Whole Dog Journal's Blog February 10, 2014

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.

She responded:

“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.

Comments (21)

I feel your frustration. I've learned in the shelter business to take each adoption as they come and treat them as a victory. I am a part time volunteer coordinator. What hours I am not paid for, I record as volunteer time. I have dealt with everything good and bad mentioned. We have over 2200 volunteers on record, 1750 or so listed as active, and maybe 100 to 125 who show up at the shelter on a regular basis. We provide general orientations twice a month, followed by two cat orientations and three dog orientations. I'll address the dog kennel operation and in no way mean to denigrate the cattery as dogs are and have always been my passion. My wife and I have three older rescues at home.

I've learned that keeping new volunteers' attention is the key to success. We classify our dogs by temperament/size, ease of handling, age/medical condition, etc. For example, we do not allow a new volunteer with questionable or limited dog handling experience to work with a high strung, 75 pound german shepherd. On many occasions we may have 5 or 6 entry level volunteers show up at the shelter at a given time to find we only have one or two "entry level" dogs available for them to work with; how many times can a 10 year old arthritic beagle or an 8 year old pit mix recovering from severe abuse be walked? In many cases, new volunteers don't want to handle laundry or kennel cleaning chores. Volunteers must be respected and nurtured.

Working with the trainer, we've involved staff with the training of volunteers, and now require experienced volunteers to mentor new volunteers. We are more open to solicit and receive volunteer input. We impress upon the volunteers that we can not do it without them and try to live up to that ideal. Good, dedicated volunteers don't grow on trees.

I've learned to not have thin skin. I know the animals are why we are all here and try to impress that upon all the volunteers. It's a slow process and can be incredibly frustrating. Priorities must be fluid. Work towards making a change for the better. Play to your strengths: if you can plan adoption events, then do so; if you can write grant applications, go for it; if you're happy soliciting monetary contributions, jump on it; and if you're comfortable working and nurturing people, then be the volunteer coordinator. Every little bit helps.

I'm sorry to ramble on and hope I've not over simplified anyone's situation. I don't have to tell a shelter worker or volunteer how truly rewarding it can be.

Posted by: S C | February 16, 2014 12:39 AM    Report this comment

Thank you to you and all the volunteers and fosterers everywhere. I have not been a volunteer due to family and work demands but my life has been immeasureably enriched because of all your efforts. I have adopted 4 dobermans and 4 horses and many cats that someone took the time and effort to care for and socialize before I gave them their forever home. You are all very special people that have a dedication beyond words.

Posted by: Valerie M | February 12, 2014 8:24 PM    Report this comment

Someone else made a comment about how some shelters treat their volunteers. I was volunteering at my local shelter and noticed that the volunteers were treated terribly by a lot of the staff. I have no problems putting someone in their place and soon, I was not treated badly but I could not handle the general attitude there any longer. I did not like seeing how the other younger girls were made to feel like lesser people. It seems some shelters have lost sight of the main goal: to help the animals. I inquired about working with some of the scared or overly hyper dogs to try to make them more adoptable (I have experience in this area) but was told I can not. No treats were allowed to be given to the dogs by the volunteers. Just walk them and put them back in a pen. I left one day and never went back.

I still find it very sad and I just shake my head when I think about it.

Posted by: Kim M | February 12, 2014 4:46 PM    Report this comment

oh geez my comment was totally off the subject I am obsessed with fostering....anyway at our local no kill shelter in NJ (where we moved from) they had a strong core of volunteers who did everything at the shelter and the onsite thrift store that helped to support the shelter. Here in NC our local shelter is a kill shelter and they do not have many volunteers. The shelter staff and animal control work very hard with extremely limited resources. It is a totally different attitude toward animals.....very harsh treatment.

Posted by: Olivia | February 12, 2014 3:31 PM    Report this comment

I have volunteered at Richmond Animal League in central VA, for over 15 years now. Our shelter took in over 1,700 animals last year. Our volunteers do the "dirty" work, too. We scoop poop, scrub kennels, wash bowls and litter pans, clean cat condos, vacuum and scrub floors. . . We also walk dogs, feed and medicate dogs and cats. We have over 400 volunteers--probably somewhere over half of them are truly regulars. We do socializing, etc., too. And we have fosters.

Volunteer coordinator is now a full-time, paid staff position with us. The volunteer coordinator is also the foster coordinator.

What we are short on is trainers--partly because of a lack of physical space. As we are on the East Coast, weather is somewhat erratic, and our indoor space is about a 10 x 12 room where potential adopters interact with dogs.

I would have a hard time telling you what makes this work, but I am sure our volunteer coordinator would be happy to talk with you.

Posted by: Carolyn Turner | February 12, 2014 8:10 AM    Report this comment

My husband and I are long time dog fosters.....but the most important work our rescue group does is the low cost spay and neuter program. As regards to fostering I try to think of every good match of a foster dog with a family as creating life long dog lovers/adopters. We spend a lot of time with our foster dogs evaluating and training them (we are now retired from work but not fostering) and talk to adopters about having a dog friendly life-style.

Posted by: Olivia | February 12, 2014 7:58 AM    Report this comment

I think giving a volunteer a "project animal" may be a better approach for at least some of them, vs many differing jobs at the shelter. Some people get bored easily & need variety or do not KNOW their best animal skills, but I am the opposite.

In addition, I have absolutely NO interest in cats; ZERO, ZIP, nada. I am not allergic to them, but would not want to spend any of my time w/ them. But I would enjoy working one on one w/ a dog. I love all the advanced training I've done on my own dogs. Helping a dog (who has issues) or who has languished, would be appealing to me, rather going from animal to animal. I like to focus on something, and I like to see PROGRESS. Getting a specifc dog adopted, would make me want to come back.

Posted by: Betsy | February 12, 2014 2:06 AM    Report this comment

I volunteer at a Humane Society shelter as a canine companion. I see all of the things that you mentioned. Out of the class of 15 that started with me a year ago only two of us are still active. It is the nature of the beast I guess. We have a wonderful group and they give volunteers lots of prep and training time.

I love your idea of giving people "project dogs". That may just help keep people coming back. I will mention it to our Coordinator. I spend a lot of time with the shy and fearful pups and I find it so rewarding to see them come around and act like normal dogs.

Posted by: Genbug | February 11, 2014 6:36 PM    Report this comment

I agree that working with homeless animals is heartbreaking. My husband and I have been fostering for 15 years and sometimes it feels like nothing we do makes a difference. I like what someone said about the Talmud: saving one life is saving the world - we all should remember that. I will say that when I tried to volunteer as a dog walker at my local shelter (where I still foster). I was very turned off by the volunteer "boss" - so much so that I never returned to dog-walking and moved to fostering. She was downright nasty and disrespectful to the volunteers - this was her domain and she wanted to crack the whip. There was also a big divide between the few longtime volunteers and the new folks from my training class. We were completely ignored! I wouldn't be surprised if the other folks in my training class never came back either. I t hink the administration at the shelters needs to value their longtime volunteers but also monitor whether those volunteers are welcoming to others. People want to help the animals but they also want a little interaction with their fellow volunteers and if the environment isn't welcoming, they won't be back.

Posted by: dogmama | February 11, 2014 2:21 PM    Report this comment

For me, as a volunteer, what stood out for me was the 'project' aspect of the story. Rather than just walking whatever dog, the woman got to really connect w/one. I, too, am motivated to spend time w/one or two, develop a real relationship, connect w/a particular individual. Maybe that's an approach that would bring some people back? Let them have a 'project' dog. Let them practice their new skills w/one dog, learn how to read & reward the one dog, build their confidence in their ability to train. Consistency in training works w/people, too.

As I have some training background (more than most around here) I am often asked to work w/the scaredy ones, and the frantic, bouncing 'idiot' dogs (mostly pits here) w/no manners or self-control. It's a tremendous reward to see such dogs learn to politely, calmly learn to approach people. I don't get much time to work w/the animals, as this shelter is small & does its best to move dogs & cats into the adoption system so they don't have to euthanize them. So every little bit I do is a help for the next stage of the journey.

Posted by: JayNRiver | February 11, 2014 2:21 PM    Report this comment

It is tough for many folks to keep up that level of enthusiasm when the realities set in. It may not be what they expected. Everyone has their own way of wrapping their brain around the sadness of the animals' plight. I think if they make it to the shelter, they are on their way to better things. And they simply need help. Shelters are by nature a bit chaotic too. Every day a new set of problems and you don't know what to expect. I have supervised volunteers one evening a week for a year. Five hang in there, two have left. We try to keep our sense of humor! A lot can change in a week and we just don't know the whole story. I was asked to train the "project dogs" too and decided to come in an extra day just to do that because it was too much for me to do simultaneously. I'm enjoying it much more now. And yes those little victories are what keep me going ;-)

Posted by: Elizabeth S | February 11, 2014 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for a touching and inspiring article! I have shared it on Facebook and hope it inspires others to volunteer. Never, ever give up! You never know how many people you have changed in the process, and, rest assured, any act of kindness is a benefit to our world.

Posted by: DENEVE D | February 11, 2014 12:36 PM    Report this comment

It sounds like your shelter would be a very nice and welcoming place to volunteer. It would be wonderful if all shelters and rescue groups were that way.

A few years ago I moved to Michigan, the Flint area. I have been involved with rescue for most of my life. While I am not in a position to foster I wanted to still do something, so I approached a local human society.

To be a volunteer you have to pay for a background check first, then your orientation class and purchase an official "volunteer" t-shirt. You also can not volunteer for less than a 3 hour block of time.

For financial reasons I can not afford to make an extra 30 minute drive to the shelter just to volunteer and hoped to include volunteering on days I was in town. I would be able to give them an hour and a half 3 mornings a week. As I could not do the 3 hour block I asked if I could just clean cages and do other like chores, freeing people to work with the animals. I was told not to even bother filling out an application.

Its 3 hours or nothing - does not matter if you can come every day or do all the "dirty work". And this shelter is always imploring the public to come volunteer, "we are desperate for volunteers and really need help..."

Sometimes the shelter keeps people away.

Posted by: Kate S | February 11, 2014 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Drop out rates from all kinds of endeavors are a common phenomena- but in this particular case I think you identified a major cause - the people who give it a try are obviously people who tend to care deeply about animals and therefore will be especially prone to experience grief and emotional stress from the shelter experience. I know my own work with breed rescue not only caused burn-out, it left some permanent emotional scars. So is there any way you could address this issue head on by incorporating a program offering emotional support for your volunteers? I know - easier said than done. BH

Posted by: Holly's Den | February 11, 2014 10:39 AM    Report this comment

The work you do with the volunteers has larger repercussions. Those you train, whether they stay and help at the shelter or not, take that information out into the world and are more educated about animal care. Maybe they will use that information in another setting (home, with a friend, at a park) to help an animal or an owner in need. That doesn't help you or the animals at the shelter but it sometimes helps to look at all of the possible outcomes of your training classes. Maybe your training will help keep an animal out of a shelter because your trained but uncommitted volunteers were out in the world. Take a deeeeeep breath, hug a dog, get back in there and do it all again... just like yesterday. :)

Posted by: Chaosbean | February 11, 2014 9:37 AM    Report this comment

I have recently been down sized from my job and still need to seek full time work to earn my living but i have all ways loved dogs and other animals and would like to get into doing something with shelter work on a part time basses some years ago i went threw a program on doing so. Well they gave me a contact person who i could not reach for weeks .Then when i got back to the shelter they told me he was out of town and would get in touch with me which never happened.I checked back about six weeks later and was told that to much time had passed and i would have to come back and take the class over again I did not bother.This is a big shelter the A.C.S. DOWNTOWN CHICAGO so not every one is grateful for the help when offered.Also I now give what little I can to other shelters and wild life causes. So it is not all the fault of the people who try to give help by way of time and effort.Maybe they just need to help in other ways not so closely related to dealing with the animals one on one. Best wishes Mary

Posted by: Mary J. Q | February 11, 2014 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Just a note from the other side....as a volunteer I have been frustrated so many times with the lack of training as well as lack of clear procedures in many shelters. I have sat for hours just waiting for someone to show me what to do (because I could not even walk a dog without proper training), come in at the crack of dawn only to be told no one had time to train me. And then there is the territorial nature of a lot of the the longtime volunteers and employees, they really have a hard time delegating and turning over some control. The Martyr syndrome is alive and well in many county and no kill shelters.

Posted by: BARBARA M | February 11, 2014 9:14 AM    Report this comment

I completely feel your pain. My friend and I lead the orientation class each month to recruit volunteers to walk dogs at the local shelter. It is so discouraging to teach class after class full of excited volunteers who ultimately never come back or only come back a handful of times at most. It seems like such a waste of time. In the 3 yrs I have been a dog walker I have only seen one mother/daughter team who volunteered for about 1 1/2 years before they quit coming. I am not sure how you can inspire people to want to make a committment to the animals.

Posted by: KELLI B | February 11, 2014 8:58 AM    Report this comment

There is a saying in the Talmud..."If you save one person, you save the world".
In this case, one dog. This is a quote I used to keep on my desk when I worked in Social Services and you seldom "won".

Posted by: DELORES B | February 11, 2014 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Being a volunteer coordinator is a rough job you have absorbed. In our own non-profit dealing with older adults, every day can be a new adventure. Yours is a tough place for those who love the little ones to be exposed to sadness...screening, training...recognition...you've touched on it all...

Posted by: robin r | February 11, 2014 8:42 AM    Report this comment

Congratulations on every victory...big and small. The world is a better place because of people like you!

Posted by: Darlene Y | February 11, 2014 8:38 AM    Report this comment

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