Compassionate Outreach: How Straw For Dogs Increases Quality of Life in Alaskan Communities

Straw For Dogs (S4D) is a remarkable volunteer group in Alaska working to improve the lives of dogs and people through compassionate, non-judgmental outreach, education, and rescue efforts. In addition to spay/neuter, vaccinations, and general vet care, S4D also provides pet food, pet supplies, training assistance, and custom insulated, elevated dog houses, filled with straw, to provide a warm shelter for dogs living outdoors.

Straw For Dogs was the recipient of a 2015 Your Program Your Ideas grant from Animal Farm Foundation for their Community Outreach/Owner Support work. We recently spoke with Metis Riley, co-founder and volunteer, about S4D’s progressive, effective approach to pet owner support services.

AFF: The families and pets you work with are living in challenging conditions. Can you share S4D’s philosophy about the pet owner support work that you do?

straw for dogs
Midnight and her person Gustie. Midnight was spayed and vaccinated through S4D in partnership with Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Outreach, Inc (photo credit ANRVO).

S4D: Straw For Dogs is an outreach program that offers free and pay-as-you can supplies and resources for pets outdoors. S4D developed as a way to help animals, but through our efforts we have learned that we can only do that by understanding and working with their caretakers.

While we might hope that all dogs and cats could live indoors, our mission is to help animals who are outdoors be more comfortable.

We offer doghouses, straw, toys, treats, collars, spay/neuter, pet food bank, and other supplies, as well as continued support for families with pets outdoors. We provide training tips, crates, and toys to help pets transition to being indoors.

By demonstrating quality caretaking, we strive to create long lasting changes for the entire family. Our volunteers endeavor to be compassionate, patient, and gentle with the humans, as well as the dogs, and as an organization, we urge our volunteers to extend that kindness to themselves as well.

What are some of the specific challenges you face in terms of assisting pet owners in rural areas of Alaska?

Rural Alaska is mostly reached by boat or plane. Both are extremely expensive ways to ship freight. Basics supplies in most places, such as collars, doghouses, and bags of dog food might simply be unavailable in these locations. And what is available is very expensive. For example, in Kotzebue, a village in rural Alaska, a gallon of milk is almost $10.00!

Grease has been an outreach client since 2014, after retiring from a sled dog team. He finished the Iditarod five times! Grease has upgraded to a heavy duty wooden house and lightweight cable run provided by Straw For Dogs. Volunteers returned to maintain and fix the run after wear and tear, thanks to a grant from Animal Farm Foundation.
Grease, a retired sled dog, had his housing upgraded to a heavy duty wooden house with straw and a lightweight cable run. Volunteers help maintain and fix the run after wear and tear.

With the grant received from Animal Farm Foundation, Straw For Dogs sent 30 bales of straw to rural Alaska. Without road access, all supplies are flown in these areas, which is very costly. Everts Air Cargo donated shipping as space was available from Anchorage to Canine Comfort LLC in Aniak and Friends of Kotzebue K9 in Kotzebue. Ravn Alaska and Arctic Backcountry Flying Service LLC also donated air freight to get supplies to smaller, more remote villages.

By working with nonprofits and businesses to distribute supplies on a local level, Straw For Dogs can help reach dogs in the far areas of Alaska, where we may not have volunteers, but the need is great. The living conditions for humans and dogs alike are very tough in Bush communities.

Families in these areas might be struggling to make ends meet, which can make it even more difficult to provide for their pets. Our standard procedures include building a relationship with the caretaker to follow up regularly and it can be challenging to find advocates to do that in rural areas where we don’t have volunteers.

In your grant report you shared so many wonderful stories of individual dogs that S4D has helped. Is there a particular dog or family that taught you something new or important about doing outreach work?

Dozer is a longtime client (since 2013) who we have helped move numerous times with his wheelchair-bound caretaker. Each time they move to a new home, Straw For Dogs has helped get Dozer set up with a fence, doghouse, and supplies. Recently we installed a new gate that is easier for his caretaker to operate from her wheelchair.

Straw for Dogs Dozer
Dozer loves his mom, Shelia, who was willing to move to a new home in order to keep him with her.

Committing to help over an extended period of time has been a lesson in patience and practicing non-judgment. Because of our long term relationship we have weathered some ups and downs, but we trust that our efforts have improved Dozers’ overall quality of life.

Johnson Family Straw For Dogs
The Johnson family installed new fencing and set up a dog house for Dozer.

This is truly a team effort. Tom and ReAnn Johnson are some of our most dedicated outreach volunteers and they included their visiting relatives in helping to move Dozer’s fence from his old home to his new place. This photo album is from that day (the photos are even more special now, because Tom’s father has since passed).

If you could pass along one piece of advice to other animal welfare groups about doing effective pet owner support work in under-resourced communities, what would that be?

Focus your efforts and keep steering towards your mission. It is easy to get pulled in many directions and want to help in many ways, as the need is great in all fields of nonprofit work. Consider your strengths and weaknesses and choose to maybe do less, but do it better. By better I mean responsibly, sustainably, and that animals and people are affected by your efforts in positive ways.

Thank you for your incredible work, progressive approach, and generosity of spirit S4D! To learn more about Straw For Dogs, please visit their website. 

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