What is it like to volunteer at an animal shelter?
May 8, 2008 5:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of volunteering at an animal shelter in Los Angeles, working primarily with dogs. What can I expect?

Also, my main concern is that I am only free during the weekends and even with that in mind, I am reluctant to make a fixed/long-term commitment. Would a shelter accept sporadic help?
posted by bondgirl53001 to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was a kennel assistant (i.e., took care of the dogs) at a animal shelter (not in LA but another major metro area). It was a pretty relaxed place and our volunteers came and went (as far as I know, no log or anything -- certainly no one breathing down your back 'and where have you been?' Mostly our volunteers were dog-walkers, and allowed to take out whichever green-stickered animal they wanted. I imagine some shelters are more strict about commitment and/or what you don't while you're there, but I think as volunteer venues go, shelters are pretty relaxed. Much more to worry about than whether bondgirl is living up to her weekly commitment.

Also, many shelters have special events (like parades, an event at the petco, etc) when they need extra volunteer help and they'll always be happy to add you to a mailing list for that.

Also, volunteer programs at many shelters tend to not be as well-developed as they should be, so try not to let it discourage you if no one seems appreciative. As the primary dog careperson in my shelter, I can tell you these poor animals spend 23.75 hours a day in a very small space with other animals barking right next to them, so any dog you can get out for a walk or just some attention will be SO grateful, even if the humans running the place don't seem to care that you're there.
posted by bluenausea at 5:57 PM on May 8, 2008

Shelters not only accept sporadic help, they usually depend on it. Most of the ones I've volunteered at were fine as long as you signed up in advance and showed up on time.

My only problem is that I can't work at kill shelters. I get to know the dogs too well and when they have to 'cull' so that they have space for incoming dogs, we always lose ones that I loved and would've taken home if I knew they were on the chopping block.
posted by SpecialK at 6:24 PM on May 8, 2008

I volunteered at an excellent in Austin for a while - very well run, very clean, and no-kill (although they would turn away animals they didn't think they could place) . As for volunteers, they took whoever they could get, even those who could only work a few hours a week. They just wanted you to show up when you said you would. The shelter had lots of different jobs - walking the dogs, visiting with the cats, playing with animals who were recovering for injuries, helping with dog training, working in the adoption center, folding laundry, helping with public events. Some of the jobs needed training, some just needed a quick orientation. I seem to remember that some kids from a halfway house did much of the (literally) crappy work.

I actually started working more with cats because I found myself emotionally overwhelmed with the dogs. They were so anxious and needy, and even after I would spend a long time with them in the dog run, they'd be heartbroken to be left back in their cage. And I could never decide whether to spend a short amount of time with several dogs or try and spend longer amounts of time with just a few. Some of the abuse cases we saw taught me just how fucking evil our species can be. Eventually, I started working 5-6 hour stretches, not intentionally, but because I just could not leave without spending time with the next animal. I felt like I was never doing enough. I've never been good at compartmentalizing my emotions, so I'm not sure I was the best type of volunteer. But it's noble work, and whatever you can do would probably be appreciated.

Oh, and I got ringworm once. That sucked.
posted by bibliowench at 7:02 PM on May 8, 2008

My experience was much like other people's: very laid-back (the people, not the dogs), very emotional, very rewarding. I didn't have much dog experience and was intimidated by the larger, more vocal "blue" dogs and stuck to the green-tagged easy dogs, even though the difficult cases were in more need of exercise and socialization. (Volunteers are usually not allowed to walk dangerous or untested animals, so don't be nervous about that).

I'll never forget the one dog with whom I bonded intensely. If I'd owned my own house at the time it was inconceivable that I would not have adopted him. Be sure you're ready to make or resist that kind of commitment.

He was adopted by a different family, thankfully.
posted by nev at 7:46 PM on May 8, 2008

A bit of a tangent, not to hijack the thread, but maybe something to think about when you are figuring out which shelter to volunteer at:

The shelter I worked at did destroy animals, and (apologies for being reflexively defensive about it), we always told people who wrinkled their nose at our inhumanity that there really is no thing as a "no kill" shelter -- by necessity, "no kill" shelters have to be selective about which animals they accept. A kill shelter never turns animals anyway. I get angry at people who carelessly breed dogs, but not the shelters who have 50 animals coming in a night with 30 cages and seriously, what are you can be done?

Foster volunteers (who take an animal home until it can be adopted) are enormously helpful both to the dog they foster and the dogs who get that spot in the kennel and not in the freezer.

When I worked at my shelter, I felt much like bibliowench. The dogs were heartbreaking. I guess I consoled myself that I was able to improve their quality of life for a few breaks with lots of love and attention after a lifetime of being on a chain or in the basement. That helped me deal with them dying -- that I made their last few weeks into good things.

Anyway, don't write off kill shelters if you were tempted to -- you can do the most good in the worst places.
posted by bluenausea at 5:04 AM on May 9, 2008

don't write off kill shelters if you were tempted to -- you can do the most good in the worst places..

I agree with bluenausaea. No-kill shelters are easier to stomach, and I think many people prefer adopting from a place where they know they're not dooming an animal that they don't choose. But until we find a way to reduce the number of unwanted animals, these shelters will be ultimately impractical as a universal practice. And I imagine that the more volunteers they can get, the more money they'll save, and the more animals they can help. (Although maybe I'm being overly optimistic).
posted by bibliowench at 6:15 AM on May 9, 2008

Last year I went to all the volunteer orientations and got prepped to volunteer in one of the larger DC shelters. Then I got pregnant and - because I wanted to work exclusively with cats - I couldn't actually volunteer.

So take this with a grain of salt, but what they stressed in the orientations was:

1) No shelter can run without some kind of organization. I don't know what you mean by offering "sporadic" help, but I doubt they would welcome your showing up for half and hour here, 15 minutes there, at totally random intervals. (They want committed volunteers, not people who only show up whenever they have the urge to play with dogs). You need to do them the courtesy of at least making a small commitment - 1 hour every Saturday, or something. Our shelter asked that we make a 6-month commitment of at least 4 (or was it 8?) hours a month.

2) EXCEPT that they also have lots of events, pet shows, fundraisers, adoption afternoons at Petsmart, that sort of thing. They occur fairly sporadically, usually on the weekends, and always need staffing. Those events might be a better fit for you.

3) no volunteer will be asked, expected, or allowed to walk/touch/etc. a questionable animal. Including the ones who seem really sweet but just came in recently. (There's like a two-week assessment period for the animals).

4) In the same way, no volunteers will be placed in any kind of dangerous situation, including the possibility of disease. So their volunteers are not allowed to touch poop or clean cages. Their roles in-shelter were limited to walking/playing with dogs, cuddling cats, that sort of thing.

5) the volunteers are prized beyond gold.

But all shelters will be somewhat different. You need to call different shelters you're interested in and just ask them directly. Who knows, they may be full-up and not even accepting volunteers! I ran into that at a couple shelters.
posted by GardenGal at 7:57 AM on May 9, 2008

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