Deciding to become an animal shelter volunteer is a momentous leap. It’s an important position within the community, and the people who choose these roles are often selfless individuals who work behind the scenes to transform and improve the lives of relinquished, abandoned, lost, and lonely pets inside the shelter system. From the outside, it may seem like a casual, easy-going stint that conforms to the volunteer’s schedule. And while this is true in some cases, there is actually much more to the journey of becoming a volunteer at an animal shelter than what meets the eye—or the imagination.
1) Research Local Shelters
Being informed is the very best tip we can offer when it comes to making a conscientious decision as a potential volunteer. Before jumping paws-first into your new position, it’s important to consider the type of animal shelter that best fits your tolerances and personality. Oh, and remember to be honest with yourself.
Driving half an hour to the chosen shelter isn’t always ideal, but neither is succumbing to your cat allergy at the feline-only facility that’s ten minutes up the road. One of the simplest ways to do this is by researching local facilities in your area. Create a checklist of likes and dislikes, or keep a mental inventory. Some questions you may want to ask yourself include:
- Would I prefer a no-kill pet rescue, as opposed to a shelter that euthanizes?
- Do I mind (or prefer) working with senior dogs and cats?
- Do I have any animal or reptile phobias?
- Am I allergic to the animals I’ll be working with?
- Do I prefer a small, intimate setting, or a large facility?
- Is the shelter or pet rescue convenient to my home?
- How much time am I able to commit and how often?
2) Check the Requirements
Most animal shelters don’t let just anyone come in off the street, pick up a leash, and start walking the dogs. Established facilities normally have minimum requirements that their volunteers must meet, including filling out an application that could ask for extensive personal history. Here are a few of the potential hurdles a fledgling volunteer may encounter:
- Age restriction. If it’s not an adults-only volunteer facility, minors might need parental permission and/or to be accompanied by their parent or guardian.
- Minimum time commitment. Some facilities ask for a baseline of three hours per week, while others have none. They may also ask you to let them know your schedule in advance as part of a volunteer calendar.
- Registration fees. The British Columbia SPCA requires that volunteers pay a one-time registration fee, as set forth in the volunteer handbook. It covers the cost of the volunteer T-shirt, name-tag and training courses/materials as needed. But you’ll probably find that it’s worth every cent.
- Days of the week or time restrictions. Some rescues or shelters may ask that volunteers only come on specific days, like weekends-only, or during specific times, like after 2 p.m.
- Training and orientation. Like your furry friends, many volunteers are also subject to training. But don’t worry, many have you partnered up with a seasoned “buddy” before letting you loose.
- No openings. Believe it or not, many pet rescues and animal shelters, like the City of Vancouver’s Animal Control, are not currently accepting new volunteers. It doesn’t hurt to ask if they can keep your name and information on file, though!
3) Consider Your Duties
It’s easy to love animals from afar, but it’s not always easy to take care of them. That’s why it’s important to consider your limitations when it comes to your duties within the facility. Becoming the resident puppy-cuddler-in-chief is a world away from being anointed president of poop-scooping. And while both are very important positions, it’s probably best to research some of the potential duties you may be asked to perform, like these:
- Giving tours
- Cleaning kennels
- Bathing the animals
- Feeding the animals
- Adoption counseling
- Lots and lots of laundry
- Playing with and petting the animals
- Indoor/outdoor maintenance around the facility
- Walking dogs in every weather condition, including snow and rain
- Scooping a variety of poop, from cat to horse, depending on the rescue
4) Accidents Happen
Whether it occurs from an animal or the duty you’ve been assigned, there is always the possibility for injury. In many cases, the facility will implement a dress code to ensure your safety. But this may not be enough to prevent you from being bitten or scratched by a frightened or stressed animal.
There is also a chance you might contract a zoonotic disease, defined by the British Columbia SPCA as “diseases caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between animals and humans.” That’s why it’s so important to attend the training and/or orientation, as they will very likely cover the following safety precautions:
- Shelters are known to scare and/or cause stress to the animals. Be aware that bites and scratches may occur. This is a frightened animal’s only line of defense.
- You may be asked to wear closed-toe shoes, long pants, and long-sleeve T-shirts to prevent injury from bites and scratches.
- It may be a requirement that volunteers are up to date on their vaccinations, as well. Tetanus, among others, is a must-have.
- Frequent hand washing is encouraged to prevent the spread of disease.
- Injuries are possible on-site, even while doing something as basic as walking a dog.
Although you are kind enough to devote your time for free, volunteering is still very much like a paying job. There are standards put in place for all staff to follow, and unpaid workers are included. From the commitment to the dress code, many animal shelters will ask of you the following:
- Show up on time and arrive when scheduled. The shelter and the animals are all depending on you. If you bail on previously agreed upon days and times, the shelter may put you on probation or let you go.
- Don’t expect to be hired with felonies. If you have a felony record with a history of abuse, cruelty, or neglect to either animals or children, you will likely be turned away.
- Get along with and be kind to others at the shelter. You may only be there for the dogs, but humans are what help the shelter operate.
- Do follow the dress code. There will likely be a dress code set forth that has the safety of you and the animals in mind. From a certain type of dress to abstaining from certain long, dangling jewelry, they are all there for a reason.
- Put the cell phone down. The occasional pelfie (pet selfie) may be completely acceptable to staff at the animal shelter, but extended time on your cell, even if you are unpaid, is a waste of everyone’s time.
5) Volunteering is Emotional
As cliche as this might sound, it’s true what they say about volunteering—the experience is incredibly rewarding. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it can be emotionally taxing, as well. Some animals will arrive sick or injured, possibly requiring humane euthanasia, and your favorite dog or cat may be adopted before you even have a chance to say goodbye.
Nevertheless, you will continue to create special bonds with the shelter animals, providing much-needed love and care along the way. And why not? Helping an animal find their fur-ever home is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give.