Features January 1999 Issue

Ways to Help Your Local Animal Shelter

Volunteers have many opportunities to help local shelter dogs that DON'T involve cleaning kennels.

Consider a beauty contest. The point is for the contestants to look as good as they can, act as well-behaved as they can, and demonstrate how smart and talented they are. To make the contestants look as good as possible, they are housed in luxury hotel rooms, fed gourmet food, treated courteously, and given lovely clothes to wear.

Now, just for a minute, imagine how much harder it would be for any of them to succeed if they had to ready themselves for competition while being housed in a crowded homeless shelter, fed strange food, and, rather than appearing clean and well-coifed, they had to be on display with dirty, matted hair.

The latter challenge is one that almost every dog housed in an animal shelter must rise above. Once the dogs have resided in a shelter for a requisite number of days (long enough to determine that there will be no joyous reunion with their “lost” owners), they are thrust into a beauty contest of sorts. Only, in this competition, the grand prize is being given a chance to live in another human’s home, and the losers lose their lives. The stakes are high, and the degree of difficulty even higher.

Regular walks – which shelter staffers are usually too busy to provide – can calm restless and energetic dogs, increasing their appeal to potential adopters.

Shelter staffers, of course, are sympathetic to their charges; they know better than anyone how challenging this contest is! But when all is said and done, there is only so much they can do for each individual canine contestant; at most shelters, there are too many dogs, and not enough staffers to help the dogs look, feel, and act their best.

This is where you come in.

By volunteering at an animal shelter, you can directly increase the number of dogs that “win” the contest of their lives. Shelters are almost always under-funded, and their staff members are almost always over-worked. But when you add hundreds of volunteer hours to those worked by paid staffers, the difference in the dogs’ lives is nothing short of miraculous.

Dog Shelter Volunteering Does Not Just Mean Poop-Scooping

Perhaps every volunteer’s fear is that he or she will end up as nothing more than an unpaid kennel cleaner. While it’s true that the cleaner the kennels are, the happier the dogs (and prospective adoptees) will be, picking up poop is not the only thing that volunteers are desperately needed to do. (In fact, some shelters specifically forbid the use of volunteers for cleaning kennels, to keep the volunteers cheery, fresh, and willing to return!) Most shelters now offer a variety of ways for people to get involved. In fact, the more ways that shelter managers can put volunteers to work, the more fully they will be able to utilize the talents of their professional staffers.

A bath increases the attractiveness of any dog. It also gives the volunteer an opportunity to check the dog for sores or wounds that require treatment.

Of course, one of the best ways (and most enjoyable, for many people) that volunteers can help the dogs behind bars is to help them look and act their best. The cleaner, calmer, and better-behaved the dogs are, the more likely they are to “win” the contest and find a home. It simply follows that the more time that people spend with the dogs – washing and grooming them, walking and petting them, and maybe even teaching them a few basic niceties of canine behavior (“sit,” for instance) – the more it will help the dogs look good. Young and athletic dogs with lots of energy especially benefit from a lot of exercise, since most people are put off by a dog that appears to be hyperactive in his cage, but may only be desperate for a walk.

This point is taken as seriously as a commandment by the staff and volunteers at the San Francisco SPCA, where some 2000 volunteers, in about 22 different volunteer positions, contributed 90,346 hours to the shelter – the equivalent of 43 full-time employees. Those volunteers who choose to work hands-on with the dogs are put to work in the Dog Behavior Division, where they can work in one of several capacities such as a dog handler, dog trainer or dog socializer. Here they play a major role in preparing dogs for adoption, and that’s not always easy, because most of the dogs in the Adoption Center are adult dogs who have had little, if any, training.

Obedience training is mandatory for each dog in the Center. Twice each day, volunteer trainers, working under a staff trainer, put each dog through its paces. The primary focus of the training is on-leash work, so that prospective adopters will have a positive first experience when they take a prospective pet for a walk. Dog socializers and handlers also spend time with each dog in its “condominium,” giving each dog some human attention, grooming it and reinforcing basic obedience commands. Dog Behavior Volunteers work with certain dogs who are targeted for behavior modification according to plans by staff behaviorists.

The San Francisco SPCA’s phenomenal success rate is in large part due to the volunteers’ good work. For example, only 200 of the 5,000 animals (including dogs) the San Francisco SPCA handled in 1997 had to be euthanized.

Providing Foster Care for Shelter Dogs

Some dog owners like the idea of helping their local shelters, but don’t feel all that comfortable spending time in the shelter environment. A dilemma? Not for the devoted dog lovers who occasionally provide foster care for special-needs shelter dogs.

The arrival of certain high-needs dogs – orphaned puppies, for example, or dogs that need round-the-clock medication – can burden shelter staffers to the point that they cannot provide sufficient care to their other wards; most shelters lack the human and financial and resources to handle anything but routine matters. It can greatly ease the staff members’ minds, therefore, when they know experienced dog people who are willing to care for these special dogs until the shelter staffers are able to take over.

Foster homes are also occasionally needed to lodge dogs when a shelter is suddenly overwhelmed with an unusually high number of dogs. This has happened in the case of seizures by local law enforcement agencies (in cases of “animal collectors” or “puppy mills”), and when animal research projects are concluded and the former test subjects are in danger of being euthanized.

Advertising the Shelter Dogs

Handling the shelter dogs can be fun and productive, of course, but it’s not the only thing that can help bring dogs and potential owners together. Another great way to accomplish that matchmaking feat is to help attract potential adopters to the shelter in the first place. Writers, photographers, graphic artists, and public relations executives could ply their trades to help publicize shelters in their communities, and even help promote individual dogs in the kennels.

Claudia Roberts has written this column for her local newspaper every week for the past seven years. "Adoptable Animals" usually profiles animals that are most in need of homes.

One person who has done this very thing with great success lives in my hometown of Alameda, California. For the past seven years, Dr. Claudia Roberts, a chiropractor by vocation and an ardent animal advocate by avocation, has been writing a column that appears in our local newspaper every Tuesday. In the column, called “Adoptable Animals,” Dr. Roberts profiles a couple of animals currently in residence in the Alameda Animal Shelter – dogs, cats, or rabbits that she feels are most in need of good PR.

Over the years, Roberts’ column has brought literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of potential adopters to the town’s only animal shelter. Sometimes they come with the specific intention to adopt the dog they read about in the paper; in other cases, reading about the available animals just put them in the mood to visit the shelter to meet all the dogs. Roberts herself is shy about taking credit for the column’s success, claiming that, more than anything, it’s the accompanying photos, taken by the newspaper’s photographers, that bring potential adopters to the shelter, rather than her warm and appealing descriptions. Either way, the combination has proved to be a potent combination in our small town, increasing not just adoptions, but also the number of people who volunteer at the shelter, and even financial donations to the shelter.

Roberts admits that she selects many of the dogs she profiles because they have proven difficult to place. She often uses her column as a way to buy more time for dogs whose time is running out. She considers every dog she saves from an untimely end as a personal triumph.

Giving the Dogs Tender Loving Care

It is indisputable that volunteers often make the difference between life and death for many dogs. So, even if it’s just for a couple of hours a week, consider helping out at your local shelter. Don’t wait until some fuzzy point in the future, when you anticipate being retired and having gobs of time. Most of the volunteers we spoke with have busy career and family lives and very little time to waste. These altruistic people simply chose to make working for abandoned animals a priority – and whether they realize it or not, the canine race is grateful. 

Writer Dan Hoye, of Alameda, California, wrote “Canine Health Food Stores,” for our December issue.

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