If you’ve taken the first steps towards becoming a volunteer at an animal shelter, then congratulations! You’re about to have a fun and rewarding experience. As I discussed in a previous post, Volunteering at a shelter (animalnerd.com, there are a lot of ways to contribute to the operation of a shelter and to the welfare of the animals housed there. My own area of expertise is in handling and socializing shelter dogs, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.
The first thing to do is to go through your shelter’s orientation program, paying particular attention to animal handling and safety measures. I can’t stress that enough. Second, become familiar with the equipment that you will be using, including how it should fit properly. For example, martingale collars should be fitted so that you can fit two fingers under them when they’re drawn tight. And every dog harness fits differently – you should practice putting them on dummies or large stuffed animals before trying to put them on a live dog. In ( ), I discussed my preferred way to hold a dog’s leash to keep him from pulling it out of your hand, or pulling you off-balance. You might find it helpful – but if you find a method that works better for you, please post it. Third, have some appetizing dog treats. They don’t have to be expensive, a hot dog that’s been chopped into tiny pieces works just as well as designer dog morsels. The smaller and stinkier they are, the better.
Now you’re ready to deal with a shelter dog. There are a few of things to keep in mind when you approach one of these dogs for the first time: First, be constantly aware that this dog is highly stressed and overstimulated. No matter how much a shelter tries to make itself a quiet and easy place for a dog to be housed, it is still a highly stressful experience for them. These dogs have been separated from whatever life they’ve known and are in a new place where they’re being constantly bombarded with new noises, new smells and new people who handle them, wash them and perform medical exams and procedures on them. These pups are completely on edge. Second, keep in your mind that this dog doesn’t know you. As far as he’s concerned, you’re just another human. This may change over time as you handle this dog in days to come, but for the first few times that you handle him, you’re just someone with a treat bag who’s holding the leash. Third, remember that you are not there to do the specific job of walking the dog: You are there to help the dog get adopted, and that may mean helping him to cope with the stress. You are not there to add to his stress level.
Watch the dog as you approach his run and observe his body language and facial expressions. Do not immediately open the door, just stay relaxed and calm and see what he does as you approach. Also, do not stand squarely in from of the entrance and lock eyes with him or stare at him, this can be perceived as threatening. Instead, turn yourself about 45 degrees away from him, and see what you can detect from his general posture and expressions. Is he watching you or turning away? Does he approach you as you stand outside? Is he fearful and guarding the entrance? I’ve included some good links (Below) for interpreting canine body language and facial expressions, which may help you in decoding the messages that the dog is sending you at first meeting.
Don’t rush your first meeting. If the dog is so stressed that he is growling or showing teeth, then you might decide not to even go inside his run. In my experience, this sort of reaction isn’t uncommon when a dog is newly arrived in a shelter. Just keep yourself turned somewhat away from his run and sit or kneel down outside it where he can see you. Be as non-threatening a presence as possible. If possible to put some treats into his run without opening the door or putting any part of your hand inside, go ahead and do so. And just stay there for a while, so he can get used to the idea that you aren’t scary. After a while he may settle down and you might be able to enter the run safely. If not, or if you are uncomfortable going inside, then just maintain a calm presence until he begins to relax, and then let him be while you go handle another dog. By doing that alone, you are helping him to adjust to the shelter and making it easier for the next person.
Which brings me to my next point: Work within your comfort level. If you feel that a dog is too worked up or too strong for you to handle, if you feel that the dog is dangerous or if you are just uncomfortable with a particular dog for any reason, end the interaction on a positive note and leave him in his run. There’s no problem or stigma associated with that. In fact, the shelter staff would appreciate that as feedback about the dog. You can’t help a dog if you are stressed out while working with him. And part of the reason that you’re there in the first place is to enjoy yourself.
Once you’re inside the run with the dog, continue to relax and take it slow. You might not be able to leash him up during the first meeting – which is perfectly OK. The dog can react to you in a number of ways. You may get an excited, even overly excited greeting, with the dog jumping on you or even mouthing. If this happens, it is an excellent time to start working on socialization and behavior management. Just turn your back on him and stop all interaction until he’s stopped with all four paws on the floor, then give him a calm bit of praise. If he starts over-reacting again, repeat this lack of feedback as many times as necessary. If he doesn’t stop after five minutes (which will seem like an eternity while you’re in there), then leave and come back later.
On the other hand, the dog may retreat and huddle as far away from you as possible. If this happens, my preferred response is to sit or crouch down, facing away at a right angle, and let him calm down. Watch his face and posture for hints as to his level of stress (below). The key thing is to let him set the pace of the meeting. Since we have limited time to work with these dogs, I sometimes get the dog to approach by scattering a few treats in the space between him and me. The important thing is to not increase his anxiety. If he doesn’t approach you at the first meeting, that’s perfectly OK. You can leave, let him scarf up the treats that you’ve put out, and come back a little later to try again. It may take a few visits to get him to relax and approach you.
In any case, there are a few things that you should definitely NOT do. First, never approach the dog (or any unfamiliar dog) head-on and bend over them. This is a threatening posture, and he may react either fearfully. Always turn at an angle and make yourself a little smaller. Also, do not loom over the dog when you’re attaching a leash or putting on his harness. Put yourself alongside him, facing in the same direction as him, and spend as little time as possible reaching over him.
That’s enough to cover in this post. In the next article, I’ll discuss leashing up the dog and handling him on a walk. As always, please feel free to comment or add your experiences.