'Tis the season for self-improvement, but this new year, instead of obsessing about all the things that you should change about yourself, why not resolve to change someone else's life for the better? January is "Unchain a Dog" Month, and each of us can make a world of difference for some of the most lonely, neglected souls on the planet--chained dogs--by getting involved, speaking up and taking action.
For dogs who are forced to spend most or all their lives chained up in someone's backyard, the new year is just the beginning of another 12 months of pacing back and forth on the same muddy patch; shivering through night after wet, cold night; and aching for a friendly word or a gentle touch. There isn't anything to look forward to when you're serving a life sentence of solitary confinement--which is what chaining is. It's the worst punishment imaginable for highly social pack animals like dogs, who need and crave the companionship of their human guardians and other canines.
Dogs long to go exploring with their special human, to be scratched behind the ears and to hear the words "good dog!" Like us, dogs get bored and need daily exercise and something to occupy their bright minds. They need to go for long walks, run, read the "news" on fire hydrants and catch Frisbees. Kept "out of sight, out of mind," most chained dogs receive none of the things that make their lives worth living, and they become severely depressed or even lose their minds.
January is an ideal time to get involved in a chained dog's life because it is one of the coldest, loneliest months for dogs who are forced to live outdoors. Dogs' fur coats are no match for blowing snow and subzero wind chills. Puppies, small dogs, elderly dogs and dogs with short hair are especially at risk for frostbitten ears, toes and tails or even hypothermia.
Many chained dogs shiver night and day because they don't have warm doghouses and straw to curl up in. If their water sources freeze, dogs can quickly become dehydrated, and since they must burn extra calories to keep warm during cold temperatures, dogs whose guardians don't increase their food rations suffer from constant hunger and can even starve to death.
The only hope for many forgotten dogs is the intervention of a caring person--and that's where we come in. If a dog is in immediate danger (i.e., if the animal is very thin, is ill or injured or has no accessible shelter) or if chaining is illegal in your area, a call to police and/or animal control officials is in order.
In situations that are miserable for dogs but still legal, we can help by befriending the animal's guardian, earning his or her trust and asking permission to play with the dog, take him or her for walks, give the dog toys and treats or even take the dog to our house to play with our own canine companions. Most importantly, we can urge the dog's guardian to bring his or her companion indoors to be with the rest of the family.
Many people begin to take better care of their animals after just one friendly conversation with a concerned person, and many dogs have had their lives dramatically improved or changed completely because someone cared enough to get involved. Now that's a resolution worth keeping!
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a research specialist for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.