Stories from Animal Shelter Heroes

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Volunteering with animals in a shelter takes a lot of heart. The work can be hard, and watching animals wait for their forever homes is difficult. But when you're a shelter volunteer, the love you give and the love you get is all the reward you need to stay committed to helping animals. Here are the stories of two people who love volunteering with cats and dogs in shelters.

Woman in red hat holds brown shelter dog outdoors.

When one of her dogs passed away four years ago, Ashley wanted to give back while she was healing. She's been volunteering with animals ever since.

Did you think you'd be volunteering for a long time when you first started?

I was unsure at the time that volunteering would change my life and my free time. It started with one day a week cleaning kennels, and quickly became any time I'm free to walk dogs and get them time out of the shelter.

Why do you continue to volunteer?

There is a constant incoming of dogs into shelter systems who are either strays or animals surrendered by families that are unable to care for them. The longer a dog is in a shelter, the more the mental well-being of the dog declines. Just getting dogs out for even twenty minutes to burn off excess energy can save their lives.

What is your favorite part of volunteering?

When the dogs who are considered "tough" adoptions get a home ... receiving updates of them cuddled on a couch with their person is everything. It's every volunteer's ultimate goal.

What is the process of adopting an animal from your shelter? How involved are you in this process?

Depending on the shelter or the dog, it varies. I tend to work with the tougher-behavior dogs. Usually, an interested adopter will come and meet the dog, and if they think it is a good fit, they fill out an application that is then looked over by the staff. I help with meet-and-greets between the owner's current dogs, as well as taking stressed dogs outside of the shelter environment to meet potential adopters.

What are your overall responsibilities as a shelter volunteer?

I walk the dogs for exercise and to expose them to the community in hopes that people will ask about them. I also work with any problem dogs who need some more training before becoming adoptable. I tend to do a lot of field trips with the dogs that have been at the shelter longest to get them more time outside of their kennels. A tired dog is a good dog!

What are your day-to-day tasks?

I am constantly promoting the dogs, whether it's talking about them to friends or sharing them on social media. If there is a dog that is having a tough time in the kennel, I will always try to give some advice to the shelter workers as well. Some days it's just getting out the longest resident for some extra TLC.

What general advice would you give people about animal shelters?

Adopt! There are so many dogs at all times in shelters. Whether you want a certain breed or just a friend, you can find it in a shelter. Give the dog a chance. I recently helped a dog that barked at strangers in his kennel meet a family at a park instead, and they all fell in love. Just understand that what you see at a shelter may not be how the dog is at home. A shelter is stressful, and they need time to warm up. My most recent addition to my home was terribly stressed at the shelter. Once I took him to foster care, we realized he was just a couch potato and a kennel was his biggest nightmare.

How can the general public help animal shelters?

Donate your time, money or energy. They are always looking for treats, peanut butter or blankets to keep dogs occupied and comfortable while they stay at a shelter. Fostering a homeless animal is always needed as well. Dogs start to go stir-crazy, and giving them time to decompress in a home is life-saving. If you want to be involved, whether hands-on with animals or at events, they are always looking for help.

What advice would you give to anyone who is considering volunteering with animals?

Do it! There is no negative part of volunteering. Even if you help just one animal get a happily-ever-after, you have changed that one animal's life.

Woman kneels in snow with two dogs.

What started as a one-time volunteer opportunity — a bake sale at an adoption event — has turned into a daily joy for Candie, and she has now been fostering puppies and helping with shelter fundraising for six years.

What is your favorite part of volunteering?

For me, it's the satisfaction. Very often, the frustration and sadness can be overwhelming. Just when you think, "Why do I do this to myself?" you get to see a dog that was abused, starved, freezing, sick and suffering end up in a warm, loving foster home ... you can't beat that. That's when you realize it is worth it.

What is your least favorite part of volunteering with animals?

Frustration. Watching difficult situations unfold and not being able to help because of lack of resources, ignorance of the general public, and honestly, selfishness and lack of common sense. Spending hours trying to take in a dog or puppy — calling people to find the right foster home for the animal, making plans like getting food and a crate and other supplies, planning a date of transfer — and then the owner who was previously begging for help has either changed their mind or "done something different" to resolve the situation.

How do you decide what to name the animals in your shelter?

Naming the animals is one of the best parts! Each foster person usually names the animal they are fostering, unless the animal came in with a name already. But even then, we may change the name. We like to say, "new life, new name." If we see the animal's personality doesn't fit the name they came with, we change it.

What is the process of adopting an animal from your shelter?

Our process is quite involved, but we do not apologize for it. It's how we have a great success rate. People fill out an application online. The dog apps come directly to me via email. We read them, call references, and if they have a vet for current or past pets, we contact them to make sure they kept up on regular care like vaccinations, flea and tick medications and more. We also visit the home, talk to the family, have them meet the animal and watch how they all interact.

How can the general public help animal shelters?

Get involved! Ask the organization, "What do you need?" and then act on what they say. If you cannot support them financially, then support them with your time. Offer to do the dirty work, like cleaning cages, washing bedding and sweeping. When you're done, play with the animals. Just talk to them. Walk them. Think of what the animal gets out of it, and what you'll get out of it, too!

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at