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What It Takes to Be a Volunteer at a Dog Shelter

Before signing up, I talked to some experts about what volunteering at a shelter is really like.

Shannon Farrell  |  Oct 2nd 2014


Editor’s note: Today is International Volunteer Day! Let Shannon Farrell’s story inspire you to help out at a local animal shelter.

Even as a crazy dog lover, I admit that being unmarried and living in New York City makes it downright impossible to have a dog — no matter how much I envy every dog owner walking their pooch in the park. To get my weekly (if not more) puppy fix, I’ve contemplated volunteering at a local dog shelter. What better way is there to spend my free time than giving love to abandoned pups without a home? Before entering my new volunteer career, I did some research. It can’t all be fun and games, right? October is Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, an ideal time to share what I found out.

1. It doesn’t require a specific skill set

Although certain skills, like medical experience or knowing how to handle a large dog, are encouraged, they aren’t required. “Experience isn’t necessary to become a volunteer,” says Julie Sonenberg, the manager of volunteer programs for the ASPCA Adoption Center. “We look for people who really stand out as dedicated animal lovers. However, because we get so many submissions, we also need to look for candidates who can fill the capacity we need most at that time.” If you can work mornings and afternoons on weekdays, you’re more likely to get hired. Evenings and weeknights are much easier slots to fill.

2. It requires training

You’d think being a dog owner is all the training you’d need. Yet, most shelters offer extensive training programs. Because many of these dogs have been abandoned and abused, volunteers need to know how to interact with them. Policies also differ among shelters. “At the ASPCA we have two-hour classes specific to volunteering,” says Sonenberg. “First we have the orientation class to learn about the ASPCA and its procedures. Then we have a level one, three-hour walking and socializing class where volunteers receive hands-on training, learning basic shelter rules, body language tactics, and how to walk a dog in New York City.”

Randall Starewicz, who volunteers 25 hours a week at The Calumet Area Humane Society in Indiana, received similar training before spending almost all of his time after retirement in the shelter three years ago. “Not only do you learn about sanitary habits, but also how to interact with these dogs. You should always be slower than them when they don’t know you. If a dog gets startled, you will get bit. There was only one time I had to go to the doctor, and then I learned my lesson.”

Although it seems intimidating, other volunteers have your back. “It took me two or three months before I felt totally comfortable,” says Starewicz. “My biggest help was being apprenticed with another volunteer for two hours my first five days. Now it’s my job to apprentice new volunteers.”

Leon Rawlinson, the Volunteer Services Manager at the Easy Bay SPCA, has a similar structure set in place. “New volunteers train with one staff member for their entire first shift. Then they are put on a regular work schedule every week, but the first four weeks is really training.” Senior volunteers are always on hand to provide assistance.

3. It isn’t just play time

Volunteering shouldn’t be confused for just play time. Although most shelters do offer the opportunity to walk and spend some time with the dogs, a majority of understaffed shelters will require you to clean the kennels, help with animal-care feeding, and even assist medical staff by holding the dogs down when receiving shots or treatment. However, when you do get to walk the dogs, “stop to pet them and rub their tummies,” says Starewicz. “Get to know the dogs and give them love and hope.”

4. The dogs will inspire you

This isn’t a job where you walk in, put in your hours, and walk out. You become invested in the dogs’ well-being. Since beginning his volunteer work, Starewicz has written six children’s books, three under one title called Shelter Us: The Tails of Max and Miles, inspired by his work in the shelter. (All of the proceeds go to Calumet Area Humane Society). Director Steven Latham created the PBS series Shelter Me based off of his experiences spending his free time in six different shelters around L.A. “The TV show’s focus is on the human animal bond,” says Latham. “Most people don’t know that most of these dogs have had homes before.” His main goal is to disprove this idea that shelter dogs are “damaged.”

“These dogs deserve a second chance. A shelter isn’t a place of goodbye, it’s a place of hello where you pick up a dog,” he says.

5. It does take commitment

Most shelters have a structured volunteer program that requires consistent hours. For example, the ASPCA, even with its large volume of volunteers, requires each individual to work a minimum of eight hours a month. With work and family commitments taking up most if not all of our time, this can be the biggest deterrent in volunteering.

Latham offers another solution. His website Shelterme.com allows would-be volunteers to offer as much or as little time as they want, creating awareness about shelters around the country. He created the website for individuals to post profiles of dogs up for adoption, creating a viral platform where the posts can be shared on Facebook. “People are encouraged to post photos and videos of the dogs to really show their personality. This content becomes sharable everywhere. The idea is that networking an animal can help them get adopted.”

Those who don’t have the time to volunteer regularly have the option to visit a local open-admission shelter, play with a dog, take photos and videos, and post a profile online. “People are now coming into a shelter and asking for a specific animal,” he says. The new site proves that just an hour of your time can really help these dogs find a home.

Any shelter manager will agree that the most important thing a volunteer or walk-in can do is give love to the dogs. “Just getting a dog out of his cage is important,” says Latham. “Just allowing them to be dogs.”

Do you volunteer at a shelter? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Learn more about volunteering with shelter dogs with Dogster: