It's been years since Myra Rasnick witnessed a once-shattered family become whole again.
She remembers it like it was yesterday: a golden retriever sat in the back of her car, while a mother and her toddler pulled up in another car.
After too-long apart, the woman and her 2-year-old son were being reunited with their old dog.
All three were survivors of domestic abuse.
"The dog's reaction in the car when he saw her was just incredible," Rasnick recalls to MNN.
The toddler broke into tears, as the dog clambered up to him. So too, his mother. The dog kissed their faces. More tears.
They were a family again.
"It was the sweetest moment and very impactful for me," Rasnick says. "And why I fell in love with this work."
Since then, Rasnick has seen many such triumphs, always on the heels of horror. The mission at Ahimsa House, where Rasnick is executive director, is to ensure a woman leaving an abusive relationship doesn't have to leave her pet behind.
Instead, the organization, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, handles the furry end of the equation: While dedicated shelters take in women, Ahimsa uses its extensive network of foster homes to care for their pets. (Most domestic abuse shelters simply can't take on the added responsibility of pets.)
After a time apart that gives women a chance to recover and rebuild their lives, their beloved pets are returned to them — this time for the long haul.
And make no mistake, those animals are victims too.
"A lot of these pets have behavioral issues," Rasnick explains. "As you can imagine, dogs who witness abuse of their beloved family members many times show signs of aggression or fear."
Ahimsa House relies on trainers to help pets get over their dark past, while the families that take them in furnish the love and healing. But the final step toward wholeness comes only when pets are returned to their humans.
"We've seen incredible experiences of animals behavior turning around when they get back with their owners," Rasnick says.
In 2004, when the organization was founded by a survivor of domestic violence, Ahimsa House was the only organization of its kind in the country.
Since then, similar programs have emerged across the country, many of them inspired and guided by the Ahimsa model.
The next level of help
In New York City, another shelter is taking it a step further. This week, the Urban Resource Institute unveiled plans for a $20-million facility that will allow victims of violence to live alongside their pets.
Expected to be built in October, the project will house 100 people, along with their pets. As a result, women with pets are far more likely than those without to remain in a toxic relationship.
"It's something that can keep people in these relationships because if they leave the relationship their pets could be harmed as a result," Amy Fitzgerald, the University of Windsor professor who authored a study on the subject, tells CBC News. "It's something we need to take very seriously. It's putting a lot of people and animals at risk."
The Ahimsa House model, which separates woman from their pets for a time, focuses on healing the family individually, before bringing them together again.
Rasnick cites research suggesting clients found it "important in the recovery process to not have their animals with them."
"It was a goal to get their animals back and that they could focus inward on themselves and that assisted them in their recovery."
But whether women and their pets get to heal at each other's side, or apart, the crucial bottom line remains: There is a choice.
And that's something that didn't exist before Ahimsa House appeared.
The countless reunions that have followed shared a similar script. Although, sometimes, it will be a cat or a rabbit or a snake — even goats.
And on the human side, there's a woman desperately looking for a way out. But not without her baby.