You know those times when you get so cold that your teeth start chattering and your body starts shivering? Not fun, right? Now, picture yourself feeling that way for the entire winter with no way to get relief. That’s what life is like for “backyard dogs” in rural communities across America.

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During these past few winters, I’ve volunteered with PETA’s Community Animal Project (CAP) to help dogs in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina who are living outdoors 24/7, often without adequate food, water, or shelter. Many of them are completely vulnerable to wind, rain, snow, freezing temperatures, and other weather conditions.

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While some situations that I saw were heartbreaking, there’s hope. It’s clear that PETA’s fieldworkers do everything that they can to make the best of not-so-great situations. Many of the dogs I visited had sturdy, wooden doghouses, which had been built and donated by PETA. These are much warmer than the barrels, tarps, or plastic doghouses that many “outdoor dogs” are given for shelter.

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Every winter, PETA’s fieldworkers visit thousands of dogs in the community and fill their doghouses with straw bedding, which provides some insulation and is better than blankets, which become wet and freeze when temperatures drop.

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I was a little nervous about going out in the field, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I might have to be on my guard—it made sense to me that these attention-starved dogs might be aggressive. To my surprise, I didn’t meet even one dog who was like that. Every single dog I visited wanted nothing but love and affection.

Here are some of the dogs I met during my time volunteering with CAP:

Rock

Rock was one of the first “backyard dogs” I met. We found him on a heavy chain that was being held down by a concrete cinderblock.

His water bucket and food bowl were empty and had been knocked over. He was very skinny. It was clear that he wasn’t being fed regularly.

He was so desperate for attention that he immediately jumped all over me and, initially, wouldn’t let me put straw in his doghouse, because he wanted me to keep petting him.

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Luckily for Rock, PETA’s fieldworkers had given him a nice PETA doghouse to make him as comfortable as possible. While we were visiting him, we filled up his food dish and water bucket and tied them down to prevent them from being knocked over again. We also refilled his doghouse with plenty of straw to keep him warm during the cold winter months.

PETA’s fieldworkers will be checking on Rock regularly.

Emily, Brownie, and Shadow

When we first found Emily, Brownie, and Shadow, their small pen was muddy and covered with feces. All three dogs were very young and had hardly any room to run around and play as puppies love to do.

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We helped them by covering the mud with straw to make their environment more comfortable and prevent them from getting too dirty. We also gave them toys to keep them occupied and cure their boredom. Their owner even offered to clean up the feces while we were there in order to tidy up their pen. Of course, we filled up their doghouse and barrel with straw as well.

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PETA’s fieldworkers will continue to check on Emily, Brownie, and Shadow and ensure that they all get spayed.

Chopper

Chopper was so excited to see us when we showed up. He immediately sat down, exposed his stomach, and demanded tummy rubs. He stayed in this position for much of our visit.

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When we arrived, Chopper’s chain was all tangled up and the area around his doghouse was muddy. Because his chain was tangled, he wasn’t able to reach his food or his water bucket. We untangled the chain and moved his food and water closer to him. We also filled his doghouse with straw and laid some down over the muddy areas.

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Chopper was a very grateful pup!

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PETA’s fieldworkers will visit Chopper regularly and monitor his condition.

*****

Unfortunately, keeping dogs outdoors 24/7 isn’t illegal everywhere, so PETA’s fieldworkers are doing all they can to improve these animals’ lives as much as possible within the law. We always encourage people to keep their dogs indoors, but when owners refuse, we do our best to make the lives of “backyard dogs” as comfortable as we can.

I learned a lot from my experience with PETA’s fieldworkers, including that everyone can make a difference for dogs who live outside.

Do you live in an area where “backyard dogs” are present? Below are some ways that you can help.

  1. In situations in which a chained dog’s life is in immediate danger or a dog is chained in areas in which this is illegal, call the authorities.

Many counties and cities have laws regarding chained or penned dogs. Click here for a list of laws, or find your local laws on Municode.com. Even if your area doesn’t have this kind of law, dogs who live outdoors must have shelter, adequate food, and clean water, and they must be provided with veterinary care if they are sick or injured.

If a “backyard dog” is in imminent danger—for example, if the animal is very thin, is obviously ill or injured, or has no accessible shelter—notify authorities ASAP.

  1. In situations in which a chained dog is not in immediate danger, the best thing that you can do is work with the owner to help improve conditions for the animal.

You should try to stay polite and friendly—the last thing that you want to do is make the owner angry, because that will hurt your chances of being able to help the dog. Be relatable and nonconfrontational. Share some of your experiences with dogs in order to get the owner to trust your word. Discuss what dogs need, and ask permission to do the following:

  • Take the dog for walks
  • Give the dog toys
  • Visit the dog regularly (Make sure that you’re not perceived as a nuisance—take note of the way the owner seems to be feeling about your involvement with the dog.)

Together, we can help dogs. Share this story to spread the word!