problems, and the pet just gives them a lick, or jumps up and rubs their head on the client's arm," she said.

"That interaction just instantly changes their mood."

Caughill dreams of one day opening up other pet-friendly shelters in various Canadian cities. 

In Winnipeg, shelters are unable to accommodate pets. 

"We don't have the capacity here to allow animals in the shelter," said Kathi Neal, director of development for Siloam Mission. 

"That's really only because it's dorm style, so we have to be cognizant of other people's health and safety. They may have conditions such as allergies," she said.

Kathi Neal is the director of development for Siloam Mission. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

But Siloam is in the midst of an expansion, she added, "and that'll give us maybe some new opportunities." 

Caughill has been on the road for nearly three years, and with the extended breaks he takes over the winter months, he expects it will take him another three to make it to Vancouver.


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