Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 2: A shelter volunteer learning the ropes

After yesterday, my second day as as a volunteer at the Contra Costa County Animal Services shelter in Martinez, I feel like I’m getting very close to actually doing some good.

My shift began by taking inventory of the dogs in the adoption kennels. These are the kennels that are the first ones visible in the building. They’re meant for the dogs that are ready to go to new homes. There are 24 individual kennels in all divided up into four wards of six kennels each.

Following that I was paired up with an experienced volunteer whom I would “shadow”, basically just observe as she took out the dogs for their exercise. Ideally, I’ll eventually be doing this by myself.

This was what I was looking forward to for a long time, interaction with the dogs.

The first dog we were assigned was a German Shepherd named “Tessa”. Before taking her out Jody, the volunteer I was paired with, reviewed Tessa’s temperament test results and notes from Tessa’s previous exercise sessions. We grabbed a tennis ball and a few treats and headed for Tessa’s kennel. Getting a leash on dog in a kennel is a little harder than it may sound. Tessa didn’t quite know what to do, but eventually she got her leash on.

Being a German Shepherd, Tessa’s a big dog. She was full of energy and was good at chasing the ball but not so good at giving it back. She jumped up a lot as well, something absolutely not tolerated, but it was easy enough to deal with by just turning your back. I’m worried though that this behavior may scare off potential adopters. She’d probably be better off being taken in by a rescue first.

What really made me feel like a real volunteer was taking out Princess, who was listed as a German Shepherd mix, but her blue tongue told me she was part-Chow as well. When I mentioned this to Jody she speculated that perhaps it was purposefully omitted as Chows have reputations as biters. Princess’ tests indicated that she did well on a leash but she pulled, and pulled hard.

When we got her out onto the dog run she gave us a clue about why she might have been pulling so hard. Right away she squatted down and began peeing for what seemed like 5 minutes. When she was done she then found another spot and left what was quite possibly the biggest pile of dog crap I have ever seen in my life. It honestly looked like something that came out of a horse. After having to use two dog cleanup bags to get it all I felt like I had paid some dues.


She’ll make a great pet for someone’s family. She had a very even disposition and was absolutely beautiful. And as we had just witnessed there was no doubt that she’s housetrained. I hope I’m right in believing she won’t have wait very long before someone adopts her.

We also took out a few Pit Bulls. They were all pleasant to deal with but one of them really touched me.

When I first saw Coltrane I thought to myself, “Jesus, look at this one. I’ll bet some dogfighter would love to get a hold of him.” Coltrane was a big, red Pit Bull with beady eyes and a disproportionately large head. He looked like he’d be more at home with a spiked collar and a large chain for a leash. My experience with him yesterday taught me a lesson in making pre-judgements.


When we got Coltrane out on the dog run he did as most of them do. He stretched his legs a little and relieved himself. But he wasn’t interested in sniffing around or running or playing. What he responded to was affection. All he wanted was love. He even rolled over for a belly rub.

I felt bad for him. His sweet and loving disposition was completely contradictory to his intimidating appearance. When you also factor in his breed’s reputation this guy’s got the odds against him. I can only hope that someone will give him a chance to let his personality shine through and that he can end up somewhere where he’ll get all the love and attention he desires.

My experiences over the last two weeks have reinforced the continuing need to educate, educate, educate. There are too many people who need to know why spaying and neutering is absolutely essential as well as fighting misconceptions about breed.

Check out the Contra Costa County Animal Services’ website at

Monday, April 19, 2010

A volunteer's first day on the job

Saturday I began my world of volunteer work. There’s not a ton to tell about my experience but it was educational.

I began my shift with some obligatory reading. Along with some of the obligatory statements about volunteer safety, security procedures, the various services provided, and the department’s mission statement, there was also some very useful information about temperament testing and interpreting dog body language. Some things came up that I had never thought of that in retrospect was just good common sense.

They stressed the importance of a uniform reaction to certain behaviors. For example, if a dog jumps up on you you are to turn around for 5 seconds, ignoring the dog completely for the 5 seconds, and how to handle a dog that insists on pulling on the leash. The Volunteer Director, Cindy, acknowledged more than a few times the stress these dogs are experiencing and the importance of minimizing it whenever possible.

If you’ve ever seen “Hotel for Dogs” or are aware of the old traditional images of what a municipal shelter is like the reality I was experiencing here was a sharp contrast. Municipal shelters, up until recent years, have been more often referred to as “the pound”, a place where unlucky dogs go to meet their deaths. Animal Control Officers, or ACOs, were little more than “dog catchers”. I found the atmosphere and attitude of the staff members remarkably compassionate. I know I’ll be proud the day when my volunteer status becomes official.

After reading it was time for a tour of the facilities. I was given a passkey and a map and was sent off to explore the shelter. I was familiar with the public areas, but now I had access to “staff only” areas. I got to see the small dispatch station the ACOs had, the surgery and recovery rooms, isolation wards, the barn where 3 roosters, an emaciated horse, and a turkey (!) were up for adoption. There was also the euthanasia room. This was understandably off-limits.

Along the way I met 3 pit bulls, 2 chihuahuas, and 2 month old puppy that appeared to be a german shepherd/rottweiler mix that I would’ve all loved to have taken home with me.

Eddie was a black pit mix. He was just a pup, 6 months old. He seemed to be a happy ball of energy, not a care in the world. What bothered me about him was that his ears had already been cropped. I have no doubt he’s better off with us at the shelter than with his previous owner. It sure seemed like someone has aspirations of making him a fighter.

Hercules was a grey and white male pit bull, about a year and a half old. I saw him outdoors while he was on a run. He was running around chasing tennis balls, just being a dog. He obeyed his “sit” command without hesitation. When he saw me he looked at me expectantly without any sign of aggression or hostility, just simple curiosity.

My favorite pit bull was a 15 month old girl named Cricket. In a kennel next to a very large, scared, and vocal dog, Cricket sat patiently and attentively, not barking, but her body language seemed to say, “Please choose me. I’ll be good.” She was definitely deserving of a forever home.

The little puppy was adorable as all little puppies are. By the end of my shift his card had been stamped “adopted”.

In the small dog ward sitting in adjacent kennels were two teeny tiny applehead chihuahuas, one was a 6 year old female, the other a 3 year old male. Neither one could’ve weighed over 5 pounds. They were both whining, crying, pawing at their kennel doors. I was imagining my own two chihuahuas being in their position, and it was heartbreaking.

Following my tour I watched a pretty intensive video about reading dog body language. It was interesting but a bit overwhelming.

The thing I think I’ll have the toughest time with is the concept of keeping a professional emotional distance. It’s really hard not to take pity and want to take them all home with you. I’m looking forward to next week.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A volunteer’s journey moves forward

Speak! has returned.   I’m sorry for having been dormant for so long.  There are a few excuses I could offer, but really, what does it matter?  What’s more important is what’s triggered the return.

Last year I intended to chronicle my experiences as a volunteer at an animal shelter, specifically the main shelter in Martinez for Contra Costa County’s Animal Services department.  After a few rounds of phone tag following the submission of my application I never did get to speak with anyone and the journey ended there.  Probably further complicating the matter was the fact that one of my dogs’ licenses had recently expired and the county requires all their volunteers’ pets have up to date licensing. 

I decided to give it another try.  I made sure the shots and licenses were in order and was more persistent with the phone tag.  It got me a step further.  As I write this I’m preparing for my first shift.

I hope to have stories to share.  A lot of them.  Stay tuned.