Are you like I was? Do you love animals but hesitate to volunteer at your local shelter because you fear it will either break your heart to pieces or you might, sort of, accidentally end up adopting, oh, I don't know...maybe every single animal? A bit over two years ago I sat in the parking lot of my local shelter, DuPage County Animal Care and Control in Wheaton, IL, and wondered if I would be able to find the courage to open my car door and actually go IN. I was sure it would wreck me.
But go in I did, and my life was changed forever by that simple act. I've met some incredible people and have fallen in love over and over again with so many animals it is ridiculous. I even ended up with a new profession, which I NEVER saw coming!*
Sure, there have been sad stories and some heartbreaking losses along the way, but the joys far outnumber them and gains are being made all the time. And if you think this is just about walking dogs or cuddling cats once in a while, you are in for a pleasant surprise!
If you like to learn, there is SO much for your brain to feast on when you volunteer with animal shelters and rescues. From animal care, to how to help animals find homes, to understanding the intricate connections of the organizations within our communities trying to help more animals find happy homes...the list is endless. And the more you learn, the more competent you become in your ability to help, making the entire volunteer experience more rewarding for both you and the animals you serve.
And there is so much to DO! If you have a talent, there is probably a place you can use it, from photography, to writing, to event planning, to education and advocacy...even pitching in with transportation of animals to the vet or folding laundry and washing food bowls...rescues and shelters need help far beyond walking dogs and brushing cats.
But let's get back to DCACC because if they are local to you, I want to give you a nudge to get involved. They recently underwent Phase 1 of a remodel which has vastly improved the housing for their animals. New ventilation systems, natural light, kennel spaces that allow for greater comfort, greater sound buffering...all sorely needed improvements! And it doesn't end there!
I recently attended a Canine Care meeting and LOVE what I see happening in how volunteers are being oriented and integrated into how they work with the dogs. When I started (not that long ago), volunteers could basically visit whenever they wanted (like when it was 75 and sunny) creating kind of a 'feast or famine' of attention for the dogs. Not only that, but everyone kind of did their own thing. Some walked the dogs, some sat in the play yard, some camped out on the lawn and took in the sun. All good, but not necessarily guided by a bigger picture of what the dogs in a shelter really need most and how volunteers play such a crucial role in helping these stressed out pups get ready to go to their forever homes.
But that was then.
Now volunteers sign up for shifts and have a wonderful training manual, along with orientation sessions, to help them understand the experience of being in a shelter from the dog's eye view. Training commands (do you say 'off' or 'down') are standardized so that the dogs get consistent care. Understanding when to give a dog activity vs. rest is discussed. So many questions answered! Is it okay to play tug of war in the play yard? How do you teach a dog to walk nicely on a leash?
The guiding principle behind all this is that giving the dogs help in dealing with kennel stress AND teaching them some valuable life skills and pup manners improves their adoptability. And with a few skills under their collars, their new owners have a jump start on training. Better home adjustment makes for fewer adoption returns.
In fact, did you know that dogs can be affected by something called 'social arousal'? If every time a shelter dog sees a volunteer, that person is walking with or playing with them, how is that dog going to understand that sometimes they are just supposed to chill out while their owner is writing a blog post or watching tv? Sometimes the best thing a person can do for a dog is to go sit in a kennel with a book and quietly read so the dog can have some experience just hanging out and NOT being the center of attention.
Like I said, if you are genuinely interested in animals and really enjoy learning, this is cool stuff. Good for the dogs AND good for you.
And cat lovers, same goes here. DCACC has instituted both cat and dog enrichment programs to help keep the animals engaged and THINKING during the day. Puzzles, novel toys, scents, and various activities are presented on a daily rotation. In fact, if you like doing crafts, that is another way you can volunteer your time.
Ready to get started? To learn more and for a volunteer application, visit this page.
* As for the new profession...I got so involved at the shelter and with various local rescues that I found myself with a thriving pet sitting business. If you are curious about what it takes to be in that type of work, check out this article series.
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Filed under: Being a Shelter Volunteer