Breaking the Chains of Mistreatment


How many times have you seen them? The dogs who are tethered or penned in small enclosures and who live outside permanently, often without any significant human companionship. It breaks your heart, right? 

And you wish there was something you could do, right? Well, there is. Call Robin Budin, founder and director of Unchain America, a small but nationwide nonprofit specifically focused on helping such dogs. She has been helping them for years—and finding them new homes and the better lives they are due.

Based in western Massachusetts, Robin started her organization in October 2016 after volunteering for seven years with Dogs Deserve Better (DDB), which also focuses on chained and penned dogs. While volunteering with DDB, her two final years were as its national rescue and volunteer coordinator.

A dog tethered in an alley. Dogs who live like this deserve a better life. Image credit las – initially, CC BY-SA 2.0.

She had already been involved for years with helping homeless dogs through rescuing and transporting pitbulls while living in Florida approximately twenty years ago. Then, she learned about the plight of chained dogs while watching news coverage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in 2005. It was a wake-up call for her.

Robin’s special concern for such dogs left to suffer in poor conditions outside and not treated like a family pet is what led her to DDB. While there, she mentored other volunteers, representatives of associated rescue groups and members of the public.  She later decided to undertake such efforts on her own as one person. 

“But people knew my name and asked for help and wanted to donate, so I became a 501(c)(3),” Robin explained. I asked her how she selected the nonprofit’s name.

“I chose ‘Unchain America’ because that is what we are literally doing. One by one, we want these chained dogs freed. We also include caged, penned and stray or abandoned dogs, since they need the restart just like chained dogs do,” said Robin.

In the last three years, Unchain America has helped more than 600 dogs in a number of states.  In her first year, the group assisted 160 dogs and in 2019, there was a 58% increase to 253. Robin pointed out that one reason her numbers are increasing is Unchain America’s embrace of caring for more dogs who’ve been abandoned or found stray, in addition to just those who are chained and penned.

Unchain America’s assistance begins prior to intake, usually when a concerned person becomes aware of a dog left outside in inhumane and isolated conditions. They contact the organization because they want to help the animal. Robin and her fleet of volunteers coach these volunteers to work with the owner to either improve conditions or surrender the animal so a kind home can be found.

Unchain America will pay a limited amount for medical treatment—such as spay/neuter, as well as heartworm and parasite treatments—for the owner, or any person involved, if an animal is removed from a chain, brought inside and treated like a pet. These payments go directly to the veterinarian and come from the organization’s Scooby Fund, named after a German shepherd in West Virginia who was chained for 11 years to a dog house in all weather conditions. He had become blind due to infections and had numerous other health issues.

Dogs who live outside on a tether frequently suffer from health issues due to neglect. Image credit Angela, CC BY-SA 2.0.

“We cared for Scooby for just a few weeks.  Just as we thought he was getting better, you could tell he was in pain and the vet said it was best to euthanize him. Many people felt saddened by this,” stated Robin. “One follower sent glass paperweights with pictures run out from Scooby’s posts and mailed them to us so we could look at memories of this poor dog and his almost two months of love, medical attention and rehabilitation.”

If an owner will go all the way and relinquish, the dog is placed with an individual foster volunteer or a home-based rescue group—or likely both at some point in a chain of custody that may involve transport through multiple states. The goal of the foster and/or rescue group is to find the homeless canine a new home where he or she will be treated compassionately as a beloved household pet.

To help those people and organizations involved in the chain of custody, Unchain America pays for veterinary care that often goes beyond the basics, food, leashes, collars, travel costs and just about anything else that is needed to make the animal comfortable, healthy and adoptable. Robin’s group also helps with its network of 11,000 Facebook followers; her online adoption promotions are frequent and forwarded, often resulting in finding pooches their new families.

The bulk of Robin’s dogs—in addition to her foster and rescue partners—are in the southeast, although Unchain America is a resource for people and animals in all states, according to her. While approximately half of her adoptions take place through partner rescue groups in the Hampton Roads areas of Virginia, Robin sees a lot of activity in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. She has helped people as far away as Washington state and even a few people outside the United States, typically by providing advice on approaching an owner who forces his or her dogs to live in unacceptable conditions outside.

Her advice often includes asking people to bring a dessert or cookies when approaching an owner for the first time. Concerned animal lovers might also bring them a five-pound bag of food or straw in the winter.  People are encouraged to try and warm the hearts of the owners by expressing how much the dog banished outdoors reminds this person of a previous pet and how they’ve been seeking something similar.

It can be delicate and difficult to approach someone about their neglected dog, but it’s worth it if the dogs conditions improve. Image credit Mario Michlisch, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Robin helps them navigate such conversations by coaching people on trying to get closer to the dog through a series of visits by bringing items like toys, bones and leashes. The ultimate goal is getting the owner to allow the person to play with the dog and walk him or her—all of which will lead, it is hoped, to surrendering the dog to this person so he or she can have a better life.

While doing this delicate dance with often uncaring owners who see no problem with their treatment of their animals, people are told not to despair if the owner refuses to cooperate. Instead, they are coached to keep trying gently.

Robin occasionally talks with people who want to see stronger laws on tethering and leaving dogs outdoors but she said people often don’t stay focused beyond a few weeks when it comes to legislation. Other organizations, she acknowledged, are more equipped to handle legislation, leaving Unchain America to her preferred emphasis on direct health care and adoption.

“I could not do what I do without a circle of sharp, dedicated people who’ve been helping me for years,” said Robin, who proudly pointed out that Unchain America is run solely by volunteers, including her board of directors. There are no paid employees.

She counts among her successes dogs like Rusty and Brandi, cocker spaniels from South Carolina who were forced to live in a basement. They were two of nine breeding dogs kept in cages their whole lives.

Like Rusty and Brandi, this neglected dog lived in a cage at a puppy mill until he was rescued. Image credit Jo-Anne McArthur / Humane Society International/Canada.

“A representative for Unchain America worked with a local lady who knew the breeder to get Rusty and Brandi with the hopes of getting all nine of them over the following few weeks,” said Robin. “Rusty was so matted you didn’t know how he was able to walk. His life was 23 hours a day in a crate with time out for bathroom breaks and food. All he was used for was to make puppies so this backyard breeder could earn money.”

Once out of the home, Rusty was shaved and sent to a foster home in Virginia with Brandi. 

“Luckily, he quickly caught on to living inside a home, with other dogs and children,” explained Robin. “Rusty was adopted very quickly and has a doggy sister to love. Brandi stayed in foster a month longer due to wanting to see if she really was pregnant. She was not. She is also living a beautiful life with a loving family.”

The Unchain America volunteer who saved Rusty and Brandi turned the situation over to local animal control officers.  The organization intended to take the remaining dogs but that did not happen.

Unfortunately, not all cases turn out so well. 

Last year, Unchain America received a call from a woman who ran a sanctuary for unwanted animals on her property in Pennsylvania.  

“Just a few miles away lived a nine-year-old English bulldog in the back of a filthy yard, like a jail cell,” said Robin.  

The dog, named Remi, was extremely underweight. Fortunately, the owners were willing to surrender her. Immediately, Remi was taken to the veterinarian, who discovered advanced cancer and mammary tumors from being overbred.

“Remi was very receptive to human contact and quickly became a favorite among Unchain America followers and donors,” she explained. 

Despite having some tumors removed, others began to grow. Soon, it was determined that euthanasia was the most humane course for this dog who had, sadly, never received a chance to lead a decent, happy life.  

“She had six glorious weeks running on the property, rolling on her back out on the grass, getting special attention and then we had to say goodbye.  We are still emotional talking about her,” Robin said.

Work with homeless and mistreated animals—who often display a range of medical issues upon intake due to a lack of proper caretaking—always has its difficult days. They never get fully used to such mistreatment at Unchain America, according to Robin. Nevertheless, the victories are what propel her and her team to what she hopes is yet another year of exceptional growth—meaning more canine lives saved.

This post originally appeared on the Animal Matters blog.

Featured image: a chained dog. Image credit Ben Nguyen, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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About Author

Rob Blizard has more than twenty years of professional and volunteer experience in the animal welfare field. While executive director at an SPCA in Virginia, he wrote a biweekly column about companion animal issues in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper for three years. He now writes a blog called Animal Matters. Click to see author's profile.

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