Caring for lives at both ends of the leash

John Geller provides healthcare to a dog.
John Geller (left) provides healthcare to a dog as part of his efforts for The Street Dog Coalition.

John Geller embraces the interconnected nature of public health with the nonprofit he started in 2015. Called The Street Dog Coalition, it provides health care to the pets of people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Geller practiced emergency veterinary medicine for 20 years and is completing the Executive Public Health Practice MPH. His work with the coalition is his applied practice experience (APEx).

The Street Dog Coalition began as a once-a-week pop-up clinic in Colorado, where Geller lives, and it now has teams in nearly 50 cities, all with volunteers who staff street clinics. No money is exchanged; everything is free. Last year alone, 4,350 pets received medical care and 3,000 pet owners received help, too. Thanks to grants and major partnerships, like that of Merck Animal Health, Geller is able to offer healthcare for pets that would otherwise be impossible. 

What Geller discovers in his work is that offering things like free rabies shots, heartworm medication, and pet food is a way to build trust with the animals’ owners, and the coalition expanded from providing care to pets to providing care to people—care at both ends of the leash, Geller calls it.

“I really got pulled into the paradox of owning pets when you have no home,” Geller says. “It’s good that people are strongly bonded to their pets. In fact, pets are often the only family member or friend they have because there’s so much social dysfunction on the streets. Yet it’s because they have this pet that they lose access to care. Meaning, they can’t go into a homeless shelter and sleep with a pet. They can’t go into a grocery store or doctor’s office.” 

The Street Dog Coalition is at the intersection where bigger public health crises arise—such as inequity, poverty, and access to care—and Geller is using his APEx experience to channel his long career knowledge, nudging communities everywhere to become safer, healthier, and more just places. 

“APEx is the crown jewel of our MPH program,” says Associate Dean of Education and Student Engagement Elizabeth Wattenberg. “Students get to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and practice it in a real-life situation. It’s probably the most important part of their education and the most highly valued by the students.”

In recent months, Geller has taken The Street Dog Coalition to Ukraine. The coalition subsidizes the airfare to send volunteer veterinarians to the war zone to care for the many pets and their people who have been displaced or are in vulnerable living conditions. So far, they’ve helped more than 800 animals.