In December, as temperatures began to drop, dozens of families in Tennessee started to get a friendly knock on their doors. Staff from local animal care centers were delivering doghouses with insulation, all for free. One hundred doghouses were given out as part of an innovative and collaborative strategy between our Companion Animals team, State Affairs department and Law Enforcement Training Center. Here’s the story behind it:

In many climates, dogs left outside with inadequate shelter face harsh, cold winters and brutally hot summers. And even though police departments often receive calls about dogs left outside from concerned locals, in Tennessee, there was no clear legal definition of what constituted adequate shelter for a dog outside. The law was left up to the interpretation of individual pet owners, animal control or law enforcement officers, and the courts.

This ambiguity meant that the law could be subjectively and unfairly applied, in a manner sometimes overly punitive, and at other times not protective enough, harming both people and animals. The lack of a clear definition of adequate shelter made the law challenging for authorities to enforce and for pet owners to understand; its vagueness often left owners uncertain if what they had already provided or could afford was sufficient.

Our team took on this complex problem through a multifaceted approach. We advocated for the passage of a statute in Tennessee that would define what constituted adequate shelter for a dog outdoors. Thanks to state legislative champions Sen. Jon Lundberg, Rep. John Crawford and Rep. Clay Doggett, the Tennessee legislature passed the bill into law, and it took effect on July 1, 2023, after Gov. Bill Lee signed it, making Tennessee the 17th state to define adequate shelter for dogs. The law creates clear and reasonable expectations for the humane treatment of dogs.

But we didn’t stop there. We needed to spread the word among police departments about the importance of this new law so that they could apply it fairly and to ensure that dogs are treated well. And we needed to publicize it in communities so that dog owners—especially those who for several reasons, including landlord restrictions, may not be able to always keep their dogs indoors—could get a fair opportunity to comply. 

Our Law Enforcement Training Center offered its support for implementation. We worked with the Tennessee Sherriff’s Association to help reach law enforcement officers across the state. In this way, law enforcement agencies and individual officers received a detailed overview of the new law and an understanding of the nuances around access to care and pet equity. We hosted a webinar for law enforcement professionals, including sheriffs, animal control officers and investigators. One of the speakers was Sheriff Jeff Cassidy from Sullivan County, who shared his real-life experiences and insights from his jurisdiction. The training centered on how to discern when education about adequate dog sheltering is the appropriate next step or whether punitive action is necessary.

Still, we thought we could do more. It’s not lost on us that purchasing a doghouse may not come easy for some families. Economic inequities exist across the state, and with the rising cost of food and other necessities, purchasing appropriate shelter with insulation can be a challenge. 

We believe that everyone should be able to experience the joys and love that pet ownership can provide, and that the law should not punish people for lacking some resources for their animals. That’s why we’re teaming up with sheriff’s departments across the state to facilitate community doghouse distribution and educational outreach concerning adequate shelter for Tennessee pups. We partnered with the sheriff’s offices in Giles, Sullivan and Stewart counties and the animal shelters in those counties to offer free doghouses and insulation material to socioeconomically challenged communities. Our team plans to host more community outreach events in Sullivan and Stewart counties in the coming months. 

I am so proud that our teams identified a complicated problem facing companion animals and worked together to find a solution at the policy, law enforcement and community levels. Because 33 states in the U.S. still lack a law defining adequate shelter for companion animals, our team is working on advocating for similar regulations in other jurisdictions. This is the kind of problem-solving that will help to achieve the humane world for animals that’s at the center of our vision, one that benefits animals and the people who love them.

Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.