TORONTO — It was the sight of what appeared to be a homeless man in medical distress that caught filmmaker Helene Choquette's attention.
But it was his frantic dog that held her gaze — the dog "freaked out" as onlookers walked passed without stopping, Choquette recalls.
Then city workers came and took the animal away, even before an ambulance could arrive.
"I was thinking about this for many days, of how this young boy would feel when he would wake up and not have his dog at his side," says Choquette.
The incident inspired her to begin working on her new documentary, "A Dog's Life," which explores the emotional support and inspiration homeless people receive from pets.
"Most of them have addictions to drugs or have mental (health) issues and the dog is what makes them (persevere)," says Choquette from her home just outside Montreal.
"They know they have to take care of themselves because of the dog. Because the dog reminds them of their basic needs."
The documentary profiles several people and pets, including Dan, who credits his pooch with giving him self-confidence and the strength to curtail his drug habit. Genevieve declares that animals are the best therapists in the world because they don't judge you: "I'd rather have my dog than a home," she says in the documentary.
Unfortunately for many, it's often a choice between one or the other, says Choquette.
Animals are generally banned from shelters, and it's often much harder to find long-term accommodation for low-income pet owners.
Choquette says she met many people who wouldn't even take advantage of small social services — the opportunity for a hot shower or a chance to meet a social worker — because it would force them to leave their dog alone on the street.
It's an issue Danielle Ashby knows well.
The program manager at Toronto's Fred Victor Bethlehem United Shelter says they get about 25 calls a day for pet owners needing help.
Her facility is billed as the only one in Toronto that permits pets. She says there's clearly demand for more.
"It's pretty in your face. If you go in the core there's a lot of homeless people that are on the streets, laying down on the sidewalk and they have their pet with them," says Ashby.
"That's something that probably needs to be looked at and assessed."
Many pets at the facility are considered emotional support animals, guide dogs or specially trained service animals for conditions such as post-traumatic stress, she said.
The shelter — a joint project between the charitable organization Fred Victor, Bethlehem United Church (Apostolic) and the City of Toronto — has room for 70 residents and 15 animals, but often goes over capacity.
"People seem to think, 'Why do homeless people have pets if they can't even take care of themselves?' But there's a lot of times when people come to us where they've just lost everything, the sheriff has put the lock on their door. Are you going to part with your pet? No," says Ashby, whose facility also offers access to cheaper veterinary care and vaccinations.
Just because a person is homeless it doesn't mean they can't take good care of a pet, adds Tegan Buckingham of the Toronto Humane Society.
"A lot of them will put their pets first before themselves," says Buckingham.
"A millionaire could treat their pet far worse than people without a home. Money and financial (means) is a not a way that we distinguish how people are treating their pets."
The Humane Society offers low-cost services for vaccines, spaying and neutering, and runs a pet food bank that functions much the same way the human ones do.
But sad stories abound.
If someone is forced into hospital or jailed, they often must surrender their pet for possible adoption, says Buckingham.
Such cases are evaluated individually, but the society can't provide short-term care for an owner unable to hold onto their pet, she says.
In some cases, the society will consider admitting the pet as a stray, which permits a five-day holding period before the animal is put up for adoption.
Choquette says she'd like to see more services for down-on-their-luck animal lovers.
"When you're homeless and you get into problems and you go to jail, you need to know the dog is somewhere (safe). It's very important," says Choquette.
"I've been told a lot of stories of people who went to jail and when they have the permission to phone they call the person who is in charge of the dog and they talk to the animal on the phone."
"A Dog's Life" screens Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. A French-language version, "Chienne de Vie," will be broadcast on Radio-Canada on May 28.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press