Volunteering at a Shelter

Volunteering at a Shelter

I'm afraid I'll want to take them all home?

I think it would make me too sad.

What if they're sick? Will my pet catch it?
I don't have the time.

When I first started mentioning my shelter volunteering, these were a few of the responses I got from people who had never themselves volunteered. 

Of course, they're all valid concerns. I, too, had many of these, which is why it took several years before I even looked into the application process. 

This post is for those of you who are interested in giving some of your time but haven’t yet committed. 


In December 2020, I finally applied as a volunteer dog walker at our local county animal shelter. The application consisted of the standard identifiers and some short answer questions like why do you want to be a volunteer? 

Now, this was not an easy time at work. My university had just finished a fully remote fall quarter, and I was quickly trying to learn a new position as department chair. Usually, this role comes with a teaching reduction–from twelve units to four. My upcoming winter quarter load was a whopping 21 units. 

Sounds like the perfect time to add one more new thing to my schedule, right!!??

About a week after applying, I received an email with instructions for completing the mandatory training. This consisted of some reading, videos, and a test. Upon passing, I was invited to the shelter to meet the volunteer coordinator and perform my on-site training. 

I was handed a name tag and informed that I would receive a free volunteer t-shirt once I documented 10 hours of dog walking. This policy stems from many deciding that volunteering isn't their thing after a shift or two. 

The on-site training was so helpful. A longtime volunteer named John worked with me for about two hours. He showed me where to find the leashes and the toys, how to enter a kennel without the dog escaping, how to sign in/out, and the most important lesson–how much the dogs need us. 

This shelter is the epitome of an old, run-down sad place. I swear I heard Sarah McLachlan faintly singing every time I walked through the door. The kennel doors are rusted–holes in the metal bars made me wonder how long it had been since my last tetanus shot. Mice and birds, both dead and alive, cohabitate with the dogs. It's too cold and too hot. And, the dogs have no access to the outside without a human's help.

This means that when I arrived at 8:00 am every Saturday morning, the dogs had been in their kennels since, at best, 5:00 pm Friday. Since each dog is taken out individually, most dogs were in their kennels for a far more extended period. For the potty trained lost dog who ended up in the county shelter overnight before his worried family could pick him up the following day, these hours trapped inside were brutal. 

Now, I know I'm not painting a great picture, but stay with me. 

Dogs were in the shelter for the following reasons: surrendered by their owner, lost or stray, custody impound (holding the dog while the owner is in jail or temporarily unable to care for them), or in quarantine due to a bite or illness. Before a volunteer opens the kennel gate, they must read all posted information for each dog. Essential descriptors like whether the dog is injured, jumps a lot, or if it's strong on leash and a harness is suggested are all detailed. Fun points such as their knowledge of commands and favorite toys are also included. 

Once in, I leash up the dog to quickly get it outside. Sometimes this could take a while if the dog was scared or if I was a little nervous. If a dog was super scared, I often left the pup for later when I could spend more time gaining trust. Walking the dogs was always different. Some dogs pulled and ran the entire track keeping me on my toes, while others preferred to stroll, sniff, and even sit while looking up, expecting pats on the head, which I always provided.

For three hours, I walked and spent quality time with the dogs, cleaned up A LOT of poop, played ball in the outside yards, changed out waters, made sure each dog had plenty of blankets and toys after their kennels were cleaned, and more. I left sweaty, covered in drool (and worse), and exhausted. 

I made good friends.

A giant, fluffy mutt was my first love. During my first shift, his brown eyes looked deep into my soul, and I was hooked on volunteering.

Then came Mijo. A gorgeous black and white Staffy (aka “Pit Bull”), Mijo had been at the shelter for many months. He made me earn his affection, but every moment of trying was worth it when he let me in. Mijo's adoption day was one of my life's happiest/saddest days. I still think about him and hope he is thoroughly enjoying his new family!! 

Knowing this is getting long, let's return to the beginning.

I'm afraid I'll want to take them all home? 

  • Yes. I wanted to take pretty much every dog home. I stalked them daily on the shelter website to see who was adopted that day. I cheerfully exclaimed to my husband each time one found a new home. And I did finally take one home–I met Freddie at this shelter!! 

I think it would make me too sad.

  • I was usually an emotional mess for the rest of the day. Leaving the dogs was really hard! And sometimes I found myself really mad. Humans can do some awful things. So, I often reserved Saturdays for mindless chores. 

What if they're sick? Will my pet catch it?

  • I reserved one pair of shoes as my 'shelter shoes' and left them in my garage. Before entering my house, I changed into another set of clothing. I immediately took my shelter clothes to the washer and myself to the shower. Thankfully, the shelter staff member I most worked with was conscious of letting me know which dogs were sick so I could limit my exposure.

I don't have the time.

  • I didn't think I did either, but those three hours ended up being the highlight of my week. All the work stress disappeared for those three hours because none of that compared to what these dogs were experiencing. They needed me to be present, to give them my all. And I did. 

Volunteers help the dogs become more adoptable. Spending time with the timid, scared, and abused helps them learn that not all people are horrible specimens. Plus, volunteers give time back to the employees (if the shelter or rescue has any) to do all of the other work they have to do.

Dog walking is just one role, so if this doesn't feel like the right thing for you, I'm sure there's something that does. If your heart is beating a little faster from the desire to help–do it!! Reach out to your local shelter or rescue and see how you can help. You might just discover a new calling to help animals as I did!! 

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