This is a post for everyone. For current volunteers. For former volunteers. And for those of you wondering how to get involved with helping shelter animals and what it’s really like out here. We’ve volunteered at a lot of shelters and rescues and this post has insight from all of those experiences. We hope it will be helpful to shelter volunteers, past, present, and future the world over.
But what we really want to talk about is volunteering at Austin Animal Center.
1. Try Different Things, Find What You Love.
This is number one on our list because it’s perhaps the most important. The secret to loving what you do is finding what you love. Dogs or cats? Puppies? Kittens? Senior dogs? Long stay dogs? Walking dogs? Running with dogs? Dog behavior? Taking pictures of cute four-legged creatures for the photo team? Playing matchmaker with adopters? Fostering? Do you want to be part of the community outreach program? While we’re at it, who wants to submit a proposal to launch Austin’s version of this surrender prevention awesomeness?
The point is, the first thing you try isn’t always the one for you. And that’s okay! When you find the right fit, you’ll know it because far from being something you feel like you should do, you instead won’t be able to keep yourself away!
2. Know Your Limits, Set Your Boundaries.
This means knowing how much time you can realistically give. Sometimes, once we find that passion, we go a little overboard and lead ourselves down the path towards burnout and/or compassion fatigue. This is especially sad because it means we’ve let something we love lose its joy. What is that sweet spot where volunteering leaves you energized and excited to come back for more? If you feel yourself crossing into obligation, don’t be afraid to pull back a little.
We recommend starting with one shift a week and going from there. For some of us, a consistent time is really helpful because it makes it a natural part of our schedule. And maybe boring Tuesdays are suddenly way more awesome thanks to slobbery dog kisses! Once you’ve found the type of volunteering that you really love and figured out a schedule that works well for you, you’re 99% there on the path towards total shelter volunteer bliss.
3. Ask Questions, Be Proactive.
Volunteering anywhere can sometimes be a little confusing as you first get your footing. Volunteering at a large, government run facility can be even more so. How do you find the right opportunity? Who is the contact? Where the heck are the time tags stored? How do I volunteer before or after the shelter’s business hours? And how in the world do I help answer questions for potential adopters when all I know for certain is the dog in 312 is super adorable and gives great wiggle butt?
For a general overview, we’ve created this handy blog post on what you can do to help shelter dogs. It has lots of Austin specific information and resources, kinda like get involved 101 class. As far as all those AAC specific logistical questions, ask your friendly volunteer coordinator! You’ll have a meeting with them following orientation and should come prepared with stuff you want to know. If (when) more questions come up later, touch base and ask them! You can also grab another volunteer in one of those bright yellow shirts and they’ll help point you in the right direction! Once you’re all registered and part of AAC’s volunteer email group, check out the documents section there for lots of info including a flow chart with who to contact for what. No question is too big or too small. Just ask!
4. Celebrate the Good Stuff. There’s a Lot of it.
The great wide world of animal rescue can sometimes fall into the unfortunate habit of letting the awesome stuff slip by while harping on the bad. Don’t get us wrong. We strongly believe that there’s no such thing as good enough and that even the best operations need to constantly strive to be even better. Hit your goal? Exceeded it, even? Great! What’s next? This is particularly important when we’re dealing with our sentient friends on four legs who are depending on us to care for them and help them find their way home.
And guess what? We’re doing just that! We are having amazing adoptions, beautiful volunteer moments, breakthroughs and huge improvements in behavior, wonderful medical recoveries, and all of the incredible everyday moments of canine, feline, and human joy. Celebrate them. Make it an event. Life-saving, care giving, real connections, and every single experience that creates beauty and joy in this world is a big deal. Shelter volunteering is rich with those moments. Always seek solutions and opportunities for improvement, but never forget that we’re surrounded by amazing moments every single day.
5. Be an Ally. Create Community.
It’s easy to see the animals when we’re volunteering but sometimes it’s harder to see the people. Camaraderie and a sense of teamwork can go a long way in making the shelter a warmer, more easily navigable place. See someone that could use a hand? Offer to help! Are you the one who needs a hand? Ask for one! Say hi to your fellow shelter volunteers and staff. Don’t forget your smile. Remember when offering advice that we all have our own ways of doing things that work for us. Pair up with someone for a volunteer shift and walk some pups or cuddle some cats together. It may seem like obvious advice but it’s easy to get so caught up in our mission that we forget we’re surrounded by allies.
6. Have Fun. Be Silly.
This is one of many unofficial Dogs Out Loud mottos. It earns us our fair share of side eyes and guess what? We don’t care! Having fun and being silly are some of the best things in life, people!! Shelters are lands of dog slobber and poop and cat hair in your mouth and things that are ridiculous and hilarious and wonderful.
DOL deals specifically with large dogs working through behavior issues. Obviously we need to keep our wits about us and be responsible and extra safe. But that has absolutely zero impact on also keeping a sense of humor and having a great time. Those things are critical. We’d make them mandatory if we could. Fun and silliness make the world a better place and they sure as heck make the shelter a better place!
Now that we’ve talked a bit about the how, let’s look at the why…
For these reasons, and so many more, we hope that you’ll join us in making life better for the animals at your city shelter and helping them to find their way home.