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.

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