Editorial September 2010 Issue

Volunteer

Volunteering for your local animal shelter might seem scary, but it’s so worth it.

I volunteer for my local animal shelter. I serve on the Board of Directors. I help the shelter staff with their newsletter. I’m in the process of putting together a volunteer’s manual, so we can get all the dog-walkers on the same page in terms of handling the dogs. But they recently tossed me a hot potato: Leading a two-hour tour of the shelter for kids from the local YMCA.

Nancy Kerns

Nancy Kerns

I thought to myself, “Kids, dogs? What’s the problem?” Sure, I said. I’ll do it. I had only a slight misgiving when the woman who last ran the tour did a little tap dance of joy upon hearing she didn’t have to do it this time.

As it turned out, it was a joy, for me, anyway. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to try to indoctrinate kids with some pointed messages about pet care.

I started out with some positive training. I had equipped myself with about 1,000 little individually wrapped candies (Smarties and Tootsie Rolls). As the kids filed into the reception area, I walked among them and started clicking and treating the ones who were being quiet. Of course, some of them started begging. “Hey! I want one!” When this happened, I did what you’d do to any puppy who did the same: I turned my back and walked away. It took about two minutes for whole group to catch onto the game, and another minute or two for a few kids to “offer a sit.” I poured treats down on those kids, and within another minute, the whole group was seated quietly on the floor, paying rapt attention. Positive training works on any animal species!

That exercise really was all about getting them settled in and paying attention, but I also used it as an example of how we train the dogs at the shelter to sit quietly in front of their doors. I asked them, “How did I get you to sit down and be quiet? Did I yell at you? Did I push you onto the floor? No! All I did was reward the kids who were doing what I wanted them to do. Anyone who was doing the right thing got treats, but the ones who were doing something I didn’t want them to do got ignored. That’s how we train the dogs here to behave well enough that someone will want to adopt them.” How likely is it, I asked them, that mom or dad will want to adopt a dog who barks and leaps all over the door? We have to help the dogs learn to be calm and quiet, I said, so you have to be quiet and calm, too.

I told them about the “four on the floor rule,” and explained that they could give treats to any dog who had all four feet on the floor, but if a dog jumped up, the kid should step away from the kennel. And then step back quickly with a treat when the dog had four on the floor again.

 But before we went out into the kennels, I asked them what they knew about the animal shelter. How did animals end up there? Even the smallest kids knew that some animals were there because they were lost or ran away from home, and that other ones were there because their owners didn’t want them anymore. Heartbreaking.

So I talked to them about the fact that the shelter takes care of the animals that are lost or unwanted. I let them know that although the animals had been through a lot, they were lucky to have ended up at this shelter, because now they got food, medicine, love, and training, and with luck, they’d find a home, too. I talked to them about spay and neuter surgery, and how all the dogs and cats had this surgery before they left the shelter, so they could never have babies that no one wanted and weren’t cared for. I also wanted them to make sure their pets had identification on their collars, and we talked about ways they could accomplish this even if their parents didn’t buy an ID tag.

Finally I gave each kid a handful of hot dog slivers and we went out into the kennels. And it was quiet – vibrantly, electrically quiet.

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