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Free Fido: Max’s Unchained Melody

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The long white stripe is Max’s most distinct feature. It spans the length of his slender frame, thicker on his torso and thinner down his face. The stripe runs all the way to his muzzle and past his neck. It complements his chocolate-colored eyes and the little pink heart-shaped birthmark above the wet, curious nose that is distinct to a boxer or boxer mix.

His paws stand out, too. They’re large, even for a boxer mix with his build, roughly the size of an open palm. Max has grown into brown brindle, but his paws still signify a puppyhood he never got.

The stripe highlights a discolored circle around Max’s neck, a stomach-churning wound that worsened and deepened with each of the six years he spent choke-chained to a tree. Although the scar is healing, the gray-brown ring around his neck might never fade. Growing hair peeks out of the place where the chain used to be.

Melody Whitworth and her nonprofit dog-rescue organization, Unchained Melodies Dog Rescue, have allowed Max to live out a puppyhood that was taken away by a chain.

It was that chain that brought him to Columbia. This past February, Max’s rescuer drove him 14 hours from North Carolina to his safe haven. But Missouri is not a haven for all dogs.

“Missouri has the most puppy mills in the United States,” says Bob Baker, the director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. “At the same time, pet shops are looking for cheap sources for dogs. It’s become a perfect storm.”

MAAL spearheads the fight for animal welfare legislation in Missouri. “We’ve put 1,200 puppy mills out of business,” Baker says. “There were about 2,000 and now there are about 800. We still have more than the next three states combined.”

Although organizations such as MAAL are fighting for proper treatment of animals in Missouri, there are dogs like Max all over the state feeling the brunt of antiquated ideologies about dogs, including beliefs on tethering and chaining.

The Humane Society defines tethering and chaining as: “The practice of fastening a dog to a stationary object and leaving him unattended. These terms are not meant to refer to an animal being walked on a leash, or cases of supervised, temporary tethering while an owner is present.”

One of the most-needed steps against tethering came in 1996 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement that read: “Our experience in enforcing the Animal Welfare Act has led us to conclude that continuous confinement of dogs by a tether is inhumane. A tether significantly restricts a dog’s movement. A tether can also become tangled around or hooked on the dog’s shelter structure or other objects, further restricting the dog’s movement and potentially causing injury.”

Eleven years later, in 2007, California became the first state to adopt legislation that limited dog chaining and tethering.

Known as the Tethering Law, it creates restrictions for dog owners including making the practice of tying a dog to a stationary object for more than three hours in a 24-hour period illegal, according to the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services.

Twenty-five states, including Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas, have dog-tethering laws that outline time restrictions, severe weather codes and movement clauses for a dog’s safety while he or she is chained. Several major cities, including San Jose, Austin and Dallas, have created outright bans on tethering, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Unlike California, which has made strides on a statewide level, Missouri’s tethering and chaining codes are largely city-by-city, with some far stricter than others.

According to the St. Louis Department of Health, dog chaining in St. Louis is punishable by a $100 fine. In Springfield, tethering is restricted to daylight hours. In the Kansas City suburb of Raytown, tethering code states that “tethered animals must be free from danger of becoming entangled, and must have access to food, water and shelter.” The law doesn’t specify how frequently the food or water should be replenished, what constitutes “adequate” food and water or outline what an appropriate shelter is for the chained animal.

Despite a nationwide push for more proactive legislation, there are dogs all over Missouri dealing with the emotional, mental and physical repercussions of tethering, some who might never fully heal.

The Humane Society states that continuously chained or tethered dogs are much more likely to experience insect bites and parasites. The dogs are also at risk of entanglement, strangulation and harassment from other dogs or people.

Sugar, a 10-year-old Labrador mix, was rescued after someone cut her torso with a knife to stop her from barking. Sugar was continuously chained for 10 years. Jax, a 2-year-old pit bull mix, was chained as a puppy after his owner got frustrated trying to housebreak him. Jax’s owners gave him a puppy-sized collar that wasn’t adjusted or replaced as he grew. Immediately after he was rescued, Jax underwent emergency surgery to remove the embedded collar from his neck. Luther, a 3-year-old Great Dane, was rescued after neighbors noticed that his water had turned dark-green.

Max was born in North Carolina. His owner purchased him from a litter sale at six months and chained him to a tree almost immediately. As a young dog, Max was let off the chain only sporadically. As he got older, the chain got shorter, and he was eventually tethered full time.

A young woman who lived across the street from Max purchased hay from his owner, and she saw the dog chained outside. From then on, she would check up on him each time she purchased hay. When she noticed that Max’s chain had gotten shorter, she decided to approach his owner and asked him to release Max into her custody.

Whitworth says his former owner agreed to give him up and relinquished custody that same day. Max was finally free but had no place to go.

His rescuer initially sent him to a boarding facility, but Max required more attention than was provided. After two weeks, his rescuer began to call organizations across the Southeast to find help.

But one thing failed him: breed.

A boxer mix with a bulky build and a square face, Max fits the physical description of what is called a “bully breed.” According to Animal Planet, the term “bully breed” is derived from the dogs’ origin and history, not their temperament. The dogs are descendants of Molossers and include breeds such as American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Boston terriers, bulldogs and boxers. “Molossers were big dogs with large bones and muscles, pendant ears and short muzzles,” according to Animal Planet’s website. The Molossers were then bred with other breeds like the Old English bulldog or matiff breeds to create the bullies that we know today.

The dogs, who have origins that date back to ancient Greece, were originally bred to protect livestock and property. But this function of the breed changed over time. In 19th century England, for example, Molossers were used in blood sports including bull baiting, which is where the name “bully breed” was coined. And in the 1980s, gangs began using bully breeds for protection and as a symbol of status.

“People use the term really loosely,” Whitworth says. “It’s a slang term for the breed. But the problem is that they just generalize the dogs, but there are some really great dogs out there that are wonderful, well-behaved family pets.”

According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, dog breed behaviors should not be generalized: “While a dog’s genetics may predispose it to behave in certain ways, genetics do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, behavior develops through a complex interaction between environment and genetics.”

But most rescue organizations, even nonprofits such as state-sponsored humane societies and federally funded animal shelters have strict regulations — even restrictions — against bully breeds.

Whitworth learned about Max through photos of him that his rescuer had posted on social media.

“I found her online, and she said, ‘No one will help me,’” Whitworth says. “I emailed her, and I said, ‘I will help you. If you can get the dog here, I will take him.’” His rescuer agreed.

Before she moved to Missouri, Whitworth volunteered with a dog rescue organization in Florida that advocated against tethering.

“We moved up here looking for a house with some property because I had horses, and while we were out in the rural areas looking for houses, I saw dogs just chained to trees,” Whitworth says. “One house that we were looking at had this beautiful Siberian husky chained to a tree with nothing but dirt around it and a beat up metal pot that was upside down, no water in it.”

Whitworth says that seeing the dog’s situation triggered her rescue instinct.

“I tried to find help for that dog.” Whitworth says. “And I couldn’t find any help. Animal Control said it was legal, and I didn’t really know anybody here because I hadn’t moved yet. I called the sheriff, and they said, ‘Nothing we can do. It’s legal.’”

Whitworth didn’t buy the home but doesn’t think that seeing the house was a waste.

“That’s how it all started,” Whitworth says. “As soon as my eyes were opened to that Siberian husky, I started seeing chained dogs everywhere: nice houses, dilapidated houses, apartments, trailers, in the city, in subdivisions, out in the country — everywhere. It just blew my mind, so it was kind of my calling, I think.”

Unchained Melodies runs based on voluntary relinquishment. This process can be tricky. Whitworth says the most effective way to convice dog owners to give up custody includes addressing his or her concerns with understanding and without judgment.

“I don’t knock on the door and say, ‘Hey dude, what are you doing with your dog in the pen? That’s abuse,’” Whitworth says. “What are they going to do? They’re going to close the door and tell me to mind my own business.”

Unchained Melodies functions primarily out of Columbia and Jefferson City, with a facility and training center in Columbia. Whitworth works with a team of volunteers, and foster families feed the dogs, take them on walks and play with them. But the process of rescuing dogs isn’t limited to volunteers, Whitworth says.

Whitworth has received calls from countless anonymous people who were concerned about the well-being of dogs in their communities.

Unchained Melodies was founded in 2008 under the name Dogs Deserve Better. Since becoming Unchained Melodies Dog Rescue in November 2015, the organization has been able to help more than 100 dogs. There are typically 25 to 35 dogs in their care that can spend anywhere from one day to a month at the organization’s training facility. Whitworth says she upholds the same standard of care for every dog, and that’s exactly what she gave Max.

“First thing I like to do is give him a big bowl of food,” Whitworth says. “He (Max) had traveled a long way, so pretty much we just took him out to go potty and gave him some food and bedded him down for the night so that he could chill and take it all in.”

Although some facets of Max’s previous life were unclear, Whitworth was certain about one thing.

“It was a chain,” Whitworth says. “It was a chain that did that to his neck.”

Then the adjustment began.

“He was scared, scared, scared after the first night,” Whitworth says. “We had a hard time getting him to get out the door. He would walk out the door but wouldn’t go past the doorstep.”

Whitworth says Max also had issues when volunteers would try to take him on walks using a leash. “When he first went out on a leash, he would just plant himself, and he wouldn’t move, so we started taking him out on the long line and just kind of letting him have space.”

Even though he was no longer on the chain, Max was still recovering. “The minute there was tension on the leash, he would plant himself,” she says. “When dogs are on the chain, they run to the end and get bounced back. It’s definitely a trust issue.”

Whitworth says that at first Max was uncomfortable in his new environment. This is typical for dogs who have been chained or tethered.

The Humane Society’s website states that dogs unable to retreat from threatening situations are more likely to lash out due to their protective instincts over their territory. When this space is invaded, their natural fight-or-flight response is triggered and they cannot leave; they must settle with the former.

“The first few days, he was pretty cagey,” Whitworth says. “If he didn’t know you, he would kind of lash out. A couple of the volunteers texted me and said, ‘Hey what do I do with this dog?’ And I said: ‘Just open the door and let him come out on his own. Give him some treats, and then he’ll be fine.’ He just needed to know you’re OK. It probably took four or five days to get acclimated to everyone.”

Once Max began to trust Whitworth and her volunteers, he began to change. Whitworth noticed his strides.

“One of the biggest breakthroughs was the first night he didn’t poop or pee in his crate,” Whitworth says. “He wouldn’t go outside because he was so scared, and then he would come in and immediately poop or pee in his crate. Those seem like small things, but they are huge.”

Whitworth said Max stopped having accidents in his crate entirely and would lead volunteers outside when he wanted to go on walks. He also grew more comfortable on the leash and continued to follow and learn new commands. This training and growth prepared Max for fostering and adoption.

“He’s treat-motivated, so that was good,” Whitworth says of the training process. After just two weeks with Whitworth — four weeks after he was unchained — Max was able to sit, lie down and bark on command.

Unchained Melodies has a rigorous adoption and fostering process, which includes a home check and a family meet-and-greet, where every member of the family — including any other pets — are expected to meet the prospective dog. Whitworth says she wants to make sure that all of Unchained Melodies’ dogs are ready for families, and that the families are ready for the dogs.

“It’s important that the dog meet all members of the family and all of their pets because we want to make sure that they all get along,” Whitworth says. “And if that’s fine, then we go forward with the adoption.” For Whitworth, this is one of the most crucial steps in the process.

“I had a large dog that was really unruly,” Whitworth says. “I really didn’t think he should be around small children. The applicant said he didn’t have any children. We get there to do a home check, and there were two toddlers sitting on the living room floor.”

Whitworth refused to continue with the adoption.

Apart from finding homes for Unchained Melodies’ rescues, Whitworth also works to make strides with Missouri politics.

“We have been involved with other groups to lift breed bans,” Whitworth says. “Hallsville was successful in lifting the breed ban and so was Boonville. And Boonville, in conjunction with the breed ban, also has an anti-chaining ordinance, as well.”

Whitworth teaches seminar courses throughout mid-Missouri to help concerned citizens get involved with establishing and legislating ordinances to be passed in Columbia.

“You need to know how your body of government works,” Whitworth says. “Because different places have different forms of government. For us (Columbia), it’s city council. So I needed to get to know our city council members. Who is an animal-lover? Who isn’t? Who might actually have a chained dog in their backyard? Just Google Earth them.”

With increased community involvement and awareness, Whitworth says there has been more progress with breed bill HB 1811, which would be an important step for Missouri to take in furthering animal welfare legislation by banning breed restrictions.

Whitworth says she is not stopping at the local level. “Right now we’re trying to get the word out about the breed bill, and then at some point, we would like to have a bill written for a statewide anti-chaining ordinance. So we would definitely like to spearhead that.”

Missouri’s animal legislation is still a work-in-progress, but Max has blossomed into a dog with a bright future, thanks to Whitworth and her dedicated volunteers.

“We tested him with four cats, and he did great,” Whitworth says. “He’s gained weight, which is good. As far as his fear issues go, he had a hard time going out the door, but now he runs around the backyard off the leash, and his recall is really good. He goes out into the play yard now. He loves everybody he meets.”

Max is currently being fostered by Demitrios Raftopoulos and has been in his new home since April. Raftopoulos says that he had never fostered before he got Max, but it has been a good experience.

“When I brought him into my house for the first time, it took a while for him to realize that this was a place for him to be comfortable,” Raftopoulos says.

It took Max a few days to acclimate to his new environment, but Raftopoulos says he is adjusting to his new life indoors.

“He just wants to be on my lap even though he is way too big to be a lap dog,” Raftopoulos says.

Despite his troubled past, Max’s future is bright thanks to Whitworth and Unchained Melodies. Now, he is waiting to be adopted. Despite this last step sometimes being the longest in the process, Whitworth is confident that Max will find a loving family and home of his own.

“Once he gets out and about, he will get adopted very quickly because he is doing so well,” Whitworth says.

So, until then, Max will wait for his family in style: on a couch, a bed or a carpet — but never again on a chain.

Columbia’s laws unleashed

Laws for dog tethering and abuse vary by state, county and city. Columbia’s anti-tethering rules under the city’s ordinances state that a tether cannot be the primary method of restraining an animal, and that there needs to be a shelter that is “properly ventilated, sanitary, dry and weatherproof.” Whitworth says the current ordinance is hard to enforce because it requires the authorities to constantly check on the animal, and those who report the misconduct are required to appear in court as a witness.

How you can help

Check your city’s ordinance for laws against tethering. If one doesn’t exist, speak with law enforcement or animal control about establishing one.

Approach the dog’s current caretaker. “I can’t iterate enough that being friendly and helpful is the best way to approach an owner,” Whitworth says. “Don’t accuse an owner without knowing the facts. Avoid harmful words because they will close the door, and it cannot be opened again.”

Ask how you can be of help, and provide solutions and resources to the owner. Use relinquishment of the dog as the last offer.

Never offer to buy the dog or attempt to steal it.

Contact the authorities if you notice the animal’s owner breaking several laws.

If you know of a dog needing help or are interested in adopting or fostering a dog, Unchained Melodies Dog Rescue can help:

P.O. Box 7018

Columbia, MO 65205

(239) 213-8174, unchainedmelodies.org

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