10 Things Every Shelter Volunteer Should Know

By Darlene Duggan, TAILS blogger

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, though! There 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 closed-toed shoes and long pants on! You donít 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 donít know the answer to, ask a staff person for clarification. There is nothing worse than giving out misinformation to visitors. Likewise, if you donít know how to do something or where to find something, ask a staff person or fellow volunteer first. It’s always better (for you and the animals!) to have the correct information before doing anything.

3. Only handle animals with which you are comfortable.

All the training and orientation in the world cannot prepare you better 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 donít 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 feel like you were not all that productive at the shelterómaybe you only worked with one cat, or only had enough time to walk one dog. Remember though that 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 programís 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, so 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 helping out 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 óreach out to the staff you are working with, chances are they would love to chat about their job!

8. Shelter animal behavior is not the same as pet behavior.

Even if you grew up around animals, the one pet you grew up with was in a very different situation and therefore its behavior would be different too. The same is true even if you grew up with many pets. Shelters are loud, odors abound, people and other animals are everywhereóit can be a scary place for some animals, and even the best dogs and cats can behave differently in a shelter than they would in a home environment. 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 (think emotional stress and burnout) can happen to all shelter staff, even volunteers. If you notice any signs or symptoms of compassion fatigue, itís 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 every time you 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 been or currently are 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! In fact, TAILS has a great resource page to help you find the best fit for volunteering. Volunteers make all the difference in the world to shelter animals!

Have some more tips for shelter volunteers? Tell us in the comments!

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Aeri H.
Aeri H.2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Carol S.
Carol S.1 years ago

Thanks, plenty of good advice!

Cindy L.
Cindy L.2 years ago

Thank you - very true & appreciated tips.

Lynn D.
Lynn D.2 years ago

Thanks, these suggestions apply to a LOT of volunteer jobs!

Lynn G.
Lynn G.2 years ago

I've been volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter for over 7 years, and nearly all of the 10 items listed are true--and great advice! The only one I disagree with is "10. You will be sad every time you leave the shelter." Thank goodness; that's just not true! Sometimes you'll actually get to witness miracles, like your favorite long-term resident dog or cat FINALLY getting adopted--or a sick animal actually getting better instead of worse. Yes, there are days I'm sad when I leave the shelter--my heart has been broken many times. But most of the time, I'm grateful I have time to spend with the animals and make their lives in the shelter a little easier. And every time I help an animal or potential adopter, I realize that every little thing we do really can make a difference--for the shelter animals and for the people who adopt them. An hour-long walk/run with a dog may help them calm down & get adopted that day, and a 1/2 hour play session with a bored cat may help them get adopted. You literally never know!

Lynn D.
Lynn D.3 years ago

Wonderful advise, thanks muchly!

Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M.3 years ago

thanks for the article

Sophia W.
Sophia Wood3 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

poor animals. i really should volunteer. any kid safe volunteer programs? my son is almost 3 and he loves animals... and I would not volunteer if it meant time away from him, since work takes enough of that time already

Penny Bacon
.3 years ago

Great information, thanks for the article. I'm impressed with all the volunteers we have, thank you all!