10 Things You Learn When You Volunteer At An Animal Shelter

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1. A Dogs Love Knows No Boundaries. Like humans, not all dogs trust people right away, especially shelter dogs. Most shelter dogs are strays, surrendered, sufferers of abuse or neglect. You would think after all these dogs have gone through at the hands of the human race that they would hate us, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I learned this when I came face to face with a dog just pulled from a fighting ring. Scared? Sure. After all, the dog had known nothing but a world of violence since birth. But all he wanted was to lie beside me, give me kisses and drink my Gatorade. At the end of the day, regardless of what they have gone through all they crave is safety and human attention.

2. Patience. Training or bonding with an animal is not easy. When you don’t see that animal every day, it becomes even harder. Training or bonding with an animal that is locked in a cage for the better part of 24 hours is sometimes a nightmare. You have to be willing to step back to let them learn and trust at their pace, not yours. It’s not always “1, 2, 3 let’s go for a walk.” Sometimes it’s “1, OK let’s sit in the cage for a few minutes until you realize I’m here to take care of you, 2, here are some treats – you’re a good dog – don’t be scared, 3, let’s try to put your collar on and then go for a walk.” It takes an immense amount of patience to handle shelter animals.

3. How to Stay Calm in Stressful Situations. Volunteering at an animal shelter isn’t all playing with puppies and bottle feeding kittens. Our goal is to enrich the lives of the animals we take in and get them adopted. Doing so requires evaluation of and a little bit of trial and error. Don’t get me wrong, animal shelter staff and volunteers do everything they can to make sure people and animals alike are safe but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Ever been in the middle of two dogs going at it? Or have literally had to break up a cat fight? Trust me, it does not help to freak out. I’ve found that if you’re calm, they’re calm. Animals take their cues from those who are handling them.

4. How to Make Friends. Making friends post-any sort of institution that forces you together with your cohort – is not the easiest thing in the world. But volunteering with a group of people who you already know have at least one of the same interests as you do makes it much easier. When you see the same people every week, you say hello and really get to know them. I have met some of my greatest friends. It also helps that you don’t have to hide that you’re a crazy cat/dog person.

5. Time Is Not Money. In a culture obsessed with greed, money and working hard to play harder, being an animal shelter volunteer has taught me the value of a work/life balance. I work 5 days a week at a very demanding job and I spend my weekends volunteering. I work to support my lifestyle and I volunteer to enhance my lifestyle. Dogs and cats live in the moment and it’s nice to take a step back and life in that moment with them.

6. Giving Back Makes You Feel Good. I had never volunteered before stepping into an animal shelter and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. Giving voice to those who can’t speak for themselves is a powerful feeling. Raising awareness for an issue you care about and perhaps teaching someone in the process is wonderful. At the end of a day at the shelter I feel accomplished because I know I actually helped.

7. I Can Be A Role Model. It’s hard to picture myself as a person that someone else looks up to. When I began volunteering, I was looking for a mentor. Always looking for someone to teach me the ropes. After years of volunteering, I’ve noticed that I have become that person. I’m someone new volunteers ask about a certain animal or for advice on handling a certain animal. At a young age I have become someone others can depend on.

8. Cats Are People Re-Incarnated. Cats are weird, there’s no denying that. But walk into a room with about 5 or 6 of them and you’ll realize that cats might literally be able to peer into your soul. They read you in a way that is instinctual. They learn your movements quickly and react. When you talk to them (yes, TALK to them) you wonder what spirit is inside of them, because they seem to already know you. Besides, who wouldn’t want to come back as an animal that sleeps for 13 hours a day?

9. There Is Always Something More To Learn. No two dogs or cats are the same and just when you think you’ve seen it all, something more astonishing happens. Animal behavior is not something that is set in stone. Each one you handle presents a whole new set of personality traits and training issues. As a volunteer you have to figure out how best to approach those issues so that the animal you work with can become adoptable. Six years later and I still find myself running to the head trainer for advice, techniques and how to better myself as a volunteer.

10. Hard Work Pays Off. I volunteer at a no-kill shelter. I’ve seen animals live in a shelter environment upwards of 3 years. It’s quite discouraging when you know how awesome a particular animal is but adopters do not seem to see it. Through training, community events, and social media, staff and volunteers do everything they possibly can to get the longer shelter residents into loving homes. When an animal that has spent 5 years in a shelter walks out the door, you realize – “this is what I’m here for. TC mark

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