Anyone can help
Posted at 08:34AM - Comments: (21)
I’ve sort of turned into the volunteer coordinator at my local shelter. That’s the best way I can help the animals there – by trying to bring in, train, and support other volunteers. But I have to admit, I have been feeling kind of burned out lately. So many people come to our orientation, full of enthusiasm and good intentions. And they say they get a lot out of the one-on-one, hands-on training sessions that follow, with me or another long-time volunteer. But then many – to be honest, most – of them come to work with the animals a few times, and not long after, drift away.
I’ve asked other friends who volunteer at other shelters, and they all agree: regular, long-term volunteers are hard to come by. People have good intentions, but few stay for long.
At my local shelter, volunteers don’t do any of the “dirty” work; they don’t clean cages or kennels, do laundry, mop floors, or wash dog dishes. The staff does all those jobs, and very well. All we ask the volunteers to do is to spend time with the animals: sit in the group cat room and love on the cats, seeking out the stressed/shy ones who hide in the cat trees; take the individually caged cats out and pet them; take dogs outside to one of the outdoor runs to potty and chase a ball; take puppies who are too young to go out onto the (quite bacteria- and virus-laden) grass and dirt into the “get acquainted room” to play. We also show them how to teach the dogs in the kennels how to sit quietly (instead of barking and jumping up) in their kennels for treats. When prospective adopters come to the shelter, they are much more likely to spend more time considering our dogs when the kennel is quiet and the dogs don’t appear to be maniacal.
But being at a shelter is hard for many animal lovers. You witness a lot of sad things; there are many dogs who don’t deserve to be there, who are there due to extremely sad or stupid things in the human world. Old dogs who belonged to old people who died. Puppies who were born to the neglected dogs of drug addicts, and are infested with worms and fleas and are thin and sick. A child’s beloved little dog pet who has been surrendered because the family got evicted and is living in a different shelter. All sorts of heartbreaking stuff. So the turnover of volunteers is high, which discourages me, because their help can make SUCH a difference.
Also, we get a lot of people who say they would like to volunteer, but who, in reality, can’t do much for us, like the lady who said she can’t be on her feet for more than 10 minutes at a time – but who won’t go in the cat room, either (where I figured a sitting person could do a lot of good), because she doesn’t like cats. We seem to get a lot of people who say they have lots of time on their hands, but who don’t have transportation to get to the shelter very often. Or who don’t have anyone to watch their toddlers; can they bring them? (No!)
So I was discouraged again recently, when a recently retired lady was the only one out of six people who attended an orientation who then followed up with a hands-on training session. And I was discouraged again when, despite what the written instructions had directed, she arrived wearing an outfit that was explicitly forbidden in those directions: a nice low-cut blouse (when carried, untrained, overexcited puppies and small dogs can effectively undress someone in such a blouse in seconds!); big hoop earrings and other loose jewelry; and open-toed, heeled shoes.
We did what we could in that session, and it wasn’t much. It also turned out that she had very little experience with dogs, even though she really loves them. She was very overwhelmed by the puppies. She wasn’t fast enough or coordinated enough with leashes for me to feel confident in allowing her to take dogs outside. So that left mostly working with the dogs on sitting politely behind their cage doors (which she didn’t enjoy; she wanted to have her hands on dogs) and taking small dogs to the get-acquainted room for petting. THAT she was good at.
There was one dog in our shelter who had been on the adoption row since LAST MARCH. He was cute, a long-legged, short-haired, chocolate-colored Chihuahua-mix, about two years old, but he was also a reserved, scared, shut-down, shaky little dog – very institutionalized, really. He would approach people for a treat, but would take it quickly, without eye contact, and if you withheld the treat, to see if he would offer some behavior that you could reward (such as “sit”), he would just stand there shivering for as long as you could stand it. Trying desperately to find something for her to do, I asked if she could make him her special project for a while. Could she spend a whole hour with him every time she came to the shelter? Take him outside, into the lobby, the cat room, the employee break room, the get-acquainted room, into her car? He needed to spend happy time with people, just being petted and given treats, and getting more comfortable with humans. She was happy to have the project.
So, a happy ending. I was at the shelter the other day, dropping off some old blankets, and the little dog was missing. I asked, and was told that he had been adopted – less than two weeks after my new volunteer started spending an hour a day, several times a week, with him. He blossomed that much, learning to connect with people (instead of shivering at the back of his run), that he finally appealed to someone. (And the shelter staff made a good match, too; he went home with a young woman who said she suffered from PTSD and was looking for a quiet dog who would be content to just sit with her.)
Well, shoot, that’s worth it, then. For me AND for the volunteer. That dog had gone unadopted for over 10 months, and in two weeks, she helped him find a home. I sent her a note of congratulations, and encouraged her to ask the staff for another project dog like that one.
“I just got home a little while ago, and your email really touched my heart. Thank you for being so kind as to send me such a thoughtful message. It truly inspires me, and gives me even greater incentive.
I, too, was thrilled that our little guy was adopted. I was all prepped to work with him some more yesterday when (the staff) told me he had been adopted. It warms my heart to know that socializing really does work, and am so moved that he is bonding with his new owner. Sounds like this person truly needed a companion.
(The staff members) have been so lovely and helpful. All of you are true testaments to the wonderful work you do. I am so proud to even be of help on the smallest of scales. I so appreciate the time you spent with me.”
Really, the whole thing was just what I needed to stay motivated myself. As discouraging as shelter and rescue work can be at times, moments like this are so gratifying, they can hold us over through the low points. But you have to stick around in order for them to happen.