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Book Review: Unchain My Heart (Dogs Deserve Better: Rescue Stories) edited by Tamira Ci Thayne and Dawn Ashby

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Why would anyone assume responsibility for another living creature, then banish the creature to the far reaches of their property, chained to some form of rudimentary (at best) shelter, ignored and sometimes starved? My little, tiny human brain cannot comprehend why someone would treat any living creature like this (except — maybe — a zombie, which technically is not living) instead of freeing it.

Unchain My Heart features forty true stores about dogs who received this treatment, their lack-of-care-givers, and their rescuers. When I first picked it up, I thought I’d read a few stories, skipping around a bit. Instead, I read every one and all in one sitting. The authors of these stories are members of Dogs Deserve Better (DDB), a group of volunteers whose mission is to end the practice of keeping dogs chained 24/7. They are not a group of accomplished writers; their writing holds our attention via the stories being told, not poetic imagery or other mechanics designed to enchant the reader.

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why people keep animals they don’t want, or how someone can claim to love an animal that s/he mistreats to the point of torture. I do understand how some animals end up in these situations. Someone wants a dog, finds that they are ill-equipped to take care of it or cannot train it, the dog may be destructive (especially if it’s a puppy), and the owner gives up on the animal, chaining it outdoors. Why don’t the owners …give the dogs away? …drop them off at shelters? …release them? (I don’t believe releasing a dog into the woods or abandoning it is a solution, but it does seem a bit more humane than tying it up and starving it.)

Not everyone who chains a dog withholds food, water, and medical care, but that’s not exactly a nomination for “outstanding humanitarian.” Dogs are social animals; they appear to want to live in our homes, lie at our feet, sleep in our beds, play with us, and be loved. A dog that is chained to an old tree isn’t getting any of this. Even if the dog has a long chain, it’s shortened as the dog circles the tree. Some people keep their dogs on short leashes, and the dogs live in mud and feces. They are flea bitten, their teeth rot, and they are bored out of their minds. They attract all manner of parasites and suffer painful canine diseases.

DDB volunteers take risks when they get involved in efforts to free an imprisoned dog. They are arrested, threatened, and harassed. The animals they try to help are often frightened to the point of terror, therefore, dangerous.  Law enforcement and animal control personnel are not always cooperative, and laws intended to protect animals are often weak or woefully under-enforced. Crimes against animals are under-reported, as witnesses weigh the danger into which they may be placing themselves by dropping a dime on the neighborhood bully.

One of our homes had a large, fenced-in backyard, abutting another large, fenced yard. Our neighbor never allowed her dog in the house, and one day I noticed it had died. We later learned that she suspected we had poisoned it, although it turned out there were a number of people she suspected, and there hadn’t been a necropsy.

We’d always felt sorry for this dog, but knew this family was better off without dogs (or at least the dogs were better off without this family). Unfortunately, an understanding adult (who appreciated the son’s grief at the loss of his dog) supplied them with a beautiful golden lab. Coco was a very sweet dog, and she loved to play. Our granddaughter would run back and forth along the fence, and Coco would run with her. Whenever we entered our yard, Coco brightened up, and when we watered our plants, she’d amble over to get sprayed. We often gave her treats. Our dog, who thinks all dogs are friends, would buddy up to Coco, with the fence between them.

One day I noticed that Coco was listless and she was getting very thin. I am probably the most non-confrontational person you will ever meet (if you ever meet me, which is unlikely), but I gathered up what little courage I possess, and knocked on the neighbor’s door. She let me in and was quite civil. I explained that we were worried about Coco’s health, and she said that she had also noticed the dog was getting thin, and she was going to take her to a vet.

The next time we saw the owner she reported that her dog was pregnant, and it was our fault because our dog (a female) was attempting to dig under the fence that separated the two dogs. Whatever. She also said that she feeds her dog;  we should stop.

Coco remained outside, but she was put on a chain. The neighbor’s son-in-law stopped by to “remind” us not to feed Coco. The dog gave birth, and she and the puppies remained outside all the time. The puppies disappeared; I’m sure (or at least, I pray) they were given away. Coco continued her life a dirty, chained, unloved dog.

We weren’t the only neighbors in this Gulf Coast town whose hearts were broken by the mistreatment of this sweet dog. For Coco, Hurricane Katrina was a blessing. When Katrina hit, there was a mandatory evacuation. Coco was left behind but somehow “disappeared,” only to reappear many miles away at a farm belonging to one of our neighbor’s relatives.

The good folks at BDD see dogs like Coco every damn day, and they do everything in their power to give the dogs a better life. They aren’t criminals; as often as possible they convince the owners to voluntarily give up their “pets.” They report suffering animals to local authorities, some of whom actually do something. They visit imprisoned animals, bringing them food and water. They find foster families, and “forever” families for the dogs, many of whom end up in the families of the volunteers.

Sadly, Unchain My Heart chronicles the apathy of people who are paid to look out for these animals, and the reluctance of many courts to proceed against abusers. While all forty stories have happy endings, we know that there are thousands more that won’t. If you would like more information about Dogs Deserve Better, check out dogsdeservebetter.org.

Unchain My Heart would benefit from more intense proof-reading and tighter editing, but the good represented is so much greater than the errors, that I can’t fault the editors for their product.

 Bottom Line: Would I buy Unchain My Heart? Yes. This is a great volume for animal lovers, and it would make a nice gift for people who care about pups.

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About Miss Bob Etier