In our previous post on the emotional lives of shelter dogs, we stressed the importance of enrichment, training, and downtime as tools to support shelter dogs by improving their quality of life, building their social skills, and helping them find homes faster. In this follow-up, we delve a little deeper into the dynamic between shelter volunteers/staff and the dogs in their care and look at just who might need a foster home as part of their path to adoption.
The importance of the connection between shelter dogs and the individuals caring for them cannot be overstated. What happens within these relationships sets the tone for day to day shelter life and what possibilities it does, or does not, hold.
We humans may be brilliant and we may be special, but we are still connected to the rest of life. No one reminds us of this better than our dogs. Perhaps the human condition will always include attempts to remind ourselves that we are separate from the rest of the natural world. We are different from other animals; it’s undeniably true. But while acknowledging that, we must acknowledge another truth, the truth that we are also the same.
That is what dogs and their emotions give us– a connection. A connection to life on earth, to all that binds and cradles us, lest we begin to feel too alone. Dogs are our bridge– our connection to who we really are, and most tellingly, who we want to be. When we call them home to us, it’s as if we are calling for home itself. And that’ll do, dogs. That’ll do.”
-Patricia McConnell, Phd. in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend
Valued, Professional, Compassionate Staff
Staff are the heart of the shelter. They determine what kind of place it’s going to be. They manage daily operations, welcome and guide adopters and volunteers, and serve as temporary guardians to the plethora of homeless animals entrusted to their care. Stressed, frustrated staff translates to stressed, frustrated animals and hinders life-saving.
Both shelter staff and the animals they care for deserve their job to be one of high expectations, adequate training and support, and a field populated by proactive, creative, empathetic individuals with the problem-solving and multi-tasking skills of superheroes. Tall order, you say? Absolutely. But we know these people. We’ve seen them in action. We should expect shelter staff to be passionate about and excellent at their jobs, but we should also expect to see them given the support and respect it takes to make that happen.
A positive work environment, meaningful compensation, and effective professional development are key to inspiring enduring passion to save lives and improve life for the animals while they wait for their adopters. It’s a field hungry for innovation, drive, and the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. But unless shelters create a work environment worthy of the staff they need, high-turnover amongst the best and brightest, entrenched bureaucrats, and workers just looking to punch the clock will persist. We can and should elevate life and work at an animal shelter to the standard the animals and the people deserve.
Efficient, Effective, Engaged Volunteers
Volunteers can make or break the success of shelter programs, initiatives, and quality service and care. It is unlikely that there are any shelters currently in existence in this country who could fully staff all of the programs needed to create an exemplary shelter environment that meets the needs of all of the animals in its care. Sustained, enthusiastic volunteer support is crucial. Stop for a moment and think about what it would take for you to be a regular, active shelter volunteer truly enjoying your experience and feeling that you are making a difference. We bet you’d come up with some of the following:
Celebrate your staff, celebrate your volunteers, celebrate your adopters, and celebrate the animals in your care. Let go of the gloom and doom and focus on creating a positive community where people want to be. Ask nicely, say thank you, and find creative ways to do it. Set up a welcoming volunteer station that doesn’t just give direction or provide a place to sign-in, but makes volunteers feel wanted and engaged from the moment they arrive. Identify and recognize the specific impacts your volunteers are making. And truly, never underestimate the importance of just saying thanks to someone who is choosing to dedicate personal, unpaid time to your organization.
Make sure staff and volunteers know about successes, priorities, opportunities, program and procedure updates, and specific needs. Overflowing inboxes can be a turn-off, but clear and consistent communication can be streamlined and is a must to make volunteers feel like they are an informed and valued part of the shelter community.
SIMPLE AND FLEXIBLE OPPORTUNITIES TO GET INVOLVED
Make getting involved easy. Orientation and training are hugely important. We think they’re musts. But by creating a convoluted, paperwork heavy process or instituting rigid requirements, you can end up with high attrition where you’ve tried to create accountability. Volunteers stick around when they find opportunities that work with their abilities, interests, schedules, and passion to make a difference.
HAVING A CLEAR ROLE AND GOOD DIRECTION
Many volunteers lose interest simply because they don’t know how to help. It is important to provide volunteer opportunities that offer variety and a little something for everyone, but it is also important to be clear. Put protocols and procedures in place so that volunteers can choose a way to help and know exactly how to do it. Follow-up with them and make sure they feel confident in what they’re doing and that they know you’re available for questions. Make that welcoming volunteer station work for you. Volunteers can sign-in and immediately see a to-do list of tasks to carry out to support the shelter.
THE ABILITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Something as seemingly small as knowing every dog has a soft blanket, or that a long-stay dog got a good walk that day, or helping a favorite dog market themselves right into a home; these are all examples of things that bring volunteers back to the shelter. Those of us who choose to volunteer don’t do so to log hours, we do it because we want to help. We want to have a positive impact and know that the animals we spend time with are a little happier, a little more well-cared for, and a little closer to home because of our actions.
Strategic Use of Foster Homes
What about those dogs who, even in the best of shelters, just aren’t making it? Foster homes are a hot commodity in the shelter and rescue community for good reason. Dogs get to wait for their people to find them in a home environment, a set-up that is the near opposite of many shelters. Even in the most bustling home, the noise level, the abundance of smells, and the sheer volume of people and other animals will not come anywhere near that of a shelter. Dogs in foster also tend to get far more individual attention and human interaction, and many get to live with canine (or even feline) buddies.
A robust foster program should be a cornerstone of every shelter. But there are a few subsets of dogs for whom a foster home can literally make a life or death difference, beyond just the availability of space.
*Dogs exceptionally sensitive to the shelter environment. Not every dog takes months to deteriorate in a shelter setting. Some dogs go downhill in weeks or even days. Some dogs are frightened, stressed, and frustrated to a serious degree from the moment they enter the shelter and do not recover while they remain in that setting. There are myriad different reasons an individual dog may be extra sensitive to the shelter environment but, if a foster home can be made available for dogs in this group, it can make a world of difference to their well-being and adoption chances.
*Long-stay dogs. The key with long-stay dogs is not to wait too long to get them into a foster home. If a dog has already deteriorated and is showing escalating behavior problems, finding foster becomes much more difficult. It is clear when the stress of shelter life is beginning to wear on a long-stay dog. It is at that point, before they go from a long-stay dog to a behavior case, that foster should be sought.
*Breed and personality traits that present challenges in the shelter environment. Far too often, traits that are typical behavior for a certain breed get a dog into trouble in the shelter setting. It is unfair to hold biology against a dog who can do perfectly well in a home setting but, in a shelter, may be labelled aloof, stiff, standoffish, stoic, hyper, escape artist…the list could go on. Before labeling a dog with something negative, take into account traits typical of that dog’s breed and see if it’s not a dog who’d show better in a home setting.
*Behavior cases. This is a tricky one because unlike the two categories above where we are talking about behaviors primarily caused by the shelter environment, behavior cases here refers to dogs who do in fact have at least one significant behavioral issue. In fact, one of the premises upon which a significant amount of in-shelter behavior programming is built is that there are not enough true behavioral foster homes to support the dogs who need them. Often, it is the ability not just to house a dog but to improve his/her behavior that presents the biggest challenge. Additionally, this home may come with restrictions like no other pets or no small children, things that can be tough to find in the animal loving community. There are, however, excellent behavioral fosters out there, as well as those who could become excellent behavior fosters with training and support. And fortunately, the idea is starting to gain traction.
*Medical, nursing families, puppies, and elderly dogs. These are typically the groups foster homes are already prioritized for. They are groups that are both more medically and behaviorally fragile and will thrive far better in a home environment than in the shelter.
And what if a foster home isn’t found?
The strategies we stressed in the first post of this series, enrichment, training, and downtime within the shelter, become all the more important to help a dog clearly needing a foster home make it in the shelter environment. This also becomes an opportunity to explore alternative housing solutions within the shelter. In addition to ideas like office dogs, behavior suite kennels designed to reduce stress are something we’d love to see more shelters incorporate.
Off-site field trips and sleepovers also offer you a lot of bang for your buck. They give dogs a break from the stress of shelter life, make them visible to a whole new subset of potential adopters (or volunteers! or fosters! or donors!), provide built-in enrichment, training, and socialization opportunities, and are a heck of a lot of fun! Grab an “Adopt Me!” vest, make sure you know your dog (medical/behavior restrictions) and your destination (keep it simple, safe, & fun), and take advantage of the world outside of the shelter!
And keep seeking foster or adoptive solutions on behalf of a dog you know needs help. Market them. Be creative. Use social media. Make flyers to post around town. Help introduce a dog you know isn’t showing well in the shelter to potential adopters by offering to take the dog on an off-site walk with them or asking to borrow a quiet office space for a meet & greet. A dog you know would make a wonderful companion but who is struggling in the shelter is still a dog who deserves a chance.
All this talk about the emotional lives of shelter dogs may still have its skeptics. But it is something inextricably tied to our ability to save them and certainly an imperative if we strive to be just, kind, and ethical in our treatment of the animals we have domesticated and asked to be our friends and companions.
Look up the definition of “shelter” and you’ll find synonyms like refuge, haven, harbor, retreat, protect. Should we not push to make the modern animal shelter hew closer to the meaning of its name? For anyone who’s ever shared their life with a dog, it likely seems easy to argue that we should do what’s in our power to make things better for a species that looks to us as guardians and gives more to us than we could ever hope to return.
It’s an often made statement by animal lovers that our dogs make us better people. Imagine if we all took that statement to heart in a way that led us to action on behalf, not just of the dogs already in our homes, but those out there in the greatest need, seeking homes of their own…
You can almost hear them saying, “What are you waiting for, human?”
Missed part one? Read it here!
*Lovely photos once again by the talented ScarlettBlue Photography