Group builds fences to help dogs live chain-free

SALEM — It starts with an email. Someone — a neighbor, a passerby — concerned about the dogs. Or a referral from Marion County Dog Control. Perhaps an owner, overwhelmed by their situation.

Next is a phone call, an initial screening. Then a home visit, to evaluate the setting, the dogs, the needs.

It leads to a fence — and a new life — for dogs that once lived on chains.

In the Mid-Valley, 55 dogs have been freed from chains since October 2009, and Michelle Blake has been involved with every one.

Blake, a massage therapist who lives in southeast Salem, calls the volunteer work her "second full-time job."

She is the Salem coordinator of Fences For Fido, a nonprofit group that builds fences and provides doghouses, spay and neuter surgery and other needs to liberate dogs that live on chains.

The all-volunteer organization started in Portland in May 2009 and since then has built fences for 250 dogs in Oregon and southwest Washington.

Blake, a longtime member of the Willamette Humane Society board of directors, knew the founders from previous work on animal cases. As the fledgling organization drew media attention — Fences for Fido won KGW's "Newsmaker of the Year" award in 2009 — people began contacting them.

"When people in Salem started calling them, they would call me," Blake said. "They'd ask me to call people back, to measure yards, to gather equipment. This has been my second full-time job for the past two years."

Lately, though, Blake has help. Mike Newman of Keizer and Rhonda Bernard of northeast Salem have signed on as co-crew leaders for the Mid-Valley team.

Bernard coordinates fence construction teams and does follow-up visits to the homes of dogs that have been freed. Newman is concentrating on soliciting donations of building materials as well as making insulated doghouses.

Their involvement frees Blake to concentrate on outreach.

"I always have at least 10 dogs on my contact list," Blake said, adding that more volunteers are needed to help with outreach.

"To go out and actually make the first contact with the family is the hardest role to fill," she said, noting that dogs from Mill City to Monmouth, from Woodburn to Turner are on her waiting list. "And sometimes, you get all the way to Gervais and find no one home."

Finding volunteers to do outreach in various locations, to split up the geographic areas, would ease the burden, she said.

From the initial email to the fence installation can take a couple of months.

"It can take a half-dozen visits," Blake said. Checking for underground utilities, setting fence posts, getting the dogs spayed or neutered all take time, she said.

And money.

Cash donations always are welcome, and most money goes for building materials and to cover surgery and other veterinary care for the dogs.

"If we can get building materials donated, or at a discount, that's invaluable," Newman said.

He's found donations of shingles for the doghouses, remnants of a brand that changed its design. He's finagled gifts of llama fibers, the leftovers combed out of useable fleece. Stuffed into donated, used bags that once held coffee beans, the fiber makes soft, warm bedding for the doghouses.

He's also found a source of plywood.

"I was recently contacted by the owner of Columbia Signs," Newton said. "He has leftover materials, plywood for outdoor signs. It's a huge shot in the arm, it saves 50 percent of a doghouse cost."

Bernard, a teacher at Hammond Elementary School, has gotten the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation involved. After-school programs at Crossler Middle School will build doghouses, and Hammond students will paint them.

Blake estimates that it costs $600 to $800 to put up a fence, not counting the cost of spay or neuter surgery and a doghouse.

"We have to raise that money for each dog," she said. Profiles of dogs waiting for fences are prominent on the Fences For Fido website, and people can choose to sponsor a dog.

Fences For Fido also holds fundraising events and is seeking grants to continue its work.

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