We’ve all seen it. The animals living outside in conditions we find abhorrent. The dog chained to a tree. The dog outside with no shelter in either pouring rain or freezing cold. What is your first thought when you encounter a situation like that? If you automatically assume that the people who own the animals don’t care about them, that is no doubt a natural reaction. Logic would dictate that if they cared enough, the dog would either be brought inside to live or would live outside in better conditions. The dog would at least have a doghouse and would be protected from the elements. I’ve driven past hundreds of properties over the years where I’ve seen these situations, uttered a few words of profanity, and wondered to myself why the people even have a dog if they force it to live in such conditions. I’ve gone so far as to buy dog houses for the dogs I see or even outdoor beds. I’ve had wheat straw delivered anonymously to try to help. But is judgment really the best way to react? I’m not so sure.
As I wrote in my recent book about no kill animal shelter advocacy in the south, there are two cultures here in Alabama when it comes to companion animals. The attitude of many is that dogs and cats are animals and animals live outside. Period. Many people in Alabama (and, I would argue, in many places across the country), would no sooner bring a dog inside to live than they would set a place at the dining room table for a pig. It’s just not how they were raised and it’s not how they see their relationship with their companion animals. Houses are for people. Yards, barns and pastures are for animals.
My personal preference is for all dogs to live inside with the people who care for them. Dogs are pack members who thrive from human interaction. Keeping them contained on chains is considered inhumane by every national animal welfare organization in America. Studies have also shown that the dogs most apt to be involved in fatality attacks include those dogs who are not sterilized, who live as “resident dogs” and dogs who have been mismanaged or subjected to abuse or neglect. One of the most gruesome legal cases in which I was involved was the result of a dog bite fatality attack of a WWII Veteran who was killed by two dogs when he went out to check is mail. Although he normally wore a whistle around his neck out of fear for dogs roaming at large (and to alert people if he had problems), he had forgotten to put it on the day of the attack. Police later found 33 other dogs living chained in a backyard inside city limits. None were sterilized and all were part of a breeding operation gone wrong.
For all of my cussing and judgment of the people who house dogs outside, the reality is that not everyone was raised the way I was raised and no matter what I (or you) think is appropriate, some animals, particularly dogs, will never live inside. It won’t happen in some cases due to cultural differences. It won’t happen in other cases due to rental or leasing contracts which do not allow dogs to live inside. It won’t happen in still other cases because the dogs perform a role protecting livestock. Regardless of the reasons, I have come to believe that we do better when we do not make assumptions about the reasons for what we see and we instead focus on the well-being of the animals themselves. We should not be so arrogant as to presume that someone whose dog lives outside does not care about or even love that dog. When I was promoting an ordinance in the city in which I live to prohibit the chaining of dogs and to provide for basis standards of care for dogs who live outside all the time, one city councilman said something related to public buy-in for the law I have never forgotten. He said that the position of many of his constituents was summed up pretty quickly. “The mindset,” he said, “is that you can say my wife is ugly and my kids are stupid, but don’t tell me how to treat my dog.” His point was the care of dogs is very personal to people and they don’t like being told what to do or what not to do.
So, what are we do to when we see a situation which we think is less than what the animals deserve? In the case of one organization in my area, the answer is simple. Offer to help.
I first learned about an organization called HAWS – Helping Animals Without Shelter a few months ago. The mission of the group is both simple and vital: to provide help to people who need it to improve the conditions in which their animals live outside. The website for HAWS explains their mission this way. HAWS operates:
exclusively for charitable and educational purposes. With donations from the public we provide shelter, cedar chips/wheat straw for bedding and preventative care for dogs outside restrained by chains. We also provide clean drinking water, treats, worm medicine and flea and tick treatment to make them feel healthy and comfortable in their environment. We assist low-income and senior owners with spaying and neutering which reduces the number of unwanted animals let loose in the community or dumped in overcrowded shelters and rescues. We educate the owners of unaltered animals about the benefits of spaying and neutering and we provide instruction to schools (at their request) on the proper care of animals. HAWS is an all-volunteer run organization with no paid employees to include the founder/director. HAWS receives no federal or state funding. We rely solely on donations from the public.
HAWS’ current focus is on Madison County, Alabama, particularly places outside of city limits where there are no laws which dictate how animals who live outside are treated. (Alabama has laws about abuse and neglect, but they are somewhat vague and many in law enforcement are not trained on how to enforce the laws. Two recent efforts to enact a state law to define the single word “shelter” in an existing criminal statute have failed).
I honestly wish that there were organizations like HAWS across the country. The organization tag line is “No Judgment. Just Help.” How refreshing. Yes, there are people who have dogs who live outside who likely could care little about the conditions in which they live. The dog may be on the property as some form of misguided security system. Upon being offered help, many of those people may respond with a resounding, “no,” or may feel strongly enough about it to demonstrate their displeasure by holding a weapon toward the person or people offering to help. What HAWS has learned, however, is that when an offer of help is made with no judgment, that creates an environment in which people feel more free to say, “yes. I would like some help,” as they learn something in the process. It truly becomes a situation of providing some education about how to house dogs outside which helps the people and helps the dogs.
I recently completed a couple of video projects to help promote the mission of HAWS: a PSA for television which is currently in the rotation on local network television stations and a longer video project set to music which shows people what HAWS does to help with no judgment (shown below). I also launched a t-shirt fundraiser on Bonfire to help raise some money for supplies while at the same time creating wearable conversation starters to help spread the HAWS message.
Lisa Shedd, the founder of HAWS, graciously offered to engage in a Q&A with me to help people learn more about the origin of the organization and what they do each and every day. I hope you will learn more about this wonderful group and I hope more groups like it are created across the country. No one likes to see dogs living outside in conditions which most of us consider inhumane. How we remedy that situation may be found more in a model of compassion than one of judgement. Enjoy.
Q: What caused you to create HAWS? Was it some specific event or circumstance?
A: We created HAWS because it breaks our hearts seeing so many dogs living outside chained, tangled and without shelter, clean drinking water or preventives to protect them from the elements or parasites that can cause them discomfort and harm.
Q: Your tag line on your Facebook page is, "No Judgment. Just Help." Why is that important?
A: Approaching owners with kindness shows them that you are there to educate and help them make their dog more comfortable, and not to point out what they may be doing wrong. Owners are very receptive when treated with kindness instead of being judged or told what to do
Q: Describe a typical week for you regarding the services you provide.
A: A typical week for HAWS starts by loading up vehicles with supplies(when available) needed to help provide a more comfortable and safe environment for dogs living chained outside. I spend 2 hours every morning setting up spay/neuter appointments for the pets of truly low-income families who cannot get help from other programs. I spend an hour or more answering emails, messages, voicemails and texts from people reporting dogs in need of our assistance and from people needing assistance with their dogs. We then head out to the field to help set up a better living environment for as many dogs as we can get to and also pick up supplies donated by the public who want to help us help these dogs. The HAWS team works long hours almost every day trying to help these dogs and educate their owners to the things that are available to make their dogs’ living area more safe and comfortable and explaining the benefits of preventives and the spaying and neutering of their pets.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your mission?
A: It’s definitely seeing the sad conditions that some of these poor dogs live in.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your mission?
A: The incredibly happy, tail wagging, doggie kissing and dancing these that these dogs do when we have finished giving them a more suitable environment. Doggie kisses of joy being the best part.
Q: What do you most need from the public to allow you to continue your work?
A: HAWS always needs funding for vetting, spay/neutering and other supplies that we need to continue to help chained dogs. Some of the things that can be donated besides monetary donations are:
flea and tick medication
large and extra large gently used or new igloo or heavy duty barn dog houses
gently used or new 20 x 20 x 6-foot outdoor kennels
stakes for water buckets
4 x 6 x 8 foot treated wood posts for putting up trolley systems
12 x 12-inch or 15-inch paving stones or brick to put dog houses on to keep up off of ground
long, heavy-duty zip ties
heavy-duty 55-gallon trash bags
kiddie swimming pools(summer)
large and extra large Kongs for the chained dogs to play (so they won’t get bored and chew up their houses and water bucket)
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson