The reason I wanted to volunteer at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter is that I love spending time with dogs. My beautiful boy, Gudgeon, died in March 2020, and I knew I wasn’t in a position to take on the full time care and responsibility of another dog. Spending time with shelter dogs seemed like a win-win solution. I’d get my dog fix, and the dogs would get some company. I’m not sure what I imagined that would look like. Probably some time petting the dog, some time walking the dog, and meeting different dogs frequently.
People outside the shelter world referred to volunteering at the shelter as “walking the dogs.” What I discovered was that yes, the dogs really needed and appreciated having someone visit them. And no, I wasn’t going to do much “walking.” At first my time with the dogs was spent in a ‘meet and greet’ room. That’s where I met Sterling, whose ears really are that big!
And there was Gabby, the dog used during our volunteer training session. She looked like she’d recently had puppies, and was a dog of sweetness, grace and gentleness. She was adopted soon after I met her. In what now seem like “the early days,” I also met Stihl, another black and white dog – .
I spent some time with Letty. She would do what I call drive-bys – she’d swing by for a nano-second of love and then keep going. She’s one of the fastest dogs I’ve seen.
Her swiftness had the focus of zoomies, and it had an element of the joy I’ve sensed in a dog who is running flat out to nowhere. But somehow Letty’s travels in the yard of the adoption kennel had some other element in it, as though this were no fling with running all out, but an expression of her true nature. She was adopted quickly, and I hope her new home gives her a chance to stretch those legs.
When I met Rowsey, I knew I’d be gone the next week, so I visited him three days in a row. I’ve written about him here in the blog, and in retrospect, I can see that working with him shifted my idea about what volunteering could mean. I suppose that going into volunteering, I had the general idea that people spending time with the dogs would reduce the dogs’ stress and increase their ability to meet a potential adopter calmly. But with Rowsey I understood that I could actively reinforce – or teach – alternatives to the kind of greeting behaviors that might put people off.
I knew from experience that a big dog jumping up near you can be scary. Even though Gudgeon never jumped on people – he would leap in front of you and flick his tongue out to touch the tip of your nose – his method of greeting wasn’t widely appreciated.
In my three back-to-back sessions with Rowsey, I was able to discourage him from jumping and encourage the kind of greeting that would be more universally accepted. Rowsey, like Gudgeon, radiated goodwill towards all people, and our time together may have had nothing to do with him getting adopted. But it did show me how much I could accomplish with a smart dog. I still call the time I spend at the shelter “hanging out with the dogs,” but with certain dogs, the dog and I fit in a lot of play and affection, but we fit in a lot of training, too.
When I work with a dog over time, I know that the very thing I’m working on – better manners so their potential as a good member of the family can shine through – may contribute to the path that gets them adopted, and I won’t see them anymore. In case that seems like I’m saying that’s the downside of volunteering, that’s not quite it. Okay, I freely admit it, when I got the news that Belle had been adopted, I cried a little. And then I cried a little more. I’ll miss her, but I’m super happy that someone met Belle and realized what a sweet, smart girl she is.
I sometimes tell people that teaching in a grade school is good prep for the shelter volunteer experience of getting attached and saying goodbye. In September, 100 students would come into my life, and in June, off they’d go. Of course I got attached to my students, and of course I was happy for them to see them head on to the next grade. I don’t actually get a chance to say goodbye to a dog I’ve worked with (and I’m not sure I’d want one!), but it really isn’t so different.
Belle went off to a real home, and I shed some tears when I got the news. But, shelters being what they are, I’ll have the chance to meet a new dog. Is there a place in my heart forever labelled “Rowsey,” and a place named “Belle” ? Absolutely, but hearts can always make room for more. Next up? Dorito. He’ll offer me my first experience getting to know an Australian Cattle Dog mix, and my introduction to working with a dog whose been deaf since birth.
Potsdam Humane Society posting on Dorito
You can find out more about volunteering at the shelter, or about the dogs they have available at this link: Potsdam Humane Society website. Is there something about my experience you’d like to know more about? Let me know.