Volunteers and the Dogs Who Need Them
text and photo of her dog Gus by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
Ah, Americans we do love our dogs. Each year we spend billions of dollars on our pets. The American Pet Products Manufacturer’s Association (APPMA) estimates that the figure will near $40 billion for 2006. We buy quality food and veterinary care, as well as soft beds, designer coats and fancy leashes & collars. For most of us, our dogs are part of our families and we treat them with equal love and care.
The APPMA tracks trends and gathers statistics through annual pet owner surveys. From their 2005-2006 National Pet Owners Survey, we learn that:
*There are 73.9 million dogs in US homes.
*43.5% of American households have at least one dog.
*40% of those households have more than one dog.
*Of all these dogs, only 16% were adopted from animal shelters.
What about the dogs that don’t have loving homes? The flip side of this picture is that millions of dogs live in shelters, rescues and sanctuaries. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that there are about 4,000-6,000 shelters in the US. Some of these are private, non-profit organizations that must constantly raise money to keep their operations afloat. Others are city or county shelters that must rely on municipal budgets where more often than not, the shelters are a low priority. With an estimated six to eight million dogs and cats entering shelters each year (HSUS), these organizations incur huge expenses. There is never enough money. Without the help of volunteers, many of these organizations would have to close their doors.
Here is where you come in. April is National Volunteer Month. If you are an animal lover who is already volunteering at a shelter, bless you! If not, this is the perfect time to consider donating your time to a facility near you.
There are some things to consider in making the decision to volunteer. Good volunteers those who are dependable, work hard and take direction well are a tremendous help to any organization. Bad volunteers unreliable, with a bad attitude and poor work ethic are worse than having no volunteers since they require more effort on the part of the shelter staff than the work that is done in return. Since I am urging you to volunteer, I want you to know what makes a good volunteer and what makes a well-managed volunteer program.
People volunteer for a variety of reasons. Top among them are a desire to help, an opportunity to learn something new, and a chance to socialize with like- minded people. Good volunteer management means matching the person to the right job, providing adequate orientation and training, and furnishing a volunteer job contract that includes your job description, your supervisor and stipulates your time commitment. An organization that respects its volunteers will show appreciation in some manner a simple potluck supper, an awards dinner, or merit pins which highlight the number of hours worked, to name a few. The main reasons to do this are to let you know that your volunteer work is valued and you are not taken for granted.
Good volunteers know that the commitment to work for no money is exactly the same as the commitment to work for pay. Volunteers are essentially unpaid staff. They are hired and can be fired if they do not perform their described duties. The reason for this is simple. The organizations that use volunteers rely on them. If a volunteer doesn’t show up one day, a kennel may not be cleaned or the dogs are fed late or the education program must be cancelled. The attitude that “I am working for free so take what you can get” is just plain unacceptable.
Do the work that needs to be done. If you want to be the best kind of volunteer, ask what help the shelter needs most. At the greyhound rescue I work with, we have more than enough volunteers to play with the dogs, take them for walks or brush them. With 32 dogs in our rescue kennel at all times, what we need most is help cleaning the kennels, washing bowls, doing laundry and the dreaded poop patrol cleaning the outside yards. Volunteers who are willing to provide the kind of help we need most are worth their weight in gold.
Volunteer your expertise. Many non-profits, especially the smaller rescues and sanctuaries, need volunteers to help with professional services. This includes support like legal advice, dog training, public relations or accounting. For example, a professional grooming can often make the difference between a shelter dog considered for adoption or passed over because of an unkempt appearance. Or some basic obedience training can transform an unruly dog into a top candidate for a new home. If you have such skills, consider volunteering. These services are invaluable.
Make a realistic commitment. How often can you volunteer? Once a week, once a month, occasionally? Most shelters have volunteer positions to accommodate any type of schedule. Special events may require a bustle of activity over a limited time. Fundraising or newsletter work can often be done away from the shelter on your home computer. There are deadlines but the work schedule is more flexible. Kennel work or education programs require greater time commitments and more specific scheduling. In your initial burst of enthusiasm, don’t overestimate how much time you have. Better to start at a job requiring less time than to be an unreliable volunteer.
The millions of dogs (and cats) in shelters, rescues and sanctuaries who are not yet fortunate enough to have found their forever homes are in these places through no fault of their own. When you volunteer your time, you help increase the chances that they will be well loved, cared for and ready for their new families. The furry faces and wagging tails that greet you every time you show up for work are a great reward. But there is nothing greater than watching one of the dogs leave the shelter with a new family, knowing it was in part through your effort. So what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and call your local shelter, rescue or sanctuary. Millions of deserving dogs need you.
Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, four rescued dogs (two greyhounds, two corgi/terriers) and three horses.