Volunteers Do It For Love – Part I

Have you ever thought you’d like to volunteer at an animal shelter, and wondered what kinds of opportunities are available and what your qualifications have to be? Take a tour with me on this January Saturday around our busy municipal shelter, to see the many roles volunteers play. Maybe one of these jobs will seem just right for you.

Entering the building we’re greeted by Lois at the information table inside the front door. Her job is to welcome newcomers and direct them to the staff member or volunteer who can help them. It’s a perfect job for a gregarious person who loves animals but prefers a less physical role than hands-on caregiving.

We pass the supply room next and I wave to Barbara, who is washing the morning food bowls. There are loads of housekeeping chores in a shelter – washing and folding laundry; cleaning and sanitizing dishes, toys and litter boxes; keeping the kennels and outdoor yards picked up. Having volunteers do these things frees the staff to focus on the skilled aspects of animal care. As I scoop poop from the gravel yards outside, I may joke about glamour jobs or my college degree, but knowing that my dog friends will be much more comfortable and healthier as a result of my efforts makes these humble tasks something I’m glad to do.

Next is the cat room, and I call a greeting to Susan, who’s sitting beside the cat kennels, patting and talking to her charges. As always, she recognizes my voice and greets me by name. Susan is blind, and comes once a week to spend several hours helping to socialize the cats. Another volunteer who does the same thing is Jean, 89. She faithfully shows up every Wednesday and cuddles and plays with the kittens, especially the ones who are shy and fearful. These women prove that every animal lover can make a valuable contribution, regardless of age or physical ability.

Proceeding on past the meet and greet rooms, we see, in one, a little girl who looks about ten. She is sitting with her mother on the floor, with Petunia, one of the shelter’s most fearful dogs, lying between them. The child is reading to Petunia in a gentle, lilting voice, as the mother pats the little dog, whose eyes are half closed in apparent bliss. Our shelter has a program that encourages kids and adults to read to the animals; it helps young readers build confidence, and it helps dogs and cats grow more comfortable with people. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/nyregion/how-to-heal-a-traumatized-dog-read-it-a-story.html?_r=0

In the room across the hall, volunteer Tracy is talking to a couple while a puppy plays with a ball at their feet. The clipboard Tracy’s holding tells me that she’s asking the couple the adoption counseling questions on the way to finalizing their making this adorable puppy a part of their family. Some volunteers take special training to be able to process adoptions; Tracy is an ace at this matchmaking.

We go outside and nearly bump into Melanie, who is being eagerly pulled by her canine companion along the sidewalk toward the dog exercise yard. She stops his forward momentum with a chirp from a squeaker in her pocket, then has him sit and gives him a treat from her goody bag. When they move on he’s pulling less. Volunteer dog walkers, of whom I’m one, play an important role, giving the dogs a break from their kennels, one-on-one attention, and basic training. Prospective dog walkers receive an instruction class and individual guidance from an experienced mentor.

Entering one of the wards we are greeted by the barking of 24 excited dogs. Shelley is going to each kennel and giving the inhabitant a cow’s hoof or chew stick. Before the holidays she organized a mass donation of these irresistible dog treats from her fellow volunteers, so that every dog in the shelter – around 160 — would have something special to occupy him or her. In-kennel enrichment — stuffed toys, “chicksickles” (frozen chicken broth ice cubes), Kong toys filled with peanut butter, spritzes of sweet smells like mint, almond and vanilla at the gate of each kennel, and chew bones — all are critical to keep the animals from becoming bored or depressed in confinement.

Passing a kennel we’re momentarily startled to see a person inside. It’s Thomas, a high school student with a soul for dogs and a gift for handling them. He is sitting on the floor with Caesar, a big tan pit bull, draped across his lap, patting the dog as Caesar chews his new hoof. They both look perfectly relaxed. This individual attention is invaluable for shelter dogs, and it’s a great stress-buster for the human companion, too.

Our tour takes us back into the main building, where, in the Admissions department, Ginger is entering data about the morning’s animal intakes into the computer. It has been a busy day, with members of the public, as well as the shelter’s animal control officers, bringing in dogs and cats who have no protection from the 20 degree weather. Ginger helps the harried staff with the voluminous paperwork required to document every single animal’s entry into, and progress through, the shelter system.

Down the hall from Admissions, in the large “sally port” of the shelter where bulk deliveries are received, a training class is taking place. Beth and Rick, professional dog trainers, donate their time and expertise to train volunteers and staff members in teaching shelter dogs the basic manners that will help them get adopted. The couple also run play groups that give shelter dogs a much-needed chance to romp and play and burn off energy together. Rick’s secret weapon to win any dog’s cooperation and utter devotion? Chunks of pre-cooked bacon!

That wraps up our tour of the building and gives you a glimpse of some of the many ways in which volunteers serve. But offsite and behind the scenes, countless other people are constantly working on behalf of our animals, every day and many nights of the week. Next week, we’ll take a look at their vital contributions.

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