Rebel is one of the lucky ones. Starved, neglected and chained outdoors in rural Tennessee in the freezing cold, the bone-thin dog likely wouldn’t have survived more than another day or two. But last month, a kind man who was working on a power line nearby noticed him, along with two others who were also chained on the property. The man and his coworker gave their lunches to the dogs and poured their bottled water into the dogs’ bowls so they could quench their thirst.
Then the man did something that changed the lives of Rebel and the other dogs forever: He notified humane authorities, who rescued them. And as soon as Rebel became available for adoption, the man who first spotted him made him a member of the family. “He’s putting on some weight, and he sleeps in the bed with me,” Rebel’s rescuer reports. “He doesn’t have to sleep outside in the cold any more. He’s got it made now.”
Rebel’s story has a happy ending, but countless other dogs are still out there, tethered by chains or locked inside muddy pens, shivering in the bitter cold. They need warmhearted people to watch out for them — and to take action.
“Man’s best friend” is simply not equipped to survive frigid temperatures. Many succumb to hypothermia, alone and suffering, within a tennis ball’s throw of the warmth of their owners’ homes.
Even if they make it through the winter alive, spending it outdoors is pure misery. Many shiver constantly and desperately curl up into the tightest possible ball to try to retain their body heat. Others shift from foot to foot in an effort to find relief from the freezing-cold ground. Frostbite and dehydration (when water sources freeze) are constant threats.
Add to this the extreme loneliness and mind-numbing monotony of spending hour after hour, day after day, week after week, with no social interaction, affection, exercise or stimulation, and it’s easy to see why so many chained and penned dogs go mad or fall into a deep depression. For these highly social pack animals, solitary confinement is tantamount to torture.
The very least that dogs require to survive a winter outdoors is a solid wooden doghouse with a flap over the door, elevated off the ground and stuffed with straw. They also need a source of unfrozen water and increased food rations, because trying to maintain body temperature in cold weather burns extra calories.
But many people who leave dogs outdoors are unaware of their needs — or unwilling to meet them. If you see a dog in immediate danger (one who is very thin, ill or injured or lacks adequate shelter, food or water) or if chaining is illegal in your area, follow the example of Rebel’s rescuer and notify police and/or animal control officials immediately. Your call could mean the difference between life and an agonizing death.
In situations that are legal but still miserable, work with the owners to improve the dog’s living conditions. Offer to take the dog for walks, ask if you can provide toys or treats, and try to talk to the owners — politely — about the dog’s need for adequate shelter and food.
Being forced to live outside 24/7, whether on a chain or in a pen, is no life for a dog — it’s a life sentence. But, like Rebel, many neglected dogs’ lives have been turned around because someone cared enough to get involved. Each of us can be that someone for a dog in need.
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation.