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Two years ago, when Stacey Norris was encouraging Albemarle County, Va., officials to improve the local dog care ordinance, she brought two influential props to the table.
One was a large tow chain, heavier than the dog it had once tethered. The other was a photo album documenting the work of Houses of Wood and Straw, the all-volunteer organization Norris founded in 2008.
Filled with pictures of breeds ranging from huskies to Chihuahuas, the album provides a glimpse into the lives of dogs who spend their lives at the end of a chain. In hundreds of “before” photos, decrepit structures sit in the background—a plastic barrel in a patch of dirt, a metal cage with a tarp stretched across the top, a rotting porch, a particle-board desk, a mud-caked plastic dome. Until HOWS intervened, these shelters were the animals’ sole protection from heat, cold, wind, and rain.
“It was eye opening for all of us,” says Albemarle County supervisor Ann Mallek. “… It was shocking the kinds of circumstances that we just don’t know are happening.”
Norris confronted this reality five years ago while walking near her home in neighboring Greene County. She heard barking and traced the sound to two dogs chained behind a house. The only shelters in sight were two plastic barrels.
For the lifelong animal lover, it was a painful sight. “I went home and thought about what I felt like I should do,” Norris recalls. A few weeks later, armed with doghouse blueprints and guidance from PETA’s Angels for Animals program, she was knocking on her neighbors’ door.
The meeting was a partial success. The owners weren’t willing to make Queen and Tank indoor pets or to build a fence. “So then we talked houses, and we talked new chains and collars and better dog food bowls”—all of which Norris delivered the day after Christmas.
It wasn’t ideal, but Norris knew she had tangibly improved the dogs’ lives. And it dawned on her that “there had to be a whole lot more dogs around here that needed help.” The next year, Norris and a handful of volunteers were knocking on more doors. Today, the organization delivers custom-built houses to nearly 80 dogs a year, along with straw bedding, collars, lightweight tethers, water buckets, treats, and toys.
Community support makes HOWS’ $10,500 annual budget go a long way. United Way volunteers deliver donated materials to local Boy Scout troops and carpentry students who build the houses. The tile and stonework company where Norris works as a sales and design representative provides caulking and waterproof curtaining for the houses’ entryways. During delivery season—October through March—HOWS volunteers gather each Saturday to pick up houses and drive them to preapproved “clients” in Central Virginia.
The art lies in talking with the dogs’ owners. “Most people I help don’t want my charity, but they’re more than willing to take houses that have been donated and we’re trying to place them,” Norris says. “It’s all in the approach.”
Good judgment is also key. On some occasions, HOWS has reported violations to animal control. Several dogs have been seized, and last year, one woman was prosecuted for cruelty. But most situations are legal or borderline legal, so the organization works to improve the dogs’ lives by educating owners. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Can we fix it without breaking the ties with the person? Because once we become the enemy of this person, we’ll never get to do anything for this dog again,’” Norris says. She’s heartened by the owners who take an interest and call her with canine health questions or to request more straw.
Other times, “we have to set our sights very low,” says Albemarle resident Sharon Ackerman, who spearheaded the campaign to strengthen the county’s dog ordinance. “Sometimes, if we can keep a dog out of rain and snow and that’s all we can legally do, that’s what we do.”
For now at least. In February 2011, Albemarle County’s board of supervisors unanimously approved improvements to the animal ordinance, including a ban on heavy chains and higher standards for sheltering outdoor dogs. It’s a baby step, says Norris, but it has opened the door to future improvements.
In the next five or 10 years, Norris is “hoping the laws are so good [HOWS doesn’t] even have to exist. That is what most people would refer to as a pipe dream.”
Her more realistic goal is for the organization to have the staff and budget to provide fencing along with houses. And she hopes HOWS will become a model for similar projects across the state.
Queen and Tank, the dogs who inspired Norris to launch HOWS, died in 2010, one of heartworm, the other of kidney failure. They never got to snuggle on a couch next to their owners or to sleep at the foot of a bed. But for three years, they had food and water, dry bedding in the winter, and shade in the summer. And they had a kind visitor who came with treats and toys, sat down in the dirt and hugged them tight, and told them they were good dogs.
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