While today’s oppressive gloominess may seem to suggest otherwise, springtime is set to arrive next week! With the fresh baby grass and first buds blooming typically comes a new crop of volunteers to area shelters. One of the most important roles a volunteer plays is that of a playmate; someone to initiate walks, toss a ball and generally help kenneled dogs run free and frolic. If you’ve always thought about volunteering at your local shelter, but have been too timid to try, there’s no time like the present! Here’s what to expect when you sign up, and some ways to make the most of the experience.
You will be asked to attend a volunteer orientation. While you’re probably itching to get started snuggling all of those cute puppies, safety comes first, and most organizations will require that you commit to attending an initial volunteer meeting before you get hands-on with the animals. Use the meeting as an opportunity to get to know some of the staff and other volunteers; make the effort to talk to a few people and learn their names, and be sure to say hello and introduce yourself to staff and other volunteers when you show up to “do your time.” Volunteering is a much more rewarding experience when you actually become part of the community that supports the shelter.
You may be required to complete additional training. If you are volunteering as an animal companion, the shelter may ask you to participate in some group classes or one-on-one coaching to get better acquainted with the best practices of animal handling. No matter how confident you are approaching and handling a dog, you should pay attention to this training. A shelter dog is different from a family pet, and you need to be aware of the effects of kennel stress, dog body language and other behavioral cues to not only ensure safety for you and the dogs, but so that you can learn to assess how best to interact with a shelter resident. If classes are offered but not required, consider availing yourself of the resource anyway. A little bit of know-how can go a long way toward making your time at the shelter a success.
You won’t always get a lot of direction. Sometimes, because a shelter is busy and possibly short on staff and resources, you will complete orientation and find that it is up to you to figure out what to do next. While some shelters do have more structured volunteer programs, or offer volunteer mentors, some simply cannot. Try not to let this discourage you from showing up and pitching in. Whether they have the time to instruct you at length or not, there is always something that needs doing, and you may have to take the reins to figure out what that is and how to do it. When in doubt, ask questions – especially if working with an animal you are uncertain about. There is no shame in asking for a little help getting a rowdy dog back into his run after a walk, and it will save everyone the stress of chasing down a loose dog were he to wriggle free. And when you ask questions, you make connections, which will help you befriend familiar faces and get more and more comfortable while you’re still learning the ropes.
Ultimately, you determine the impact you have on the organization. Many people go passionately into a volunteer orientation, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, only to drop off a few days, weeks or months later, and eventually stop showing up altogether. If you are someone with a fire in your belly to help homeless animals, do everything you can to remain engaged with the shelter and connected to their community. Participate in their Facebook following by sharing pictures and stories of adoptable animals. Attend their events. Donate. Network. Make friends at the shelter. Get together with other volunteers. Check out some online resources to help you understand animal sheltering better and help you make the most of your volunteer time. Whether you wind up walking dogs, doing laundry or helping the fundraising department send thank you notes, your efforts matter – so keep making the effort!