Think of classic cartoon personality Snoopy and you might picture him lying happily on top of his dog house.
But not all outside dogs have a special place like Snoopy does. That’s where Stacey Norris comes in.
Norris founded Houses of Wood and Straw in 2008. The group provides dog houses to outside dogs in the rural portions of Albemarle and nearby counties.
Norris remembers noticing the same stray dogs hanging around the neighborhood while walking her own dogs in 2007.
“I saw these barrels and saw dogs going and coming into them,” she said. “I realized they were living there.”
Norris contacted PETA to inquire about its doghouse program, which provides wooden houses and straw bedding for dogs that don’t have adequate shelter. When she discovered that the PETA program doesn’t serve this part of Virginia, she asked for the house plans instead.
After building her first two houses, Norris was hooked. “I decided to do something bigger,” she said.
Nearly 400 houses later, HOWS is still going strong.
Norris finds helping hands from different corners of the community, receiving donations of building materials and straw from area businesses and getting building help from several Charlottesville and Albemarle Boy Scout troops and woodworking classes in Greene, Louisa and Albemarle schools. A group of women who work together on various building projects, including for Habitat for Humanity, also aids in the building and distribution of the homes.
Including what would be the cost for parts and labor, each house is worth about $100, Norris said.
The floor of the house is raised off the ground, with the house sized for the animal and the roof designed so that the dog can rest on top of the house. HOWS has given custom-designed homes to cats, goats and bunnies, as well, Norris said.
Each treated-wood house comes with a bale of warm, dry straw that functions as both bedding and insulation. The majority of the houses are distributed during the colder months.
More than just the physical houses, Norris and her fellow volunteers try to include education in their outreach.
Norris said the laws about outdoor animal shelter are basic and can be loosely interpreted. “There’s a requirement for shelter, but the type is vague,” she said. “Basically, it’s a top, bottom and three sides.”
She said she tries to teach people the difference between legal and appropriate housing, and to educate about what dogs need.
HOWS finds its furry clients through a variety of channels, including animal control officers. Dog owners, their friends and neighbors reach out to the program, and Norris and other volunteers sometimes drive through rural areas, scanning backyards for animals that might need assistance. She encourages people to contact her (www.housesofwoodandstraw.org) if they know of a dog who could use a better house.
“We are non-judgmental,” Norris said. “We want to educate and improve the situation.”
Norris will frequently leave dog owners with a checklist of steps to care for an outdoor dog, and a list of information, tips and resources. She also schedules follow-up visits a year after giving a dog a house to bring fresh straw and to check in on the dog.
“She’s a force of nature with a heart for people and a deep heart for companion animals,” said HOWS volunteer Boo Barnett of Norris. “Stacey’s all about education and love. She doesn’t criticize, critique or tear down.”
Barnett said that sometimes HOWS can help families find assistance for other needs, especially as many HOWS volunteers also help out with other organizations.
Nancy Burr, a HOWS volunteer, said she admires Norris’s devotion to education of dog owners. “She’s very patient, but she’s also very direct,” Burr said. “It can be difficult having somebody saying this is how you should treat your dog. She works her charm on people.”
Norris also advocates for improved laws addressing housing for outside animals.
“It’s created quite an awareness,” Norris said. “Nothing major is going to change unless laws change.”
Albemarle Animal Control Officer Larry Crickenberger remembers meeting Norris several years ago, when he assisted her with assessing dogs in need of new houses in the Southwood neighborhood. “She brought a truckload of houses and gave out a dozen or more houses that first day,” he said.
Crickenberger said he appreciates the cooperation between HOWS and the county’s Animal Control office, especially Norris’s understanding of current laws.
“When she sees more need, we step in. When we see a need we don’t want to charge on, we call her,” Crickenberger said. “She’s helped me with a lot of things. ... She has donated a tremendous amount of her time and her soul to this.”
Colleagues say Norris is committed to making life better for outdoor dogs.
“They just don’t have a voice,” Burr said of the dogs. “What Stacey is doing is being their voice to ask for better conditions and a better life.”
“Stacey doesn’t discriminate on the number of legs; it’s about making the standard of living better,” Barnett said.
Norris recalled one dog she met several years ago, a small, old black pooch named Charlotte Ann. “She lived in the backyard all her life, tied to a tree,” Norris said. Charlotte Ann’s shelter was a pallet and a tarp that didn’t block the wind in her pen, Norris said. “It was a stretch to call that legal, but it had been allowed,” she said.
When Norris delivered a new house to the small dog, “Charlotte Ann went inside and wouldn’t come out,” Norris said. “It was a cold day. I thought, ‘Wow, for 16 and a half years, this dog has been waiting for a warm house.’ It was touching.”
Stacey Norris was out for a walk during the fall of 2007 when she noticed two outdoor dogs with only barrels for shelter. Instead of tsk-tsking and thinking to herself what a shame that was, Norris decided to do something. And just like that, Houses of Wood and Straw (HOWS) was born.
Once she’d obtained dog house building plans fron PETA, Norris enlisted the help of area schools’ shop classes, Boy Scout troops, and volunteer adult carpenters. Since they began work in 2008, more than 400 properly sized houses—with raised floors, offset entries, and insulated bases—have been built and distributed to local dogs owners. The organization also offers other items, including rustproof food bowls, non-tip water buckets, nylon collars and walking leashes, tarps, long light-weight tethers, straw bedding, and waterproof entry flaps that supply additional comfort and warmth in the cold. In addition, HOWS has provided custom-designed homes to cats, goats, pigs, and rabbits.
Norris visits her HOWS families at least once a year to check on the dogs, which is often the best part of her job.
“It is rewarding to arrive at a residence on a cold day to find straw bedding already in the dog house,” she said. “It is rewarding to see a clean, full water bowl when we show up unannounced. It’s rewarding to see the children playing with Spot, and it is rewarding to see that the chain has been replaced by a pen.” What’s most satisfying, though, is when the pen is no more, and the family dog is inside for good.
Since Stacey Norris started Houses of Wood and Straw in 2008, the organization has distributed more than 400 custom-made shelters to outdoor dogs in need.
Norris learns about dogs in need through a variety of sources, including good Samaritans, Animal Control, and people who know their dogs need a better house. “And I do a lot of driving around myself,” she said. “Peering into backyards for possible recipients.”
Norris wants to be clear, though, that “we have a very nonjudgmental approach with people.” She said HOWS’ goal is to “meet people where they are,” and help educate them with the ultimate goal of improving their animals’ lives. “We want to be a positive part of the lives of these animals and the people who care for them.”—Savannah Williamson
Two years ago, when Stacey Norris was encouraging Albemarle County, Va., officials to improve the local dog care ordinance, she brought two influential props to the table.
One was a large tow chain, heavier than the dog it had once tethered. The other was a photo album documenting the work of Houses of Wood and Straw, the all-volunteer organization Norris founded in 2008.
Filled with pictures of breeds ranging from huskies to Chihuahuas, the album provides a glimpse into the lives of dogs who spend their lives at the end of a chain. In hundreds of “before” photos, decrepit structures sit in the background—a plastic barrel in a patch of dirt, a metal cage with a tarp stretched across the top, a rotting porch, a particle-board desk, a mud-caked plastic dome. Until HOWS intervened, these shelters were the animals’ sole protection from heat, cold, wind, and rain.
“It was eye opening for all of us,” says Albemarle County supervisor Ann Mallek. “… It was shocking the kinds of circumstances that we just don’t know are happening.”
Norris confronted this reality five years ago while walking near her home in neighboring Greene County. She heard barking and traced the sound to two dogs chained behind a house. The only shelters in sight were two plastic barrels.
For the lifelong animal lover, it was a painful sight. “I went home and thought about what I felt like I should do,” Norris recalls. A few weeks later, armed with doghouse blueprints and guidance from PETA’s Angels for Animals program, she was knocking on her neighbors’ door.
The meeting was a partial success. The owners weren’t willing to make Queen and Tank indoor pets or to build a fence. “So then we talked houses, and we talked new chains and collars and better dog food bowls”—all of which Norris delivered the day after Christmas.
It wasn’t ideal, but Norris knew she had tangibly improved the dogs’ lives. And it dawned on her that “there had to be a whole lot more dogs around here that needed help.” The next year, Norris and a handful of volunteers were knocking on more doors. Today, the organization delivers custom-built houses to nearly 80 dogs a year, along with straw bedding, collars, lightweight tethers, water buckets, treats, and toys.
Community support makes HOWS’ $10,500 annual budget go a long way. United Way volunteers deliver donated materials to local Boy Scout troops and carpentry students who build the houses. The tile and stonework company where Norris works as a sales and design representative provides caulking and waterproof curtaining for the houses’ entryways. During delivery season—October through March—HOWS volunteers gather each Saturday to pick up houses and drive them to preapproved “clients” in Central Virginia.
The art lies in talking with the dogs’ owners. “Most people I help don’t want my charity, but they’re more than willing to take houses that have been donated and we’re trying to place them,” Norris says. “It’s all in the approach.”
Good judgment is also key. On some occasions, HOWS has reported violations to animal control. Several dogs have been seized, and last year, one woman was prosecuted for cruelty. But most situations are legal or borderline legal, so the organization works to improve the dogs’ lives by educating owners. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Can we fix it without breaking the ties with the person? Because once we become the enemy of this person, we’ll never get to do anything for this dog again,’” Norris says. She’s heartened by the owners who take an interest and call her with canine health questions or to request more straw.
Other times, “we have to set our sights very low,” says Albemarle resident Sharon Ackerman, who spearheaded the campaign to strengthen the county’s dog ordinance. “Sometimes, if we can keep a dog out of rain and snow and that’s all we can legally do, that’s what we do.”
For now at least. In February 2011, Albemarle County’s board of supervisors unanimously approved improvements to the animal ordinance, including a ban on heavy chains and higher standards for sheltering outdoor dogs. It’s a baby step, says Norris, but it has opened the door to future improvements.
In the next five or 10 years, Norris is “hoping the laws are so good [HOWS doesn’t] even have to exist. That is what most people would refer to as a pipe dream.”
Her more realistic goal is for the organization to have the staff and budget to provide fencing along with houses. And she hopes HOWS will become a model for similar projects across the state.
Queen and Tank, the dogs who inspired Norris to launch HOWS, died in 2010, one of heartworm, the other of kidney failure. They never got to snuggle on a couch next to their owners or to sleep at the foot of a bed. But for three years, they had food and water, dry bedding in the winter, and shade in the summer. And they had a kind visitor who came with treats and toys, sat down in the dirt and hugged them tight, and told them they were good dogs.