Breaking the Chain

Anti-tethering legislation—what it is and how to create it
By Alyce Miller, May 2009

Who hasn’t spotted a dog chained to his dog house and wondered with a pang if he’s ever moved more than 10 or 15 feet from that spot? Well, if he’s like thousands of dogs in this country who live chained, day in and day out, regardless of weather or season, he probably hasn’t. What about the dog in your neighbor’s back yard, tethered to a tree or a clothesline or a shed, barking until someone remembers to dump kibble in her dish? This is her life. What can you do?

In many communities, so long as food and water are available, continuous tethering hasn’t been prohibited—until now. “Continuous tethering” refers to the practice of attaching an animal with a restraint, usually a rope or chain, to a stationary object, like a porch, dog house, fence post or clothesline. As more and more people begin to understand how this practice damages the very active and social creature we call “friend,” communities across the nation are passing anti-tethering ordinances.
Two reasons for doing so stand out: the mental and physical welfare of dogs and the safety of human beings. “Dogs are naturally social animals,” explains Adam Goldfarb, a spokesperson and animal issues specialist for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, D.C., “and the isolation they endure when continuously tethered creates dogs who are lonely, bored and anxious, and who eventually become territorial and aggressive. Studies have shown that chained dogs are at a greater risk of biting people than dogs who don’t live chained, so ordinances that restrict chaining can benefit both people and animals.”

According to an oft-cited statistic, a chained dog is 2.8 times more likely to bite.* Frequently, the victims are children. In 2007, the organization Mothers Against Dog Chaining logged 81 serious attacks on children by chained dogs (for specific cases, see their website). 

Advocates Step Up
In the last few years, groups of concerned individuals eager to address the urgency of the chained-dog problem have formed across the country. One of them, Unchain Your Dog, whose motto is Doesn’t man’s best friend deserve more than life on a chain?, offers important facts and great links to other sites. Another, Dogs Deserve Better, is the brainchild of founder Tammy Grimes, who describes her own journey in recognizing that continuous tethering of a dog is cruel:


Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

“As a child on the farm, we kept a chained Beagle named Maggie and a black Lab, who, although rarely chained, was not allowed in the home. The latent desire to stand up for the family dogs of my youth, coupled with later in life living near a dog the owners had named Worthless, was impetus for me to start Dogs Deserve Better. Worthless, another black Lab, had spent his entire life at the end of the chain—cold, snow, heat and rain—until I started Dogs Deserve Better, approached the owners as a representative of the organization, and was able to bring him into rescue. That was indeed a glorious day!”

Thanks to better education, more and more people understand that their dogs are pack animals, social creatures who want and need to spend as much time as possible with their human companions. So why do so many dogs still end up at the end of a chain? The reasons run the gamut, and often cast light not just on individuals but also on broader community and social values related to the treatment of animals.

Animals are still considered property in the eyes of the law, and some owners view their dogs as “possessions,” not unlike furniture or vehicles, to do with as they please. Others cite “tradition” or “custom,” or that people have always kept dogs that way (dogs used in herding and hunting were typically not regarded as family pets). Some simply don’t want an animal in the house and resort to a chain to prevent the dog from running loose (jumping the fence or digging his way under). Some believe that a chained dog in the yard is “guarding” the house, despite the fact that a dog inside the house is more likely to be effective in deterring an intruder. Others have wearied of the responsibilities of owning a dog or are not willing to deal with a behavior problem, and so have relegated the dog to the outdoors—tied, they say, because fences are expensive.
When communities consider anti-tethering legislation, it is important that those involved in creating it understand why people tether dogs and how to talk with them about this choice. Education is key, and information about the importance of properly socializing dogs is crucial.

Getting Down to Details

What exactly is an anti-tethering ordinance? As you might imagine, they vary. Some, like one in Ft. Worth, Texas, ban tethering altogether, except for very temporary moments when the owner is present (a dog sitting at an outdoor café with his person, for example). Others simply limit the number of hours in a 24-hour period that a dog can be tethered (in Bloomington, Ind., a dog cannot be tethered for longer than 10 continuous hours and no more than 12 in a 24-hour period). Others specify exact times of day; for example, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., focuses on the dangers of extreme temperatures and the vulnerability of particularly young animals, and prohibits “the tethering of cats, dogs who are under the age of six months, and any dog during periods of extreme weather or for longer than 15 minutes between the hours of 10 AM and 5 PM.”

Many ordinances specify types of collars and tethers (e.g., a buckle-type collar or a body harness made of nylon or leather, and not less than one inch in width), and the tether must be, for example, at least five times the length of the dog’s body, or at least 10 feet long. Some specify that the restraint must not weigh more than a certain percentage of the dog’s weight, and others require the tether to terminate at both ends with a swivel.** Leashes on dogs while they are being walked are, of course, exempt. 
Naturally, an ordinance is only as good as its enforcement. The more specifically and carefully an ordinance is written, the more effective the enforcement can be. According to Sarah Hayes, CEO of the Monroe County, Ind., Humane Association, “After passing the anti-tethering laws in Bloomington, not only were we able to take immediate action to stop the suffering caused by long-term tethering, but the ordinance also served as an opportunity to talk to owners about the root cause of resorting to chaining dogs. Officers now have the weight of the ordinance behind them and the opportunity to work with individuals to help rectify training and other issues, building a better understanding and bond between owner and dog.”

The successful creation and passage of anti-tethering laws involves establishing the reasons they’re needed, articulating a clear purpose and providing specific guidelines. A good reason to develop an anti-tethering ordinance is that a community wants not only to promote compassionate and humane treatment of companion animals, but also to acknowledge the ways in which the welfare of animals is inextricably connected to the welfare of people. Chained dogs are not only dangerous, they are vulnerable to predators, strangulation and theft as well. As Anne Sterling, Indiana State Director of the HSUS, reminds us, “Working to pass anti-tethering ordinances in your community is an incredibly effective way to help dogs.”

If you live in a community that has yet to pass an anti-tethering ordinance, here’s your opportunity to take some positive action. Begin by reviewing the ordinances of other communities, taking into account the particular needs and challenges of your own. The HSUS has developed a free, user-friendly and downloadable packet of material that offers helpful suggestions on how to write and propose a good anti-tethering ordinance that is appropriate for your community.
The goal is to develop legislation that will not only serve animals, but will also be accepted and actively enforced. And that’s something we can all get behind.

*Gershman, Sacks and Wright, “Which dogs bite? A case-control study of risk factors,” Pediatrics 93 (1994):913–917.
**See Helping Animals for a list of ordinances and specific texts, as well as communities that have passed them.


Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 51: Nov/Dec 2008


Alyce Miller's most recent book of fiction is Water, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize. She leads a double life as a professor of English at Indiana University–Bloomington and a pro bono attorney.