For dogs who live exclusively outdoors, life can be rough. Without proper shelter and care, many of these dogs will lead short, miserable lives. In Alaska, especially, the harsh climate and long winters make things even more precarious for dogs who spend all of their time outside.
Growing up in Alaska, Metis Riley witnessed many dogs suffering from life outdoors. She began volunteering with various animal welfare groups, but realized that none focused specifically on helping dogs kept outside and without adequate living conditions. In 2010, Riley decided to just start knocking on doors and offering free doghouses she’d found on Craigslist or through other networks, in addition to straw for the dog houses and any additional supplies the dogs needed to have a more comfortable life.
The group of volunteers headed by Riley became known as Straw for Dogs, and what began as a grassroots welfare effort made up of Riley’s friends and family became an official nonprofit 501(c)(3) in 2012.
Today, Straw for Dogs has 15 regular, hands-on volunteers who have distributed 50 long-lasting, insulated doghouses and 87 bales of straw for dogs kept outside, and they’ve visited nearly 100 animals to offer supplies and resources. In addition, Straw for Dogs has been able to provide vaccinations, spay/neuter, and medical care to 50 pets, as well as fostering, adoption, and hospice care for 22 dogs and cats through its refuge and rehoming programs.
But the need for such help never ceases. Riley explains that Alaska does not have laws requiring basic shelter or care for pets living outside, and it is left up to local authorities to develop and enforce welfare standards. Despite how overwhelming the situation may seem, Straw for Dogs volunteers focus on doing what they can, where they can, and according to Riley, the majority of the dog owners the group reaches out to are very receptive to the help.
“Sometimes [our help] means offering a dog house or straw for relief from the cold, other times encouraging a caretaker to allow the dog into our refuge or rehoming program, or offering supplies and training support for families willing to bring their dogs indoors with the help of crate training,” she explains.
The volunteers approach dog owners with the aim of creating a trusting, nonjudgmental relationship in order to offer support, resources and positive changes that will ultimately improve the dogs’ living situation.
Riley believes that “by offering to alleviate some basic needs such as shelter and comfort [by providing more comfortable collars and toys, for example], we are doing our best to create not only immediate relief for the pet in need, but also a culture that provides more thought and care for animals outdoors.”
But sometimes, it’s best that dogs are rehomed when their owners are unable or cannot make the changes necessary to keep their outdoor pets happy, healthy, and comfortable.
This was the case for Ernie and Sabrina, two senior dogs who were released to Straw for Dogs after having always lived outside in less than ideal conditions. Riley says that despite working with the dogs’ caretaker for many years and trying to improve their quality of life, it was decided that ultimately the pair would be better off finding new homes. By the second day of their new lives — off a chain and with toys and room to run — the dogs were already so much happier and full of energy. “We are beyond grateful for the chance to save their lives,” Riley says. “And to the amazing adopters who love them each so much.”
Straw for Dog’s success has motivated the group’s volunteers to try to help even more dogs in different ways. Riley says that they would like to expand the outreach program by going into communities and offering free fence-building services to get dogs off chains and “give them the gift of freedom of movement.” She goes on to explain that the group’s long-term goal is to have a small facility where shelter dogs in transition from living exclusively outdoors to being adopted as indoor pets can be properly vetted, groomed and trained. The facility would also allow them to have the space to build doghouses, collect and store donations and operate as a “community adoption center for our rescue partners, events and clients,” Riley notes.
It can certainly be overwhelming for those who work in animal rescue and outreach programs to think of all the pets that need help but will never receive it, but Straw for Dogs is striving to help as many outdoors Alaskan dogs as they can with the resources they have available and the limitations placed on them. From simply providing some straw for extra warmth, to building brand new insulated doghouses, to providing free training, dog-walking services or vet care, Straw for Dogs volunteers are making a positive difference in the lives of these dogs.
“Each animal whose life is improved by a more comfortable collar, a toy that might bring a bit of joy, and a warm, long-lasting doghouse is a success.”
Straw for Dogs relies solely on individual contributions, and is always in need of support from animal lovers to be able to continue their work. For more information and ways you can help out, please visit its website, Facebook page, or Amazon wishlist. Riley says that they also need more foster homes in Alaska for dogs coming in from its outreach program.
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About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found blogging over at Crystal Goes to Europe.