Walking shelter dogs

Walking shelter dogs

When I first volunteered to walk rescue dogs I met the rescue’s founder on a Sunday morning. Together we took one of the pit mixes on a 15-minute stroll, then she handed me the leash and that was that. It was September 2007.

It was very meaningful work for me. I could show up whenever I wanted. There was no schedule. No liability forms. The rescue had no insurance. No volunteer applications. I felt important and needed, and I made a huge difference for those dogs.

Walking with shelter dogs

I still worked at a newspaper at the time. During those walks, thoughts of starting a dog running business were brewing. I eventually took the rescue dogs running since it just made sense. They needed to run. After my first 500 miles running with rescue dogs, I stopped keeping track. The miles no longer meant anything. My time with them did.

Six years later, in a different, more-populated area of the country, the shelters are very bureaucratic. This is becoming the case everywhere, not just here. It’s a good thing, in many ways. You can’t have just anyone walking a dog now, can you? (Or can you?)

I’ve waited two months for an upcoming volunteer training. I’m probably way too excited for it. First I must complete a one-hour general training session followed by a two-hour training session specific to handling dogs. Then, I’m told, I will be closely supervised for several volunteer shifts. After that, I might get to run with the dogs if I’d like. It seems to be more about me than it is about helping dogs in need. If I complete the training I might “get to” run with the dogs.

I’m not writing this to criticize any of these groups. Volunteer training and organization are good things, obviously. But so are simplicity and trust.

Most people probably won’t put up with hours of training just to interact with some shelter dogs. It’s actually easier to adopt a dog (woah! I know!) than it is to get a volunteer gig walking a dog.

I guess when you’re flooded with volunteers who think they want to help animals, you can afford to weed through them and make it difficult to get involved. You can figure out who’s actually committed. If that’s the goal, I get it. The shelter is the prize, not the volunteer.

So, I’ve hopped in line.

I can’t wait to bust a dog from her cage. It will be for me as much as it will be for her.

Her muscles working. Her paws in the sand.

20 thoughts on “Walking shelter dogs”

  1. Wow, that actually sounds pretty off-putting!

    I’ve never tried to volunteer with a dog shelter, but I’ve had a few bad experiences trying to volunteer with cat shelters. I remember when I was a teenager, I bused down to the local cat sanctuary and asked if they needed help. I told them since I was homeschooled I could show up whenever they wanted me, and I had a lot of experience with cats. Want references? I got ’em! They rudely told me that I need to get a tetanus shot and could only touch the cats if my parents were there at all times. I was 16! I was old enough to drive, and they expected parental supervision for litter box cleaning?

    It was years before I found a rescue I really support and am happy to work with. All they wanted was contact info and a liability waiver. They gave me a quick 15-min orientation during one of their adoption events, and then let me basically do whatever I want. They’re also very reasonable about who adopts their cats; they don’t do home checks or anything ridiculous like that.

    It’s nice to know there are still places out there where people are more trusting. I applaud you for jumping through all the hoops. Those shelter dogs are very lucky to have you!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I think it’s pretty common for rescue groups to require volunteers to be 18 unless they have written permission from their parents. I can see where they’re coming from. They don’t want to get sued by some kid’s parents. But still, there are ways to politely encourage young people to get involved and politely show them what they need to do.

      So glad you’ve found an awesome cat rescue to work with.

  2. Oh, that brings back memories to the summer my husband and I volunteer dog-walked at our local shelter. One day we were handed the leash of Harley, a young bi-eyed husky. My husband tried to run with him, but Harley was unsure. After a few attempts we noticed he hugged the fence/wall as much as possible, and we started wondering if he was blind. When we took him back and asked, they said “oh, didn’t anyone tell you?”

    The blue eye was due to a cataracts, which you don’t expect in a young dog, and he had no sight in his brown eye either.

    Happily, Harley got adopted very soon after 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I remember you shared that story on a past post. Thank you for reminding me. I’m so glad Harley got adopted.

  3. I had a bad experience trying to volunteer for a shelter and dealing with their bureaucracy. They had advertised a specialized position that they needed help filling, and I had the background for it & the flexibility to put it in my schedule when they would need it. When I tried to sign-up, they tried to have me contact the person who coordinated the specialized tasks (no luck actually reaching her – no surprise, she was plenty busy), and they made me jump through the hoops of waiting months for the next orientation (for all volunteers). I knew a dog trainer who had used to work with the shelter and had left, and she was diplomatic in cautioning me while I was waiting that it probably wouldn’t work out, but I figured, why not try.

    The “orientation” turned out to be no such thing. It was short interviews based on being first-come first-serve showing up at the orientation. There was no orientation at all. There was no screening of people’s qualifications prior and limited at the “interview.” If they chose you, then you would get to sit through their training anyway. It was only a series of very short interviews with the many people who showed up to volunteer. I didn’t understand why they had people rsvp and booked to come for the orientation, and then didn’t provide time slots or windows for people, rather than having every come at once. Lucky for me, I was early and it got me an earlier interview instead of having to wait and kill several hours of my day waiting.

    Then, it was random who “interviewed” you, and the person (an existing volunteer) had to follow a specific script of questions. The person who interviewed me clearly knew nothing about the specialized position (other than that it was a need!) and would not have been qualified for it themselves. They also didn’t have any idea how to indicate on their form that I had availability in multiple time slots. So it wasn’t actually an interview or even a straight-forward hoop jumping process. They were trying to get people to commit to a specific time that they could use to pull all the forms to fit in a shift schedule and to prioritize what they wanted to do in volunteering as between dog-walking, answering phones, cleaning cages, etc. and other jobs. This was clearly a situation where they had many people all competing for the “prize” of working for the shelter. I had a feeling that even though I was willing to do many of the “non-specialized” tasks and could commit to different times, the interviewer didn’t know how to fill out the form or indicate my availability and interest. They also had no space to include the actual position I was trying to volunteer for! I could see the interviewer struggling with the boxes on the form, and I have no idea what they submitted. Given how many people were being interviewed and how many volunteers were conducting them, I have no doubt that everything was decided and scheduled off these forms, not based on any discussion or remembering of the people trying to volunteer.

    Sure enough, a few weeks later, I received a letter saying that I had not been “chosen.” I double-checked, and of course, even several months later, they still had not filled the specialized position that I had tried to apply for and needed qualified volunteers for it. I don’t think they even had it on file that I was attempting to apply for it. And because of their process, they did not give me a chance to demonstrate that I would be a reliable and committed volunteer for dog-walking or other tasks that I have lots of experience with and could have helped. The whole thing was a disaster, and I gave up.

    There are better and worse ways to put hoops for people to jump through and ways to be able to screen from all the people who want to help animals. I’ve seen some of the worst. Hope your experience turns out better!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh my gosh. I had to smile during your story, only because the story involved someone other than me. How frustrating! And the sad thing is the dogs are the ones who miss out. You would’ve been so valuable to that organization.

  4. Thanks to everyone for sharing your experiences. Your experiences remind me of the need to have a right attitude, use the common sense and work the system with heart. I can imagine that there are many people with the authorized privileges at work but not using their common sense to interpret the rules with heart.

  5. I did some volunteer work at our humane society a few years ago. We had an hour orientation and that was it. I could come and go when I wanted. And my only duty was to walk and play with the dogs. Then new management took over. Suddenly volunteer work got very complicated. As a volunteer, I couldn’t just walk or play with the dogs. I had to scoop poop, do laundry, do dishes, and other work. I realize these things are important, but darn it, I didn’t want to do them. I volunteered to give the dogs quality time that the employees didn’t have time to give. I didn’t volunteer so that I could do the work of an employee. So I stopped volunteering. Selfish, I know. 🙁

  6. I’d like to add that my volunteering to do employee work did not give more free time to employees to walk the dogs. It just enable the shelter to hire less people. It saved them money, but it didn’t give dogs the quality time they needed.

  7. No doubt about it; they (the people AND the dogs) will be lucky to have you on board.

    And why is it that just about anything and everything has become more complicated these days?

  8. Here in Raleigh, North Carolina it is much easier than where you are in California now. You sign up…get a tour of the place…there is a list of dogs that are not quarantined and can be walked…you are shown where they can be walked…asked to sign dogs in and out…that is it. Funny though…last month one of the dog walkers simply walked off with a dog! HA…..guess that beats the adoption process but it is still considered stealing!

    Have fun Lindsay…I am from northern California…as you are learning…it is a different place than the rest of the country….love your blog..thanks.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That’s too bad a dog was stolen. I guess this is always a (rare) possibility no matter how much you train people.

      Yes, a different place than the rest of the country indeed 🙂

  9. Dog Lover in Seattle

    Thanks for this post. I had a similar experience trying to volunteer as a dog walker at the Seattle Animal Shelter. I have a shelter dog of my own, and wanted to volunteer as a dog runner when I learned that the Seattle Animal Shelter needed help.

    The process went like this:

    1. I had to wait until I could apply to be a volunteer (they only take applications 1x/quarter)
    2. I had to wait 1 1/2 months to take a shelter introduction orientation class. The orientation took 2 hours alone.
    3. I had to go to a 2 hour session talking about dogs at the shelter, and then was taken down to an area where fellow interested volunteers said “Ok now you’re going to be tested and graded!”. With clipboards in hand, the “trainers” told us to handle multiple dogs passing each other on leash and scored us without giving much instruction or tips on how they expected us to behave with the dogs.

    While this process was VERY thorough, I was displeased with the level of so-called “training” they provided. They gave me a pitbull to walk near a hyper 1 year old dog, and the pit bull stopped and I couldn’t get it to move. Because I couldn’t get the pitbull to move, they disqualified me from being a dog walker (I had to walk dogs before running them).

    I offered to re-take the training class with more qualified “instructors”. It was a completely frustrating experience.

  10. Dog Lover In Seattle’s story goes to show that any large metropolitan area is likely to have more big bureaucratic shelter systems than any small town or rural area, anywhere in the country. That’s just the way it is in big cities, partly because they often have more people wanting to volunteer than they can handle (especially for the fun tasks like playing with animals and walking dogs).
    But big shelters aren’t the only place to find animals who need us. I think if we really want to help animals we can always find somewhere to do it. Where I live there are loads of shelters of various sizes, as well as private rescue groups of all kinds. I currently foster a dog with a local rescue which consists of four animal loving neighborhood women who are just trying to keep strays off the street and out of the high kill county impound. They are more than happy to have me take home a foster dog, and walk and play with the other dogs and cats whenever I have the time, with no more than my contact info and signature.
    I know jumping through hoops when you just want to be helpful can be frustrating, but I think it’s good to remember that the shelters and rescues exist because most people want to do right by the animals. And if one shelter doesn’t suit you, you can always find some way to help animals that works for you if you look around and stay open!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Such good points, Kathleen. I actually ended up volunteering with a different rescue group that is a much better fit for me. I couldn’t be happier with them. You’re right, you just have to find the right group.

  11. I walk dogs at my local shelter. While I have been a dog owner for 40 years, I have found that walking shelter dogs is a very serious endeavor. I applaud any organization that thoroughly vets new volunteers. You have to remember that these dogs are not your dogs. You can’t know them as you do your own. I mentor new volunteers and safety is my number 1 message. The rewards are incredible for the pups and the volunteer. I want my volunteers to feel confident as this helps to ensure they will return. It is my wish that there will be so many dog walkers at my shelter that reservations will be necessary to walk a dog!

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