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puppy playing with a toy and a shelter volunteer

There’s nothing more enjoyable to a person who loves animals than volunteering at an animal shelter.  You get to meet lots of different cats and dogs and watch them settle into the shelter.  Then you get the joy of seeing them find their forever humans.  There can also be heartbreak along the way – the kitten who doesn’t make it, the dog who turns out to have a terminal illness.  But for the most part, being a volunteer at an animal shelter is something you look forward to each week.  It’s still the highlight of my week when I can get a dog out of the kennel and take it for a walk.  You care about each and every one of their stories and cheer when they go home.

Below are fourteen things I wish I’d known before I started volunteering at the animal shelter.  If you’re already a volunteer, is there anything you would add?


It takes quite a while for you to become a regular in the eyes of the staff.  Having served as a Volunteer Coordinator, this is what happens.  Of the ten people who show up at an orientation, two may stay afterwards that day to volunteer.  Of those two, one may come back a second time.  One of the other people at the orientation may come in another day.  If you’re lucky, one person of the ten may come in more than once, at least for a while, and can be considered a regular volunteer.  This is not meant to denigrate anyone.

Many people think it would be a great idea to volunteer at a shelter.  But then, reality sets in.  They’re working a full-time job, have kids, and are involved in other community organizations.  Suddenly, two or three weeks pass after orientation and they no longer feel comfortable just showing up.  So they put it off another week or two, and, by then, they’ve been consumed with other responsibilities.  What I’m getting at is this: the shelter staff have seen lots of volunteers come and go just as quickly.  They’re not likely to warm up to a volunteer until they’ve been coming regularly for some time.  So, don’t take a lack of interaction at the start personally.  When you’ve been coming a while, suddenly you’ll find yourself as part of the team.  And, also remember, many people who work with animals do so because they’re not particularly comfortable with social interaction.


The staff loves seeing the animals walked or played with by dedicated volunteers.  Don’t feel as if you’re imposing asking a staff member to get a dog out from the kennel for you. (Many shelters don’t allow volunteers to remove the animals from their kennels by themselves.)  The staff absolutely enjoys seeing an animal getting one-on-one attention.  Because of their duties, they often can’t spend quality time with the adoptable cats or dogs, so it warms their hearts to see them receive some quality time.  They know that the more time an animal spends socializing with humans, the more adoptable they become.

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If you’re connecting with a dog or cat, the staff will be subtly encouraging you to adopt – particularly if it’s a long-term resident.  Sometimes the hard-to-adopt animals are just those who need some extra time to bond with a human.  They’re scared, or have been abused, or have never been socialized. The public will generally not take the time to get to know these guys, and will move on to the next animal if a connection isn’t made fairly quickly.  But, as a volunteer, you can pick an animal to work with on a long-term basis.  Once the connection is formed, be aware that the staff will nudge you towards adoption.

If you can, and want to, great!  But, if circumstances don’t allow, rest assured that you’ve helped make that animal more adoptable.  You can smile, and say “no” to any staff member who is bugging you.  They’d love to see it happen, but they also know it often can’t. Those of us who have adopted the challenging animals have realized that volunteering at the animal shelter means you often bring home the overlooked pets.


One of the reasons the staff doesn’t have time to work with the animals is the pure “scut” work that goes with keeping a clean shelter.  And a clean shelter means healthy animals.  Spend a few moments of your volunteer time throwing on a batch of laundry, washing a batch of animal dishes, or cleaning out a litter box or two.  Most shelters don’t expect that kind of work from their volunteers, but it will be noticed.  Staff are always appreciative of volunteers who go the extra mile to lessen their work load.

woman petting white and tan cat


If you’re primarily a dog volunteer, you will find quickly that cat people are different.  It’s not that they don’t like dogs, or humans, it’s that they don’t actually notice them.  It’s all about the cats and anything that is not a cat is invisible.  If you want to attract their attention, you’ll have to meow or purr.  Still no response?  Try coughing up a furball.


Volunteers who make an effort to reinforce training are highly prized.  If you’re good at training dogs, ask which dog has been at the shelter the longest.  Any work you can do with that animal to reinforce good behavior (positive methods, only) will make her more adoptable.  The best training a shelter dog can get is how to walk appropriately on a leash. Dogs, particularly larger ones, who pull while being walked won’t get adopted as quickly.  Ask the staff if you can work with leash-training a dog – they’ll more than likely be delighted.  Other training that can be attempted, or reinforced, is keeping a dog from jumping on visitors.  The better a dog shows when meeting a new family, the more likely the adoption will move to the next step.


You’ll be watched for quite a while until the staff feels comfortable that you are competent. Every shelter or rescue has at least one story when a volunteer attempted something beyond her capabilities with bad results.  So, the staff will keep half an eye on you while you’re working with the animals, just to ensure that they can relax and trust you later. Don’t ever take this as criticism – they’re protecting both you and the animals.


You should never kiss a strange dog anyway, but for these tiny Napoleons, it’s a definite no-no.  (Ask me how I know…..)  Also, no hugging.  Remember, to one extent or another, all shelter dogs are under stress.  Don’t overwhelm them with affection, or startle a little one by picking it up.  And back off if you hear a growl, or notice a sudden stiffness.  You don’t want to get bitten, and you certainly don’t want a dog to have a “bite history”.  Shelters are legally bound to disclose to potential adopters if an animal has bitten – don’t be the cause of a dog staying in a shelter longer than absolutely necessary.


Remember, the purpose of a shelter is to find forever homes for the pets.  You have to be willing to surrender your playmate to an adoption counselor if a family comes to visit.  Don’t interject an opinion about the dog, however, unless the counselor asks for your input. If you’ve been working with a particular animal long-term, they may very well request your input.  But wait until asked.  The family that is visiting may not be approved for any number of reasons, and you don’t want to “talk up” an animal to someone who has no chance of adopting.


Some shelters have treats to give the cats and dogs, and are certainly willing to have volunteers use them.  A sick animal, however, may get sicker by eating an inappropriate treat; some animals have food allergies which cause them distress; and some are on a diet due to obesity.  Always ask if a particular animal can have a treat, and, if the answer is “yes”, don’t overdo it.



Muddy white puppy sitting on brick patio


If the shelter has the facilities, and you are comfortable doing it, ask if you can wash a dog.  Dogs often remain dirty due to lack of time and staff, but it helps so much with the adoption process.  Would you rather pet a sticky grungy animal, or a soft shiny one?  Prospective adopters feel the same way.


Be willing to help if asked, but, if you’re uncomfortable with what you’re being asked to do, then it’s okay to decline.  Example – If you’ve never held a dog for a shot or an examination, the shelter is the last place you should acquire this skill. Still, a counselor might toss you a dog’s leash while she gets something else or a staff member might request your help moving something.  As long as you have the ability and comfort level to assist, go for it.  Animal shelter work is hard, pays very little, and many do it strictly for the love of animals.  Show them how much they’re appreciated by giving them a hand when asked.


Not one person inside the shelter – be they volunteer, manager, or staff – will say “hello” to you first.  They will always say “hello” to the cat or dog first, then you.  It’s a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but, as time goes on, you’ll find yourself doing the same thing.  Because, you see, it really IS all about the animals.


Don’t be afraid to ask for help, ever. I always ask to be introduced to a new dog by a staff member, even after several years of volunteering at the shelter. The animals were used to the staff, but I was a new, unknown quantity, and I never wanted to frighten any of them.  The staff is happy to oblige, since it usually only takes a matter of a minute or so.  If a dog you’re working with breaks free of the leash or his collar, yell for help!  Even the most experienced dog handler has had a leash pulled out of their hand, or a collar slip loose.  And quick action by everyone involved can prevent the situation from becoming worse.

Ask questions.  If an animal exhibits behaviors that puzzle you, or make you wonder what is causing it, ask the staff.  They may not know (or the dog or cat may just be odd – I have one of those), but they may provide you with loads of useful information about that animal.


Above all, have fun!  Shelters can be places of great happiness, and it’s always fun to cuddle a new kitten or puppy.  You’ll become part of the team in a short time, and the staff will come to depend on you.  And there’s no better feeling than knowing you’re needed.

Want to learn other ways you can help?  Check out Helping Out at the Shelter.

Image of cat and woman by engin akyurt from Pixabay

Image of dirty puppy by Matthias Lemm from Pixabay

girl with a large black and white dog sitting at a table
black and white large puppy playing with a ball and string

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Nyxie

    I really want to volunteer in the place we got our cat, but I am scared that if I do I will have to adopt all the other cats just to make me feel better! All of your points are spot on as a friend of mine used to do regular volunteering before he got a full-time post – after that, he just didn’t have time.

    You’ve actually inspired me to bite the bullet and volunteer now!

    – Nyxie


    1. abbey

      Glad to hear it, Nyxie! And, if you volunteer at a shelter which is non-euthanizing, you can leave the other cats there knowing they’ll all get good homes eventually. Every moment you spend with them gets them ready to find that home and their perfect family. Enjoy your volunteering journey!

  2. Jianna

    These are such great tips! I’ve been thinking of volunteering at a shelter and didn’t consider many of these. Thanks for the insight!

    1. abbey

      Jianna – Glad to be of help. Enjoy your volunteer journey!

  3. Carlyn

    Thank you for this! I never volunteered at a shelter, but it has crossed my mind a few times being an animal lover.

    1. abbey

      Carlyn, you’ll love it! Thanks for reading.

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