Volunteer Orientation at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter

A few weeks back I attended a volunteer orientation session at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter.  Previously I volunteered with the SPCA, and while that has been rewarding, I decided I wanted to work with the county shelter animals.  Specifically, with the dogs.  Not only would there be a greater variety of dogs at the county shelter, but I felt like their need for volunteers was greater.

The SPCA is a no-kill shelter, which is why I was first drawn to it.  I didn’t like the idea of volunteering at a place where I wouldn’t know if the vanished dogs were at good homes or had been euthanized.  However, after doing a little more research, I began to understand the SC County shelter’s role.  They can’t be a no-kill shelter because they are an open door shelter, which means they take in every single animal that crosses their doorstep.  This includes animals like cows, horses, sheep, goats, ferrets, chickens, etc.  You name it, they’ve probably seen it at some point or other.

In order to volunteer at the SC County shelter, you have to attend two volunteer orientation sessions.  The first is a general session where a staff member addresses the role of the shelter, what each department does, and the importance of volunteers for their survival.  She also addressed the idea of “no kill,” and explained that no kill shelters could only exist because of the existence of nearby open door shelters.  As a no kill shelter, they are able to pick and choose the animals they take in, and they only have that luxury because the county is there to take the rest.  She also said that their shelter had not had to euthanize due to space constraints in over twelve months, thanks in large part to the new stricter spay and neuter laws in effect in the Santa Cruz County.

At the end of this first orientation session, the prospective volunteers signed up for their second animal-specific training.  I chose dogs.  Much as I like cats and rabbits, dogs still hold the top place in my heart.  And the dogs they have at that shelter…if you’ve never stopped in and looked at the dogs at a shelter, you should do so.  It’s heart-breaking.  I wandered down the aisles before the orientation meeting started, and at each kennel the dogs would perk up as they saw me coming and move close to me, tails wagging, eager, excited looks on their faces.  “I’ll be back soon, guys,” I promised them all.

I came back a week later for my dog handling training.  While I was waiting for this second session to start, I had the privilege of seeing a dog being adopted.  He was so happy he just kept jumping up and down, a huge doggy grin on his face as his new family finished with the paperwork, and I could see how these moments made all the rest worthwhile.  During our training session, the volunteer trainer went over all the basic rules for contact with the dogs, including which ones could be walked outside, which ones had to stay in the play areas of the shelter, and which ones could only be played with in their kennels.  He explained in more detail about which departments did what, and then took us over to the dogs to go on a test walk.

I was given Sam to walk.  Sam, a five-year-old basset hound mix, hadn’t been out since that morning and he was rearing to go.  As we walked down some of the calm side streets, Sam stuck his nose to the ground, obviously on the scent of something, his tail wagging as he snorted and followed it down the sidewalk.  A half hour later, and we headed back in.  I filled out Sam’s activity card, spoke to our volunteer trainer about which shifts they needed filled the most, and headed on out.

I’d say in conclusion, as hard as it is to know that not all of the dogs in there are going to make it, it is such a joy to see when one of them is adopted.  Volunteering at a local shelter is hugely rewarding because the minute you walk in, all the dogs get excited to see you.  They really appreciate the brief respite you offer, and you can tell how happy they are every time you take them out, whether it’s for fetch in the play yard, or a nice stroll outside.  By volunteering, you are reducing their stress and helping these dogs to be calmer and more friendly, which in turn increases their chances of finding a good home.  It’s good exercise for you, good fun for the dogs, and an all around win-win situation.  So, what are you waiting for?

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