Jethro, a Myrtle Creek pit bull, spent the first six years of his life chained up as a guard dog. Taking his job seriously, he habitually barked at the neighbor’s loud weed whacker. “He was really a sweet boy,” explains Kathy Oxendine, founder and director of the Toby Fund, “but he was very sad and frustrated being on his chain.”
The Unchain My Heart project is an offshoot of the award-winning Toby Fund, a small nonprofit organization based in Wolf Creek. Its aim is to get dogs off chains or out of tight confinement spaces and into yards or large kennels. Since 2017, the Oregon Tethering Law forbids chaining a dog for more than 10 hours in a 24-hour period. Jethro is just one of over 200 animals (including some goats) that Toby Fund volunteers have built enclosures for since 2011.
“He looked so happy,” Oxendine says. “He could hardly believe he was free in his new 20-by-10-foot kennel. Like he was thinking, ‘This is a miracle!’ And minutes after his release in the enclosure, the weed whacker went on—and no barking. Jethro is now a calm, happy and secure boy.”
Inspiration for the Toby Fund
A devoted animal lover, Oxendine says the inspiration for the Toby Fund came on a frigid winter night in December 1998. “It was freezing cold when I found a couple of little kittens who were very dirty and frightened on the steps of the Wolf Creek store. I picked them up in my hands and said to myself, ‘Never again.’ In 2000, I founded the Toby Fund.”
The Toby Fund’s mission is to create communities of compassion for animals in rural areas.
“It started as a community association for the Sunny Valley/Wolf Creek areas and we spayed and neutered animals in those two towns. Then we began getting calls about health-related issues and eventually we evolved into assisting with veterinary care. That has now become our Stand By Me project.”
In 2011, Oxendine came upon another situation that inspired their third project, Unchain My Heart. “I was in Glendale, and I saw a retriever-type dog who was chained to a tree by a duplex. I stopped and knocked on the door. A young woman and her children answered, and I said, ‘How would you like something better for your dog?’ She said, ‘I would love that!’ That was our first kennel we built.”
People make a lot of assumptions about owners who chain their dogs, Oxendine says, specifically that they are mean or uncaring. “Those assumptions can create fear and negative feelings, but the reasons people chain their dogs vary. Some dogs run off, some chase wildlife. And some people grow up with the idea that you chain your dogs up, so that’s what they do. Other people are physically unable to construct a pen, or they don’t have much money. There is no typical family. But when I knock on the door, I usually find that the people are very nice and very receptive to the idea of having a yard built for their dogs.”
Volunteers make it happen
O’Brien resident Brad Vincent, a retired aerospace engineer, says he became aware of the Toby Fund in 2012 and though he had never built dog yards before, decided to volunteer for the Unchain project. “The number of jobs we take varies a lot, as does the number of volunteers we have at any given time. Since early 2013 I’ve been involved in 57 jobs in the Illinois Valley. We have other people who work in Josephine and Jackson counties.”
Vincent says that every assignment is unique. “We evaluate each situation, the amount of space we have to work with and the number of pets we’re dealing with. The budget is limited because we work entirely on contributions, but we typically build a 25-by-25-foot yard with a gate. Some people don’t want their dogs in the house, so I also build dog houses to add to the yards for people who keep their dogs outside all year round.”
Getting the call
Referrals happen in a variety of ways, Vincent says. “When a call comes into the Toby Line, it’s usually by a neighbor, a relative or a passerby. How Kathy (Oxendine) handles the initial contact depends on the situation. If it sounds like a serious abuse case, she might call Animal Control right away. Otherwise, she sends them a packet that explains what we do and tells them about the law that says you cannot chain your dog for more than 10 hours a day. It also says that we are not a law enforcement agency, that we are only here to help by offering to build them a yard so they can get their animal off that chain.”
People are sensitive to being judged, Oxendine says, so it takes some diplomacy in handling what could be a potentially volatile situation. “When I knock on people’s doors, I treat everyone with respect. I always say, ‘You must love your animal, so we’d like to offer you an alternative to having them chained up. Wouldn’t you like a better way for them?’”
Sadly, some dogs are chained for most or all of their lives. “What people need to know is that when dogs are chained, they become very protective of their ground. They get lonely and depressed and can become frustrated, anxious and aggressive. We have found that most owners, we call them guardians, are unaware of the emotional and sometimes physical damage that is being done to the dog. But when we unchain a dog and allow him into his new yard, he sniffs and runs around, you can just see how his body relaxes. The owner’s eyes get big and they are so happy to see the changes in their dog. Unchaining changes lives forever.”