By LIANA BAYNE
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
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.”