In the two and a half years that I’ve been working with shelter dogs, I’ve come to see it as a true calling. In it I have found the place where, to paraphrase minister Frederick Buechner, my own deep joy and the world’s deep need– or at least a small segment of it — meet.
The only thing that dampens my joy is the awareness of how great is the need and how limited are the contributions I can make. I know that the animals in the shelter, and the overworked and underpaid staff who care for them, could use my help every hour of the work day, and then some. In each of my two regular dog-walking sessions per week, I can take out maybe 6 or 7 dogs. Hard as it is to walk by the kennels and see those hopeful doggy faces and have to tell them, “Next time, kiddo,” I must. I need to pace myself to safely manage such strong and unpredictable animals.
I try to find consolation in Mother Teresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
It’s often said of volunteer work that, when you find the role that’s right for you, you get far more than you give. The gifts of my work with the shelter dogs have been abundant. First, there’s the certainty that what I am doing really matters. This has been a mixed blessing, in that writing– my primary calling — rarely gives one the same sense of importance; in fact, it usually shines a pitiless light on one’s insecurities. Thus, I often find myself fleeing from the computer to the shelter.
On a deeper level, my time with the dogs gives me a sense of wholeness that I rarely feel in other areas of my life. So often I have experienced a part of myself standing at a distance, observing and lamenting my failures of grace, beauty, goodness, intelligence. But handling and caring for the animals takes all my strength and focus, leaving no room for a divided awareness. Too, the dogs don’t judge me, themselves or one another; with them I never feel ashamed. They ground me in the moment, they give and inspire uncomplicated affection.
Another gift of my service at Northside is pride in my fellow humans. Without a doubt, we can be shockingly selfish, dishonest and cruel, but I have also witnessed our capacity for self-sacrifice and genuine love for creatures not of our species. I see it in foster pet parents willing to take a litter of orphaned kittens and bottle feed them throughout the day and night; in volunteers who will take a skeletal, traumatized dog into their home, build her trust and her strength, and then give her up to go to a permanent home. I see the devotion of kennel workers who, day in, day out, do physically grueling, emotionally taxing and often distasteful work for little money and who still care deeply about the animals – so much so that some workers who have left for higher-paying or less stressful jobs come back as volunteers.
My main reward from walking dogs, however, is love. At any given time there are four or five animals in the shelter who have a special place in my heart. I look forward to spending time with them, and my happiness when they get adopted is mixed with a sense of loss at the likelihood that I will never see them again. (At least, that is what I hope for them, a permanent happy home – but early in my shelter service it came as a great and unpleasant surprise to me to learn how ready people are to return a dog for reasons that are often jaw-droppingly selfish or stupid.)
Time to wrap this up for now, and put on my volunteer “uniform” of jeans, sturdy shoes, Northside Animal Shelter t-shirt, volunteer badge, hat, belt pack stocked with treats, earplugs and poop bags, and my trusty chew-proof leash. I’ll head over to the shelter to send several dogs into transports of delight with six syllables: “Want to go for a walk?”
Next: The Poop on Puppies