Life on a Chain in Memphis

March 7, 2020

“I wouldn’t do that to myself, so why would I do that to him? ‘Caint take his manhood.”

“She was born to do it; I just want one litter.”

If the team at All 4s Rescue League had a dollar for every time they heard those excuses, and the many others for why someone didn’t want to spay or neuter their dog, they wouldn’t need to do any fundraising.

On Wednesday, Nancy and I spent a day on the streets of Memphis with Suzy, Blair, and Denise from All 4s. It was an exciting day for us, a chance to see exactly where much of the problem of unwanted dogs in the shelters begins. For the All 4s team, it was just another day trying to better the lives of dogs who spend their lives living on chains.

We met up with Suzy, Blair, and Denise at the storage unit where All 4s keeps their dog houses and supplies. We talked briefly about the work they do and then piled into their van and truck and set off for an address in a sketchy neighborhood where Suzy had seen dogs living chained in a side yard.

We pulled up in front of the house across the street from a decrepit cemetery. In the driveway were four cars in various stages of assembly. Trash was strewn across the yard and sure enough, two dogs were chained on the side of the house with no shelter. I asked Blair, who was driving the truck we were riding in, how they find these dogs. Sometimes people tell them about the dogs, she said, but many times Suzy just rides around scanning yards and porches.


Suzy spoke with a man working on one of the cars. She inquired about the dogs on the chains. Were they out there all the time? Even when it was raining or bitter cold?

When she discovered that yes, they were, she offered what All 4s always offers—a free dog house, a free spay and neuter (and transportation to/from the surgery), and other things to make the dogs’ lives more comfortable—dog food, straw for the dog house, and, in this case, new nylon collars for the dogs who wore the chain that held them in place looped around their necks as their collar.

Suzy tossed treats to the little loose Pomeranian threatening to take out her ankles as she waited to speak with the dogs’ owner. Suzy is the passionate leader and the heart of the organization. As Denise told me, “She does this 24/7, really, she never stops.”

Suzy is a tiny woman, with a quick smile and an unthreatening manner. I watched all day as she spoke with people from all walks of life, her respect and compassion evident in every interaction, even though I’m certain her heart broke at the way many of the people were treating their pets.

The young woman who owned the chained dogs and the Pomeranian was happy to have the help of All 4s, so Nancy and I played with the dogs and fed them treats as Suzy and Denise set to work setting up Brownie (a neutered male pit bull) and Sugar (a female shepherd mix) with a dog house of their own.

Blair fitted both dogs with new nylon collars so their chains wouldn’t cut into their necks.

Then we discovered that there were two three-month-old pit bull puppies in the house. The woman didn’t want to have them spayed or neutered. She wanted to have at least one litter of puppies.

I fed treats to Brownie and Sugar and lingered close as I listened to Suzy explain to the owner that if she didn’t spay her female puppy, stray dogs would be drawn to her yard, where they might hurt Brownie or Sugar.

The woman had told me earlier that her previous dog (that had also lived chained in the yard) was attacked and killed by a pack of stray dogs. I hoped the possibility of that tragedy happening again would be enough motivation for her to let All 4s spay her puppy.

When that didn’t convince her, Suzy explained that inbred puppies could have deformities and health issues. She told her that at Memphis Animal Services, the public shelter, they killed pit bulls every day.

People want a cute puppy, but they surrender the unruly, energetic dog they grow in to, and then the shelter kills them. That’s the cycle here in Memphis where there are far too many pit bulls and far too meager dog laws.

Finally, having done all she could for the dogs, Suzy left the woman with All 4s contact information and promised to follow up with her about having the puppies spayed and neutered. Alls 4s follows up on all the dogs they visit, bringing fresh straw for the dog houses and checking on their health.

From there we drove through the neighborhood and came upon a stray mama dog who hobbled on three legs with an enormous loose puppy. We caught the puppy and unsuccessfully attempted to catch the mother.

Eventually, we connected with the man who lived at the home who explained that the puppy was his, but he didn’t want the mother. She was a stray that hung around the neighborhood and had bred with his dog who lived on a chain in his backyard. He said lots of people had tried to catch her with no luck.

Besides the baby daddy, he had another dog chained in the back who had no shelter and a very short tether. All 4s gave him a new longer light chain to use, cut off the wire that had been wrapped around the dog’s neck for a collar and replaced it with a nylon collar, and installed a dog house so the dog would have shelter.

(Nancy and I were honored when Denise inscribed our names on the doghouse. If you’d like YOUR name on a doghouse in Memphis, I’ll tell you how to make that happen later.)

Just a few blocks away, we encountered another stray mama dog and puppies. A man had penned up the surviving puppies—four fat butterballs who were probably six or seven weeks old and surviving solely on their mama’s milk. He told Suzy he wanted to keep the male puppy but we could take the others, and the mama dog, a sweet shepherd mix, who belonged to no one but seemed to be known in the neighborhood.

Nancy and I carried puppies to the All 4s van, while Suzy hooked a leash on the mama dog and talked a little longer with the man, convincing him that she would take the male puppy too and have him vaccinated and neutered.

I asked Suzy if she really would return the puppy and she smiled and shook her head. She knows that once that puppy is out of sight, he will be out of mind too. And she wouldn’t subject that precious little babe to life on a chain in Memphis. She knows too many dogs who live that life. She spends every day out on the streets helping those dogs. Before our day was up, Blair had secured a rescue commitment for all four puppies. They would be Yankee dogs in another week.

Once the puppies and mama were safely on the van, we returned to a house we’d passed where a beautiful black and white pit bull puppy was tied by a rope to a tree in his front yard.


His owner refused the offer of a neuter surgery giving the familiar excuses that All 4s hears so often they have become cliché, plus a new one for me, “It’ll make him dumber.”He was grateful for the doghouse though; he didn’t take the puppy inside because he peed everywhere.

While installing that doghouse, another young man stopped by and inquired about a house for his dog, so we drove to his house just around the corner and installed a doghouse for his young female pit bull who lived in his front yard. He also refused the offer of a free spay, joking with his friends and giving the same excuses that were beginning to feel rote. Suzy again patiently explained about the dogs dying in the shelter and the difficulty of finding good homes for pit bull puppies that would last longer than their baby teeth, but he shook his head claiming he had cousins and friends who would want his puppies.

Undeterred, Suzy left her card and wrote his address in her book. I asked if she thought he’d ever call and she told me that she’s had gang members contact her later after they are out of earshot of their friends or they’ve got a litter of puppies they can’t find homes for. She is undeterred, but flaggingly respectful in the face of excuses and lies she’s heard thousands of times.

Watching her walk past crowds of young black men gathered in driveways to knock on a door and ask about the dog chained behind the house or walk brazenly into a yard full of the signature barrels and heavy chains anchored in the ground of dog-fighters, I realized that this woman will stop at nothing to help a dog.

There are plenty of people who think All 4s shouldn’t be giving out dog houses or dog food or offering to spay or neuter a dog for free, but Suzy doesn’t worry about them. There’s no time for that. What she worries about, all the time, every day, is dogs. Dogs who spend their lives on a chain in all kinds of weather, some starving, some sick, some injured, pregnant, old, young, but helpless because of those chains.

Suzy spends her days on the streets of Memphis and her nights working her networks finding rescues to take puppies, searching for funding to pay the vet bills for the sick and injured dogs or unvaccinated puppies or the 300 spay and neuter surgeries that All 4s pays for each year. All 4s is always in need of donors to purchase more dog houses. The heavy dog houses All 4s use cost between $120 and $160 depending on their size.

In the last three years, All 4s has given out 1300 dog houses in Memphis, plus the four we installed today. If you’d like to donate a doghouse and have your name inscribed (or the name of someone you want to honor or remember), you can donate to All 4s via paypal at and in the notes let them know what name or message you would like them to inscribe. If you’d rather send a check, you can mail it to: All 4s Rescue, P.O. Box 384, Arlington, TN 38002

If you also let them know you found out about them via Who Will Let the Dogs Out, I’ll post pictures of your doghouse on the Who Will Let the Dogs Out Facebook page (and Instagram). The heavy, insulated dog houses cost about $150.

As we’ve traveled through the south this week, we’ve asked over and over again—why? Why are dogs treated with such disregard, even cruelty? Why do people not provide the basics like offer food, shelter, or medical care to these animals they proclaim to love? Why wouldn’t a community drowning in so many unwanted dogs be willing to spay and neuter their animals? The one answer that we keep returning to is that it’s a cultural problem. To fix this problem, we need a cultural change.

Spending the day today, hopping in and out of the truck to follow Suzy into backyards and onto front porches, I can tell you that what she is doing is more than giving out doghouses and spay/neuter lectures; she is changing hearts and minds. Her kindness and respect and her deep commitment to the welfare of these dogs has an impact.

All 4s is known in many of the poor neighborhoods in Memphis. They see the white van coming and they know it’s the dog ladies. Actions speak so much louder than words. Instead of waiting for these animals to turn up at the kill-shelter, the dump, or on the nightly news, All 4s goes to them, bringing dog houses, straw, food, collars, but mostly their hearts. They care so much about these dogs, they can’t help but make others care too.

They are led by a woman whose fierce heart knows no fear, only a deep and abiding commitment to changing the situation for the chained dogs of Memphis. At the end of our day, I asked Suzy if she is ever scared, after all she goes into gang-infested neighborhoods and knocks on doors or walks into backyards uninvited, taking no protection except her fierce heart. She paused only a second before answering. “No, I’m not ever scared; this is about the dogs.”


This has been a week of heroes and All4s was rife with them. I am exhausted but inspired. I want to come back to Memphis. I could spend every day out this team of incredible women who work miracles for the animals and the people of Memphis.

If you’d like to learn more about All 4s Rescue League or donate to them directly, visit

You can also donate specific items through their Amazon Wishlist.

LOGO WHO DOG5-OPHblue2Until every cage is empty,


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Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes. If you’d like to contribute to our work, we encourage you to click on the how-to-help link above and give directly to a shelter. You can also donate to our work via OPH’s donation page by designating Who Will Let the Dogs Out in your comments.

My upcoming book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, July 7, 2020) tells the story of not only our foster experience but how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. It is available for preorder now and a portion of proceeds of every book sold will go to help unwanted animals in the south.


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4 Years Ago

I love All 4s approach. It may take generations for the cultural change/shift to happen, but in the meantime Suzy is making life a little more comfortable for these dogs. I read about a program in Detroit that helps low income individuals keep their pets through assisting with providing their needs. It’s this approach; compassionate care, education, patience, and being willing to meet people where they’re at that is going to bring about the change we want to see for all pets.

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

Exactly! We can’t fix this overnight, but we can reach out and help the dogs who are suffering.

Martha Kennedy
4 Years Ago

That is an awesome way to tackle the problem. Soon after I moved here, in response to a neighbor’s chained puppy who broke loose and came to my house (how did he know?) I proposed amending the city ordinance on dog welfare. I just wanted to educate people about humane tethering, better ways of tethering their dogs, nylon collars and warm dog houses. What shit I took. Now, we have the ordinance, but it literally took this rural small town 5 years.

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

Thank you for fighting for those dogs and for taking the high road with the powers that be. I hope they are enforcing the ordinance. I wish there were more of you in every small town.

Martha Kennedy
4 Years Ago

I think we win incrementally which isn’t so great for the dogs who are in THIS moment, but good for the dogs of the future. 🙁

Sonya Boyd
4 Years Ago

I am very touched by what All 4’s is doing. We see the chaining of dogs in both Ga and Al, at times in violation of the law. It is up to All of is to speak up for animals that are abused and neglected. Thank you to everyone who are stepping forward and helping dogs, cats, and others.

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

I wish there was an All4s in every city in this country. We do have to speak up for the animals because they can’t speak up for themselves.

Aubrie Kavanaugh
4 Years Ago

We have an organization in our area which does something similar. They provide houses, wheat straw and alternatives to chaining. They also offer spay/neuter. Their whole MO is no judgement, just help. We have to acknowledge that there are cultural differences about dogs in the south and while we want all dogs to live inside, some people would no sooner bring a dog inside to live than they would set a place at the dinner table for a cow.

I do wonder how many of these folks they help are inside city limits. Surely an argument could be made for a humane containment law inside city limits…

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

I believe we were within city limits the entire time we were with them and every one of our encounters was within the same 3-4 blocks. I’d guess the problem is overwhelming. So glad to hear there is something similar in Huntsville. Now we need it in every city.

Aubrie Kavanaugh
4 Years Ago

If you think the folks with whom you interacted would get politically active, you can refer them to me. I have been involved with ordinances which outlaw chaining and provide for humane alternatives as well as setting basic standards of care.

Joanne Kaplon
4 Years Ago

IK think you are doing a wonderful job. Prayers for you in your journey.

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

Thank you – much needed!

You Can’t Come Home Without a Dog – Another Good Dog™
4 Years Ago

[…] spending nine days visiting shelters, rescues, dog pounds, and one awful flea market where they sold dogs and puppies, it was inevitable that I […]

4 Years Ago

Just to clarify, Memphis Animal Services is not killing pitbulls everyday. They are the city shelter (read open intake) and are working very hard, bringing about great success for community animals & finding live placements whenever possible. Definitely not need for more puppies, just wanted to share I believe they finished 2019 with a near 89% live release rate. They’re working alongside All 4s and other orgs in the county trying to find homes for all they can and bring resources into areas that don’t have access to resources and need help to do better for their pets. It’s not a cultural issue so much as an issue of people not having the means to do better, sometimes not having even for their family or human needs. Some don’t even thinking s/n is an option for them. A lot are afraid of harsh judgement and public ridicule, so they stay to themselves. All 4s is doing amazing work and has a great “bed side” manner. Kudos for your compassionate and non judgmental approach. Even if you don’t get the result right away, it’s making an impact and slowly rebuilding relations. A huge issue in many states including Western TN is there’s not enough low cost, affordable, accessible spay/neuter providers, making it more an issue of access to the services, not an issue of the people just not doing it, so much. Continuing efforts to build a non judgement relationship, and extend a “how can I help” goes a long way with folks. Ultimately, animal issues stem from people having struggles and needs. Keeping this in mind has helped me work effectively in these communities and see it’s less about “bad people” as much as people hurting, doing the best they can. Meeting them where they are vs preaching what they should be doing, is really effective and helps them consider opening up to receive the help being offered. Kudos for your work All 4s!

Cara Sue Achterberg
4 Years Ago

I apologize for calling out Memphis Animal Services. I’m sure the All 4s team was exaggerating to make a point.

Bottomline, though, is that pit bulls are dying in Memphis and all over this country because of what I believe to be a cultural issue. Only one person accepted All 4s offer of a FREE spay/nueter (including transportation to/from) while we were out with them. The other 7 or 8 did not want the surgery for various reasons that come down to its just not what they do in their neighborhood/family/community/culture, but none said they hadn’t done it or didn’t want to because they couldn’t afford it.

Totally agree that there is a SERIOUS need for more low cost/no cost, easily accessible spay/neuter in Western TN (and much of the south) but too often we hear people refuse it when it is offered and available. We have to change minds and hearts. People need to understand that their litter of puppies, along with all their neighbors and friends ‘just one litter’ could very well end up in an over-crowded open-intake shelter like Memphis Animals Services (or MARL in Mississippi where unapologetically kill pit bulls on intake).