Your Local Shelter Wants You!

local shelter  dogs

Lisa Saavedra, Director, ASPCA National Shelter Outreach

You don’t have to be an animal expert to help out at your community's shelter. You just need to have the time and desire to lend a helping hand. And it doesn't have to be a lot of time, either. In fact, whatever you do for a living, you’re bound to have skills and talents your local shelter can use.

1. Go to school

Dog school, that is. Grab a handful of tasty treats, find a suitable canine and get to class. Helping teach shelter dogs to sit, stay, walk calmly on a leash or shake paws will make them infinitely more adoptable. Amy Boyd, a canine behavior counselor at the Humane Society and SPCA of Austin, TX, oversees a team of volunteers who spend their time playing with puppies or taking adolescent dogs to obedience classes, while others pursue more advanced training and learn how to evaluate temperaments, match adopters with a suitable dog and even counsel owners on behavior problems. “Adolescent dogs especially need an outlet for all that energy,” says Boyd, “so our volunteers learn how to play with them and teach them good manners at the same time."

2. Get your shelter online

Can you give your community’s homeless animals the “cybershelter” advantage? “The Internet is a great way for people who can’t or don’t want to work hands-on with the animals in a shelter to make a tremendous difference,”says Betsy Saul, co-founder of Petfinder, a searchable database of homeless pets. “For example, we have quite a few teenagers who aren’t old enough to become volunteers at their local shelter. They take photos and write descriptions of the animals with staff assistance. They keep the shelters’ postings current, and these organizations often have noted dramatic increases in adoptions due to their efforts alone.” You can also post the animals’ photos and descriptions in public areas at work and around town.

3. Design a computer program

If you’re into high technology, consider customizing a management program that can help adopters select the right pet for them. The folks at Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter in East Hanover, NJ, recently installed a computer kiosk in their lobby that allows visitors to preview the animals in the shelter and get detailed information on each one. “One day, one of our volunteer adoption counselors and I were lamenting the fact that the dogs just don’t sell themselves sitting in the kennel,” recalls Jill VanTuyl, executive di-rector. “We felt that if there was a way that adopters could get an idea of what they were like out of the kennel, the animals would have a better shot at finding homes.” Barbara Press, a volunteer who has her own website design company, was inspired to create a computer program to do just that. A few months and a $5,000 grant from PETsMART later, it happened.

Petfinder: PSA on Volunteering With Shelter Dogs

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4. Make it legal

Shelters always seem to be in need of volunteers with professional legal skills. “Several years ago a coworker who volunteered with a local spay/neuter group asked me to review the copyright notices of a video about euthanasia,” recounts Dixie Dixon, a corporate lawyer now on the board of the Pennsylvania SPCA. “That moment changed my life. I could no longer close my eyes to pet overpopulation issues.” She joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and they referred grassroots groups to her for guidance in incorporating. Seeing the need for boilerplate forms and contracts that any animal group could use, she began compiling materials for a book that will be published shortly. “I am encouraged by all the new animal law courses in law schools around the country,” says Dixie. “The work I do with animal protection groups is so needed and appreciated, it is the best possible use of my legal skills.”

5. Work your workplace

Designate a day for coworkers to donate spare change or pool their tips for the benefit of the shelter. Make it an event. Publicize it with flyers and signs, and remind everyone of the important work the shelter does. A restaurant might ask local celebrities to volunteer as wait staff for the evening—with regular staff assisting them. A hair salon might time their event to coordinate with the shelter’s “dog wash” benefit to promote well-coifed pets and owners. Or your company, for example, might sponsor a Saturday car wash.

6. Party with the animals

You may want to satisfy your need for feline contact by spending time socializing shelter cats. “Our volunteers are dedicated to making the cats purr,” explains Connie Barker, a volunteer with Friends of San Clemente Animals in California. “They spend time each day playing with the cats, getting to know them, grooming them and generally keeping them as happy as they can be, given the inherent stress of being in an animal shelter.” Barker has learned, through input about the cats from other volunteers, that adoption counselors are making better placements.

7. Write for or start a newsletter

It’s a great way to keep members, supporters, adopters and the public informed about what the shelter does and what it needs. Many shelters rely on volunteers to write articles, and some newsletters are entirely produced by volunteers. If you’re not so verbally inclined, you might prefer the designing and publishing end of it, or work on creating or updating the mailing list. Be sure to include heartwarming stories and a donation envelope.

8. Have a party!

Organize an event for all your elegant friends and donate the proceeds to the shelter. Any kind of social event—a clam bake, a Super Bowl party, a jazz brunch or a dog walk—is a great way to make new friends and raise money. Each year, as the word gets out, more people are bound to attend, and before you know it, your group will have a major fund-raising event! The Bergh Ball (named after Henry Bergh, the ASPCA’s founder), has become a much-anticipated event in New York City. This year the ball brought in $425,000. (See “Horsin’ Around,” p. 14.)

9. Pick up a hammer

If you’re handy, you’re hired! The Sea Bees, a naval reserve group in Frankfort, NY, volunteered their manpower to the Herkimer County Humane Society in Mohawk, NY. They took down walls and expanded the shelter, built an isolation ward and constructed a much needed storage area for the shelter. More modest projects might include a jungle-gym-style cattery, complete with tree branches or carpeted columns for climbing.

10. Work those numbers

Shelters on a shoestring can reap enormous benefits from the guidance of a caring accountant. To operate smoothly, any non-profit must keep good records, but if you add animal control contracts and the reports for state and local departments, it can all seem overwhelming—except to an accountant. “If there’s one thing a CPA is not afraid of, it’s forms,” says Bettina Bieri, a CPA and a volunteer with the all-volunteer-run West Milford Animal Shelter Society in New Jersey. “Our volunteers bring lots of compassion and caring, which the animals need, but an accountant brings the skills and ability to do things that most shelter volunteers can’t or don’t want to do—keep records and statistics, run the business and plan for the future. A shelter will prosper or dissolve as a business, even if it is the business of saving lives,” notes Bettina.

Lisa Saavedra is the assistant director of ASPCA National Shelter Outreach.


If your local animal shelter doesn’t accept volunteers, find out why. Start by asking the director. If you’re not satisfied with the response, contact the board of directors; if it’s a government facility, ask the supervisor of the department it falls under. There may be a legitimate reason, such as not having the proper liability insurance. Or, there simply may not have been enough interest. Volunteers require supervision, coordination and a liability policy that protects them and the shelter. Many shelters have volunteer programs or “friends-of-the-shelter” groups that are entirely coordinated by a volunteer. Some of these groups purchase their own liability policy. Programs can run the gamut from handling offsite adoptions to creative fund-raising. If this is biting off more than you can chew, consider asking if you can volunteer on an ad hoc basis. Remember, you don’t have to work in the shelter to assist it. Make an appointment with the director to discuss how your talents can best benefit the shelter.




Appearances can be deceiving. Before you complain, take a moment to talk with the shelter management and find out more about the shelter’s daily operations. Here are a few common misunderstandings.

No water: Many dogs and cats tip over their water bowls, and if their bowls were constantly refilled, the kennel floor would be soaking wet. In these instances, animals are watered on a regular basis and not provided with water around the clock.

No food: Animals fed on a free-feed basis often overeat and get diarrhea. Shelter animals are generally fed twice a day (more for sick, younger or special-needs animals). So, during your visit, you won’t necessarily see food in their cages. Also, food or water may also be withheld for medical reasons.

Euthanasia: Sadly, open-admission animal shelters routinely need to euthanize animals. Few shelters have both the staff and the space to house all animals in need in the community. Most shelters have carefully formulated guidelines regarding the decision to euthanize any animal.

Dirty cages: No matter how often or how well the shelter is cleaned, there will be some dirty cages at any given time. Cages are often at their worst first thing in the morning before the staff has had a chance to thoroughly clean and disinfect all the animal runs and cages.

Sick animals: No matter how comprehensive a shelter’s health program is, there will always be some sick animals. Most animals arrive unvaccinated, and many harbor contagious diseases. A good shelter isolates and treats sick animals as soon as possible.

Adoption refusals: No shelter has a crystal ball. Sometimes animals get adopted to unsatisfactory owners and potentially good owners are refused. Good shelters try hard to match the right pet with the right owner and give the owner realistic expectations about their new companion.

Cruelty complaints: When your complaint appears to go unheeded, be aware that humane law enforcement officers or investigators do not condone irresponsible, uncaring or ignorant behavior, but often cannot correct the situation without owner cooperation. They can only enforce existing, and often insufficient, laws.

© 2000 ASPCA

Animal Watch - Summer 2000

For more information check out the ASPCA's free guide, Keys to a Great Shelter which contains detailed information on how to incorporate, manage employees, raise funds, design a shelter, initiate adoption programs, set up veterinary guidelines and more.

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