10 things every shelter volunteer should know (Darlene Duggan)

What is the best way to get involved in the community and show your support of animal shelters? Volunteering, of course! So, you have gone through the application process and attended the orientation, and now you are ready to start helping out. Not so quick…here are some things that every shelter volunteer should know first:

1. Stick to the dress code communicated to you by the shelter administration. These dress codes were designed to keep both you and the animals safe. Even if it is 99 degrees outside and you are exercising large dogs that require all your muscle and energy to control, keep your close-toed shoes and long pants on! You don’t want to compromise the animal or yourself with an errant nail or claw to your shin.

2. If you don’t know, ask. If a visitor asks a question about the shelter or an animal that you don’t know the answer to, ask a staff person for clarification. There is nothing worse than giving out misinformation to visitors. Likewise, if you don’t know how to do something/where to find something, ask a staff person or fellow volunteer first.


3. Only handle animals with which you are comfortable. All the training and orientation in the world cannot better prepare you more than your own judgment. If a dog seems too big or unruly for you, move on to the next one. If you are not getting a good feeling from a cat, pass her up and try again later. In most situations, there are plenty of other animals that need your attention so don’t feel bad for passing one up.

4. You might not always hear it said out loud, but you are appreciated! Staff can get busy with the day-to-day details of running a shelter, and may seem to overlook your contributions. But, without volunteers, the shelter would not operate as smoothly and the animals would be without comfort and attention. Staff are aware of this, and are always grateful for your assistance with the animals. Similarly, you might only have a few hours each month to spend with the shelter animals, but no matter how small your time contribution is, the shelter is eager to have you, and the animals are that much better off for having you volunteer.

5. You are making a difference. Some days it may seem like you were not all that productive at the shelter—maybe you only worked with one cat, or had only enough time to walk one dog. Remember though to that one cat or dog, you most certainly made a world of difference. Beyond total volunteers and hours donated, it is a challenge for shelter Volunteer Coordinators to quantify their program’s contributions to the organization because so much of what you do is from the heart.

6. Expand your potential. A well-rounded volunteer is extremely valuable to a shelter. Please consider cross-training in multiple programs or volunteer opportunities. Some days, there may be a lack of volunteer participation in one area of the shelter, and it is so helpful when a volunteer is already cross-trained and can jump in to fill the gaps. This will also help to keep you engaged as a volunteer should you ever need a break from volunteering in one area or another.

7. Educate yourself. As valuable as the well-rounded volunteer is to a shelter, so too is an educated volunteer. Challenge yourself to learn as much as you can about sheltering topics such as animal behavior, training, enrichment, population management, etc. You have access to those on the front lines of the field—reach out to the staff you are working with, I’ll bet they would love to chat about their job!

8. Just because you grew up with a dog/cat/rabbit/hamster, etc. does not mean you are an expert on animal behavior and can handle any shelter situation. The one pet you grew up with is a very different situation than many animals housed together in a shelter. Even the best dogs and cats can behave differently in a shelter than they would in a home environment. Shelters are loud, odors abound, people and other animals are everywhere—it can be a scary place for some animals. Therefore, navigate the shelter carefully, keeping in mind that it is far from an ideal situation for these animals temporarily in its care.

9. Compassion fatigue is real. Compassion fatigue can happen to all shelter staff, even volunteers. If you notice any signs or symptoms of compassion fatigue, it’s okay to take a break and regroup. You are much more valuable to the shelter and animals when you are at your best.

10. You will be sad when it is time to leave the shelter. This is an inevitable fact. There will be animals you did not have a chance to work with, socialize, walk, etc. But, tomorrow/next week/next month is a new opportunity to make a difference and extend your compassion to the animals. The good news is that there are many caring people like you and many will volunteer to pick up where you leave off when it is time to go home!

If you have ever or are currently a volunteer at an animal shelter, thank you for all you do. If you are considering volunteering with a shelter, get out there and get started!

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