Straw for Dogs: Patron Saints of Outdoor Pets
By Robert Foran III
If dogs living outdoors could talk, they’d be thanking the volunteers of Straw for Dogs.
Started in 2010 as a grassroots project between friends and a fine collection of dog advocates to give dogs better living conditions, Straw For Dogs (S4D) has since grown into a local nonprofit organization. Their work provides free supplies such as dog houses, straw, blankets, food, heated water bowls, toys, collars and more. They also direct residents to the right resources toward getting their pet spayed or neutered. Volunteers will foster dogs in need or find them new homes when called for through S4D incorporated refuge/rehome program.
Volunteer Board Manager and Treasurer, Katy Malone reports that as of March 2019, S4D has distributed 243 doghouses and 346 bales of straw. Those numbers are climbing and together with the help of volunteers, neighbors and supporting organizations, S4D has proved positively to change the lives of Alaskan residents with pets enduring the all-season lifestyle outdoors.
The progress hadn’t always been from Malone and her current board alone. She heavily credits the co-founders of S4D, Metis Riley and husband Orion Donicht. “They have been instrumental in making Straw For Dogs what it is today.” declared Malone.
Malone met Riley in 2013 during her days working as the manager of Rabbit Creek Kennels when Riley needed a temporary place to foster two dogs. Through that experience, Malone found out about S4D and offered to volunteer. Malone spoke highly of Riley and the work she had started with Donicht, who put in lots of sweat and long hours for these dogs.
By 2016 Malone became an official S4D board member and soon after was promoted to treasurer. Riley and Donicht still volunteer, but the two are moving on to new projects and have plans to move to Homer this year. The co-founders passed managing duties to Malone through all her experience, time and efforts with S4D that led to a strong knowledge of the matters facing the organization.
“I am honored beyond belief that I am involved with Straw For Dogs.” Malone said, “To be entrusted in taking care if the general operations is a wonderful thing. I hope I can maintain the quality Metis and Orion have brought to it.”
The co-founders launched S4D after witnessing local dogs living outdoors with nearly nothing to call their own. Donicht and Riley have always had a special love for dogs and animals having grown up with them. Riley developed a strong sense of empathy toward dogs for many reasons that include knowing one that froze to death when she was a child. Living in different towns outside of Anchorage during the past, she and Donicht recognized how much those areas were in need of pets receiving proper attention toward their well-being.
Donicht said, “We both grew up in the Valley in the 80s and 90s when animal welfare was like…,” Riley then finished his sentence saying, “There was no animal welfare — there were no shelters or animal control.”
Once Riley and Donicht became established in Anchorage where they fostered dogs for other agencies, they eventually took matters into their own hands. They began talking with neighbors who quickly became volunteers prepared to address the issues they saw by starting an outreach program. This consisted of cold-contacting the owners of these dogs and then searching craigslist for people selling unwanted dog houses online. Once they attained those dog houses, they refurbished and insulated them to offer the owners for their dogs in need — absolutely free to the dog owner.
“The reason S4D works so successfully and continues to do so is because it’s born of a true necessity for what S4D does.” said Donicht. “As DIY punk rockers who grew up learning to be do-it-yourselfers, it’s a direct action approach.” Riley added.
The need grew for more dog houses, so S4D began constructing their own houses from bought materials. Then they searched for carpenters and skilled hands. They found several volunteers and Jim Peterson of Arctic Chicken Coops. Peterson agreed to become a part of the team and since 2018, he his wife Jen and friend Josh Reed have been building modulated dog houses from templates he’s created to fit clients’ desired size.
“Straw For Dogs told me what they wanted, so together we came up with what we have today, which is a panelized dog house.” said Peterson. “I have a couple different sizes which are designed all the same so that way the panels are interchangeable.”
S4D accumulates clients in several ways. Community members often discover their work through word of mouth or social media and will apply for help. Other times it’s from neighbors or family members who feel there is a need. The online application is easy to fill out and anyone can remain anonymous.
When S4D goes out on their non-judgmental outreach missions, their aim is to understand the relationship between dog and owner. They understand that reasons vary on why people keep their dogs outdoors. Residents with pure intentions may have been raised with chained dogs and that’s how they understand how to nurture them.
Others dog owners see no problem with animals being outdoors, especially when they have a thick coat or use them as guard dogs. The majority of people that S4D reach out to are open and grateful for assistance improving the quality of their pet’s life. When S4D finds people who insist on keeping their dogs outside for the majority of their lives, they offer guidance, education and tools toward pet essentials.
“Even though something may appear nefarious, it’s really a case by case situation.” Malone said. “Some people just don’t know, so we try to educate and give them the tools to keep their dogs safe and warm — because they love their dog.”
S4D does not enforce authority toward animal cruelty, but they cooperate with related organizations like MOA’s Animal Control unit where if one organization sees a need for the others services, they’ll be in contact. Animal Control has also been known to leave a S4D business card to residents suggesting to give their pets further attention. If anyone witnesses an animal emergency involving neglect or cruelty, S4D advises to call the local animal shelter, hospital or police department.
In addition to helping dogs, S4D have been providing pet food to human food banks since 2014 to assist Alaskans who struggle to afford buying their pets nutritious meals. S4D has served Anchorage, Mat-Su Valley, and parts of the Kenai Peninsula, but doing more outreach in Girdwood and the surrounding areas are certainly ways that S4D would like to see itself grow.
Also, although the name is Straw For ‘Dogs’ and has mainly dealt with the dog population, the door is always open to other outdoor pets. If you know of or own a cat, horse or a pet in need of a warm shelter living outside please contact S4D so they may asses the situation and offer a plan. Beloved animals can only prosper from the experience and for the owner there’s nothing to lose — S4D is here to help.
S4D is a small, 501c3 nonprofit that relies on fundraisers, grants and generous donations to continue their mission of providing supplies, vet care and resources for pets who deserve to live in a more humane environment. They also sell S4D apparel through email requests. Pick-Click-Give is an option to donate each year when applying for PFDs which Alaska residents have until August 31st to return back to the website and give after they’ve applied. All donations are tax deductible.
S4D are always looking for interested volunteers for outreach, promotional events, construction projects, or fostering or adopting surrendered dogs. To learn more about the organization, please visit strawfordogs.org or facebook.com/strawfordogs for details. For contact email email@example.com or call (907) 310-7294.
Foran’s work can be followed through Foran Brand Journalism.