It's time to break the chain - the life of a chained dog
A chained dog is a dog kept in solitary confinement, tethered away from the house for months, or even years.
It’s one of the most common forms of neglect, and psychologically and physically destroys the lives of so many dogs.
They wear heavy, thick chains around their neck, and are often desperate for even just one moment of attention. Chained dogs are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – banished to a life of loneliness like a lawn ornament that serves no purpose. Once loved, now unwanted. And yet it’s not against the law to chain your dog.
The recommended best practice in New Zealand’s code of welfare for dogs is that dogs should have at least 60 minutes every day off the lead or chain or out of the run, with freedom to explore their immediate environment. Unfortunately, recommended best practice is not legally enforceable. As long as they have food, water, shelter, and are in good health, there’s legally not much the SPCA can do.
Life or death
SPCA inspector Melissa recalls a case two years ago. “I arrived at the property and saw a dog chained up in the far corner.” She had shelter, but barely. She was in good body condition, but only just.
“I had to take a photo because the pleading look in her eyes said it all,” she says. “She was four years old and had spent her whole life on that chain.”
Melissa believes this photo, that she still carries, truly represents the definition of a chained dog: a sad, shutdown, social animal who spends their life in isolation. She says she has lost count of how many times she has arrived at a property to find a chained dog.
But if the owner has satisfied all the legal requirements mentioned above, all she can do is offer advice, and feel helpless as she is forced to walk away. “I always try to improve that dog’s life before I leave,” Melissa says. “I lengthen the chain, give them blankets, or try to encourage exercise options – even if it’s just a few minutes throwing the ball. I carry toys around with me so I can leave the dogs with something to play with. Even though I can’t give them a brand new life, every little difference changes their whole world.”
But for some chained dogs it can mean life or death if nobody steps in to help. They might have a life-threatening infection from a collar wound, or they could be so emaciated it’s a miracle they’re still alive.
Thankfully, in these situations SPCA inspectors can legally remove the dog from the property, and urgently seek the treatment they need.
Why do people have chained dogs?
Chaining a dog is a widespread practice, because many people think it’s an acceptable way of confinement. “It’s hard to say how common it is, but about 70% of dogs I see are chained,” says Melissa. “Sometimes every property I visit in a day is because of complaints about chained dogs. People genuinely don’t have any idea that what they’re doing is wrong,” she says. “I use the ‘how would you feel’ approach, and it’s only then that they start to think about it. Often that’s all it takes for them to realise.”
There are many reasons why a dog might end up chained or tethered like this. Perhaps the dog keeps escaping from the yard, or maybe that cute puppy turned into a dog that is too boisterous for their owner to deal with. Whatever the reason, it’s something that SPCA inspectors see far too often.
Inadequate fencing is a common reason because legally you must keep your dog secured on your property. If a dog has a tendency to jump the fence, or there is no fence at all, they will go wandering and may get impounded by animal management. Dog owners want to avoid the fines, and feel that chaining their dog is the only solution.
Owners may also chain their dogs as a solution to behaviour issues. When puppies get older and start chewing, being destructive, or jumping up on people, a chain can be seen as an easy option to deal with these behaviours.
“When dogs reach the adolescent age, they begin to test boundaries, or become afraid of things. They jump up, bark, and start to get naughty,” says SPCA veterinary behaviourist Dr Jess Beer.
“But this is the most important stage of the dog’s life. Chaining them puts them in a situation where they’re deprived of learning and have no appropriate outlet to release their energy. That’s when the real problems start.”
What's wrong with chaining a dog?
A responsible dog owner fills the day of their canine companions with a variety of activities: exploring the neighbourhood park, playing with toys, interacting with their family, meeting new friends, treats and meals, and snoozing in a sunny spot of the house. They spend time and energy to shape their new puppy into a happy, well-adjusted, stable adult dog who can take on the world with ease.
For dogs at the end of the chain, their days are filled with boredom and frustration. This can cause severe behavioural and physical issues.
Being restricted to only a small area creates extreme frustration for a dog. This frustration results in stereotypic (repetitive) behaviours such as pacing, circling, barking or excessive grooming.
The lack of socialisation resulting from a dog being constantly chained or tethered can also lead to problems interacting with humans, other dogs, and other animals. The ‘five freedoms’ state all animals should have the freedom to express normal behaviour. They should have sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of the animal’s own kind. Chaining a dog completely limits these natural behaviours and desires. It’s particularly damaging when a young dog is chained.
“When you restrict a young animal’s ability to learn, touch or smell, it stops the brain pathways from forming,” says Jess. “If you deprive a puppy, they don’t learn vital life skills. It’s the equivalent of locking a child in a room. This mental deprivation causes significant anxiety and depression.”
Other common behavioural issues seen in chained dogs include:
- Anxiety and fear-based aggression towards the unknown, including new people and objects
- A heightened defence drive due to the inability to escape or move
- Leash aggression due to frustration around barriers and restrictions
- Inappropriate toileting behaviour
- Destruction of items within reach as a result of extreme boredom.
It’s common to see a dog completely shut down if they have been chained from birth. This is learned helplessness – a sense of powerlessness arising from a persistent failure to succeed.
Dogs have an innate desire for companionship, so some of this psychological damage can be reversed by providing stability and love. But many of these dogs have lifelong issues that will probably never be overcome. “There are options for rehabilitation, and some dogs are more resilient than others. But sometimes there is no coming back from the damage that’s been done,” says Jess.
“It’s so sad to see the pain in the eyes of these dogs. And most of the time the behaviour issues start because they have no guidance to begin with. They jump up at you because you’re the first person to say hi to them in their entire day. These dogs are punished for being normal.”
SPCA commonly rescues dogs who suffer from many life-threatening physical issues caused by the chain. Some of these include:
- Parasitic infestations
- Fly strike – flies get into small cracks on their ears and cause chronic dermatitis.
- Severe malnutrition and emaciation
- Worn and broken teeth from chewing
- Collar or rope tether wounds
- Splayed feet and muscle wastage from lack of exercise and standing still for hours
- Overgrown and broken nails
- Strangulation from trying to jump over objects to escape.
Molly was only four months old when her family went on holiday and left her tied up under the house. She was spotted by a concerned neighbour after her rope got tangled and burned through her skin, causing a deep, infected collar wound. It missed her jugular vein by millimetres.
An SPCA inspector responded to the call immediately and was shocked to find Molly in such a terrible state. He knew he had to act fast to save her life. “She was pretty lethargic. The tether was tangled on bits of wood, so she couldn’t even move. Bacteria and infection had got into the wound, and just looking at it, I could tell it was really severe.” If the SPCA inspector hadn’t found her that day, she would have likely died.
After four surgeries, over 100 stitches, and a lot of love from SPCA’s caring vets, Molly thankfully recovered physically and emotionally. The SPCA team were amazed by how much joy and trust she still had in people, despite everything she had been through.
Molly eventually went out to foster care with two SPCA canine attendants, Ben and Sarah. The couple ended up making her a permanent part of their family and renamed her Holly. Sarah sent SPCA the following update on Holly’s new life:
“Holly has come with her share of challenges. Because so much of her trauma occurred when she was a very young pup going through a crucial development stage, she has a lot of ingrained fears. The key to helping her has been to be loving and kind, and to provide consistent structured boundaries for her – so, yes, she is allowed up on the couch for cuddles when she is invited, but no, she and her canine sister, Flick, are not allowed to use the couch for bouncing on and destroying toys and hiding gross bits of bone! “Because she was tied up for such a significant part of her young life, Holly is a collector of things. When we first brought her home, she would gather all the toys she could find and put them in a big pile, lie on them and chew them. This is really common in chained dogs, as they have been severely restricted in their access to any enriching objects. We were concerned that she would start to ‘resource guard’ and become overly protective of things.
“Flick helped a huge amount by teaching Holly how to play games where they share toys. We initially only gave her toys when she was supervised. We also had special toys that we used for rewards or for when she was resting in her crate, but that she didn’t have access to the rest of the time. She very quickly realised that there were always going to be plenty of fun things to have and that she didn’t need to hold onto everything for dear life. “She is also incredibly inventive and can turn almost anything into a toy – a small pebble can keep her entertained for ages while she tosses it around, jumps on it and skitters it across the floor. She is a very creative dog!”
What can be done?
Education and stronger laws are two significant ways we can break the chain for these dogs. But every single person in the community can individually make a difference too.
If you have a chained dog, you can improve their life by following these tips:
Build a fence, install a kennel and run, or bring your dog inside, even if it's just at night. Regular exercise and interaction with the family are also extremely important. Use an appropriately-sized collar: you should be able to easily fit two fingers between the dog’s neck and the collar. If they are a puppy, make sure you check their collar size regularly and loosen it or get a bigger one as they grow. Provide good-quality food and fresh water every day. Regularly treat them for fleas and worms to avoid health problems. Provide insulated and dry shelter with clean bedding if you need to keep them outside. They need to be safe from the wind, dry from the rain, and shaded in the heat. A good shelter in the winter doesn’t always mean it’s a good shelter for the summer. Provide toys and other items they are allowed to play with and chew. Dogs like to play just like people. Large chews can entertain your dog for hours. Take your dog for regular walks. They love to get out to see new things and smell new smells. Training and socialisation from a young age will mean they are well behaved while they are out with you, but this takes time and patience. Take your dog to puppy classes while they are young. This isn’t just to help with their development, but it’s also a great way to bond with your dog. If you can’t introduce all of the above, find your dog a loving new home. This can be done privately through your own network of family and friends, or through a rescue organisation. It’s important your dog is rehomed to someone who will be able to adequately care and provide for them.
If you spot a chained or tethered dog, look for the following:
- Poor coat condition
- Parasite infestation
- Lack of or unclean water
- Lack of or unhygienic, inappropriate, inadequate food
- Deteriorating condition of the animal
- Inadequate shelter from the elements
- Lack of a comfortable place to sleep
- The dog is tangled in the tether
- Build-up of faeces in the area the dog is restricted to
- Physical injuries such as collar wounds
- Lack of registration tag.
If you see a dog suffering from any of the above, call your local SPCA centre’s animal welfare line immediately. You can also donate to your local SPCA centre to help give chained dogs everything they need, and to support SPCA inspectors continue their fight to improve their wellbeing
A day in the life of a chained dog
6am: The light in the house just turned on. People are moving around, talking and laughing. I wish I could be with them.
7am: My stomach just made a noise and my mouth feels dry. I’m hungry and thirsty. Last night I tipped over my water bowl when I got tangled in my chain.
8am: The chain is too tight and it’s hurting my neck.
9am: The people who live in the house are leaving. I try to run toward them with my tail wagging, hoping they will notice me. My chain snaps me backwards and I fall to the ground.
9am–4pm: I don’t know what to do. I can’t protect my house from my chain. I don’t have any toys and there is nobody to keep me company. Maybe if I bark someone will show up and play with me. I decide to bark all day.
5pm: Someone is home from work. Maybe they will play with me! They don’t. I start chewing on the side of my shelter.
5.30pm: Everyone is home now. One of them removes the notice from the door. He yells at me to stop barking. I pace back and forth, confused.
6pm: Nice smells are coming from the house. The people are cooking dinner. I’m still hungry and thirsty.
7pm: Someone comes out to see me and throws me some food. I am so happy for their attention that I jump up and bark in excitement. They yell at me and say that’s the reason I don’t live in the house with them.
8pm: Another lonely night. I dream about being on a chain because it’s all I know
The current law about containment and tethering of dogs
The Animal Welfare (Dogs) Code of Welfare 2010 was issued under the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and sets out the minimum standards and recommendations relating to all aspects of the care of dogs. It’s important to note that people who do not adhere to the minimum standards can be penalised under the act. However, the code of welfare also includes ‘recommended best practice’ and unfortunately, people who do not follow these recommended practices cannot be penalised, provided the minimum requirements are met. These legal requirements clearly illustrate how the current law does not adequately protect chained dogs in New Zealand
Minimum standard No. 4 (Containment and Tethering)
a) Dogs must not be contained or tethered in a way that causes them injury or distress.
b) Collars must fit comfortably without damaging the skin or restricting breathing.
Recommended best practice
a) Owners should keep their dog under control at all times. This is best achieved by providing a secure but confined environment where dogs roam. If a property is not appropriately fenced, then the dog should be kept indoors or provided with an outdoor kennel with an attached run or a tether.
b) Dogs should not be left unattended or routinely tethered by choke-chains or other devices which tighten around the neck.
c) Collars should be checked frequently, particularly in young growing dogs, and loosened if they become tight to prevent effects such as chafing of the skin or restriction of breathing.
Minimum standard No. 5 (Kennelling, Shelter and Ventilation)
Dogs must be provided with sheltered and dry sleeping quarters.
b) Measures must be taken to enable dogs to keep warm in cold weather.
c) Sleeping quarters must be large enough to allow the dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down comfortably.
d) Dogs must be able to urinate and defecate away from the sleeping area.
e) Ventilation and shade must be provided in situations where dogs are likely to experience heat distress.
Recommended best practice
Kennels should be constructed of solid, non-permeable materials, preferably raised above ground level, be stable, draught-free and of sufficient size to comfortably house each dog.
b) Dogs should not be required to sleep on concrete or metal surfaces. Where kennel and run areas are made of these materials, dogs should be provided with a raised platform, shelf or other type of bed made of a softer material on which to sleep.
c) Housing should be sited to provide shelter from cold, wet and windy weather, and to provide shade on hot sunny days, with the ideal area providing both shade and sun. Shade is especially important during the hottest part of the summer when artificial shade should be provided where no natural shade exists.
d) Where a number of dogs are kept together, such as in boarding kennels or pet shops, ventilation should be controlled to manage dampness and noxious odours and to minimise the airborne spread of infectious diseases such as kennel cough.
e) Dogs should only be housed communally if they are known to interact well together, or are kept under observation to ensure that they do not fight.
f) Kennels and kennels with runs attached should be no smaller than the minimum kennel and run sizes.
It’s hard to put into words how much suffering is experienced by dogs who live on a chain or tether. They have a miserable existence, confined in a way that’s easy for their owners, but cruel for them.
The only way we can truly stop this cycle of cruelty is through education and changing the law. The code of welfare needs to explicitly state that chaining your dog is illegal, and until this happens, SPCA inspectors like Melissa will keep on visiting these dogs and not be able to legally act.
Chaining a dog is inhumane, unsafe, and is becoming far too common. It’s time to break the chain.