Lessons from the Shelter

I volunteer at a no-kill small animal shelter that reunites more pets with owners than any other shelter in the country—by far. Reunions are the top priority, but of course there are also rescue cases, protective custody cases, and ultimately “up for adoption” cases. The first week an animal arrives, they’re placed in no man’s land, a private row of kennels that only veterinarians and qualified personnel are allowed to enter. They receive the best in care, but are given the quiet, space and relative solitude necessary to best get acquainted to a brand new, shocking, and likely scary environment (yes, even scary for those who come from the most neglectful and abusive of places).

It’s amazing how quickly some of the animals make a turnaround. This isn’t the case for all, and it shouldn’t be expected, but it’s not uncommon for a dog who’s been neglected and abused his entire life to respond unbelievably well to just one week of quality food, “home” and kindness.

We can learn a great deal about kindness, to both ourselves and others, from some of these temporary residents.

  • Let others know if and when you trust them. For cats, it’s relatively easy (if you speak cat language). Showing their belly isn’t an invitation to rub it, as anyone who’s tried knows. Instead, it’s their way of saying, “I trust you.” If only it were that easy for us to communicate that to one another.
  • Fear doesn’t always look the same. Particularly with dogs, most people can quickly point out the ones who are “obviously afraid.” They’re the ones cowering in the corner with their tail tucked between their legs. However, aggressive behavior including jumping, barking and snapping are almost always indicative of fear, too. Like humans, dogs all show fear differently and aggression is a defensive response. Recognizing fear, and knowing how to address it, can work miracles to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Stop rewarding behavior you don’t like. It’s very natural for a lot of humans to think it’s cute when dogs jump on them with excitement. “He missed me!” or “He likes me!” is the first thought. They’re rewarded with kind words and pets. It’s not always easy to reward the behavior you really want (like a dog happily greeting you without jumping) or ignore the behavior you don’t want (again, ignoring those jumps instead of feeding into it or admonishing them) takes real effort and doesn’t come easily.
  • Learn to love and let go. My husband and I, after cat sitting for a week, have been talking in earnest about possibly getting a pet. He’s never had one, and I grew up on the equivalent of a mini farm. In other words, I know how much work and heartache is involved. I asked him, “Are you sure you want to love something you know you’ll watch die?” because, as blunt as that sounds, that’s how it usually goes. Most pet owners will say yes, the pain is more than worth it. Learning to love knowing you’ll have to let go is a big part of life—especially when you’re regularly falling in love with adoptable pets.
  • Stretch, play, form bonds and eat the good food. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Volunteering at an animal shelter is a fantastic and easy way to build more kindness in your life. Numerous studies have shown that simply being around animals has tremendous health benefits for humans, too. Who knew therapy was free?


One Comment Add yours

  1. jlstanding says:

    What an awesome place to volunteer! Yes rewarding behaviour you don’t like is so important…I have definitely been one to make excuses because they are so darn cute!! Lesson learned!


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