HOW CAN WORKING/VOLUNTEERING AT A SHELTER BENEFIT YOU AS A RESCUE VOLUNTEER?

Many dogs that are surrendered to animal shelters (or to rescue) have either never been trained, or training has been attempted but failed. Often these dogs are perceived by the owner to have a behavior problem that they do not know how to solve and no longer will tolerate. Behavior problems do not magically go away while a dog is sheltered or kenneled. In fact, many behavior problems are aggravated by being sheltered or kenneled so that a dog may be adopted and returned a number of times. It's not always "bad," uncaring, uncommitted people surrendering or returning "good" dogs, but frustrated, misinformed people returning problematic or difficult dogs. Learning more about temperament and behavior problems can help frustrated owners deal more effectively with their pets before the situation gets so bad the owner wants to give up. Learning about dog behavior can help match prospective adopters more accurately with appropriate dogs and can help the shelter (and rescue volunteers) identify true problem dogs.

1. Learning about behavior and training can give you the knowledge you need to successfully assess and re-home the dogs in shelter (or in foster care). Counseling prospective adopters about potential behavior problems and ways to avert trouble spots can make a difference between a successful permanent placement or a return.

2. Understanding behavior problems, their treatment, management and cure, can make shelter (and rescue) workers more empathetic and sympathetic towards adopters and people considering surrender. What often seems like irresponsibility or a lack of commitment may actually be a frustrated pet owner who has not received valid, effective advice.

3. The animal shelter (or rescue organization) should be full service resource for the community. If the public would turn to the shelter (or rescue organization) for behavior and training advice and not just as a last resort before surrendering a dog, the shelter (or rescue organization's) image would reflect better in the public eye and would be given respect and authority in the community.

Volunteering and working at an animal shelter benefits you as a trainer or rescue volunteer.

1. Sheer volume of dog experience: in one session, you may handle 3-4 times the number of dogs that you would in a group class.

2. Breed type diversity: large dogs, toy dogs, herding types, terriers, scent and sight hounds, retrievers, poodles, spaniels, setters, all under one roof!

3. It's just you and the dog. You must rely on your own instincts and judgement about each dog. Surrender history can be sketchy at best, and most dogs have no known backgrounds.

4. You will hone your skills as a handler, not just a trainer. Getting wild and unruly or reluctant dogs in and out of kennels, learning to keep yourself upright when being dragged by the hugest of hounds, coaxing out hesitant dogs, re-penning the unwilling.....

5. Improve your "reading" skills. Study and believe in your own ability to read a dogs temperament and character to determine whether its safe to take the dog out, or even pet it. Adjusting your own movements to the needs of each individual shelter dog, the fearful ones will need your patience, confidence and benevolence, the pushy strong blithering idiot adolescents will need your physical strength, wit, superior intelligence, calm and humor.

6. You must rely on your communication skills, clarity, timing and reinforcements to train and work with shelter dogs, NOT equipment. Often you will be working dogs on noose or slip leads. You will not be able to rely on specialized collars or harnesses to train a dog. Since you will not be around for a transfer lesson, the shelter dogs you work must carry on what you've taught them without your help or presence. The shelter dogs you work with must truly understand and enjoy training and commands so that they will be able to "work" with their next human!

7. Increase your "bag of tricks" Try out different methods. If you've been skeptical about the latest "fad" method or technique, here's your opportunity to try them out on a variety of dogs.

8. Getting to know shelter dogs can help you help clients searching for their next dog. You will also feel more confident in assessing temperament and personality in shelter dogs so that you can direct prospective adopters to certain dogs. Help dispel the myth that shelter/rescue dogs/puppies are such an unknown quantity - by handling, spending time with and training them, shelter/rescue dogs are as predictable and unpredictable as a dog or puppy purchased from a breeder or any other source. The shelter is a premiere place to get a dog.

- Sue Sternberg, Rondout Valley Kennels, Inc.[4628 Rt. 209, Accord, NY (914) 687-7619].

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