Picture this: You’ve spent a lifetime caring for, and being taken care of by, those wonderful people you call family. When, one ordinary day, you are put into the family car and driven away from possibly the only home you’ve ever known. Your destination is a strange, new building – loud, sterile, and smelling nothing like home. Almost immediately, you’re locked in a cage barely large enough to turn around. There’s a blanket in one corner, so you tentatively take a seat and wait anxiously for an explanation, a hug from your family, or for anything warm and familiar. Nothing and no one comes. Eventually, it’s night and the lights go off. You’re not alone – you can hear others around you – but still, you miss your family, your bed, the sweet smells of your backyard. You miss your old life.
Too often, this is the fate, particularly, of older dogs. The reasons a loved family dog ends up without a home are many and varied but can include the following: the owner becomes ill and can no longer care for the dog, he/she moves into an assisted living center or an apartment that does not allow dogs, the owner can no longer afford the increasing vet bills of an aging dog, or sadly, sometimes the owner dies and no one else in the family wants the dog. Regardless of the reasons, no dog wants to spend his or her remaining years (or even her early years) in a dog shelter.
Helping is so much easier than you think
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they consider helping at an animal shelter, is walking dogs or cleaning out cat litter boxes. And while shelters certainly need folks to do those things, there are literally hundreds of other ways to help.
Got a car? Put a blanket over your backseat and offer to drive shelter dogs to their vet appointments. Contact assisted living facilities in your area and offer to drive residents’ pets to the vet. This is often a reason pets are given to shelters in the first place – their owners, who are still able to walk their dogs and otherwise take care of them – no longer drive and cannot take them to the vet or to boarding when they have extended stays away from home. Some shelters provide free dog food to low-income dog owners and need drivers to drop off bags of food, others need volunteers to drive to, and attend, obedience classes with a dog.
If you’re game for a longer drive, some shelters have too many dogs while others actually have too few. Jennifer, a first-time dog owner in northern Michigan, found that there were very few dogs at the shelters near her and virtually none who met the size requirements (under 30 pounds) of her apartment building. She went online and found a one-year-old dog in Missouri and made arrangements to meet her new pup in Indiana. Jennifer and “Maizie’s” happily-ever-after, love-at-first-sight ending was made possible only because of the generosity of the retired volunteer who took the time to drive Maizie north.
Kyle and Pam Peterson of Cookeville, Tennessee also noted an imbalance in shelter occupants and used it as an opportunity to earn a living doing something they love and are passionate about. Almost twenty years ago they formed Peterson Express Transport Services (P.E.T.S) to transport dogs from kill shelters in the southeast to shelters and families in the northeast. Says Pam, “It’s bizarre. They [shelters in the north] have these big, huge, beautiful shelters, and there are no dogs in them. It was really hard to comprehend because down here [in the south] everything is so jam-packed. You can adopt five out and see 15 more come in.” (Visit www.bittersoutherner.com to read more about their story.)
The bottom line? Shelters and rescues are always looking for drivers!
Grab your Rake and Hammer!
Shelters put as much money as possible into taking care of, and adopting out, the animals in their care. Meaning there is little money left for things like fixing holes in the fences surrounding the dog runs, replacing a door that has been pawed at just a few too many times, and fixing leaky faucets. Imagine your own house full of dogs and cats with lots of guests coming and going all day. Can you see where a volunteer handyman/woman might come in, well, handy? If you’re good around the house, there’s an animal shelter that could use you.
Are you a selfie hater?
Then put yourself behind the camera and photograph the animals instead. Shelters need good quality (read: adorable) photos of the animals to put on their website. Knowing how to groom a dog or give him a good bath also makes for a better photo shoot because, if a picture speaks a thousand words, then quality pet photos can mean the difference between adoption and euthanasia.
Like to Throw a Good Party?
Shelters always need to raise funds. Volunteers are needed, not only to plan major events, but also to help at the events. Set-up, clean-up, registration, name tags, table decorations – it takes a village to throw a fundraising event.
On a smaller scale, ask your local library if they will be a drop-off location for collecting dog and cat food or toys. You’ll need to get the word out yourself, but most public libraries are willing to let you put a collection box inside their door or near their circulation desk. When the box is full, you take it to the shelter and donate the items.
Alternately, you can be the drop-off point by asking your bridge/mahjong/euchre/frisbee/whatever group you hang with to bring a can of dog or cat food to your next gathering, which you then, of course, donate to your local shelter.
Some shelters even have online gift registries people can direct their guests to when buying a gift for a birthday, wedding, or even in lieu of flowers at a memorial service. These operate exactly like the wedding gift registries we’re all used to at major department stores, except the beneficiaries aren’t the bride and groom (or the birthday gal/guy), but the grateful animals at your local shelter. Give it a try next time you have a milestone event!
1-800 Better Call Saul
If you’re a retired lawyer or accountant, your skills could save a shelter thousands of dollars. Adoptions are legal transactions and shelters, like all non-profits, have bills to pay and expenses to keep track of, making legal and accounting work invaluable to them.
Likewise, website design and maintenance, writing (someone has to write all those cute descriptions and backstories for the animals), and social media posting are all critical to getting maximum exposure for the shelter and its adoptable animals.
Say Thank You!
Bake some goodies and take a plate of home-made baked goods to a shelter once a month. Throw a pizza party for the employees at your local shelter or swing by with Starbucks to help them get started on a cold day. The cost is minimal to you, but it means the world to the hard-working employees and volunteers at your shelter.
Share the Rewards!
Grab some friends and coordinate with your shelter for a group yard work day, or sign up together to help at a fund-raising event. Better yet, go to a fund-raising event with your friends – the more people who attend, the more successful the fund-raiser. Anything’s more fun when it’s done with friends!
Money Always Works
Shelters and rescue operations are always cash-strapped and most appreciative of any donation you might make. You can either donate directly to your local shelter or to national organizations that then funnel the money to individual shelters via grant programs. Two examples in the U.S. that specifically support older dogs are the Grey Muzzle Organization (https://www.greymuzzle.org) and the White Muzzle Fund (http://www.whitemuzzlefund.org). Maddie’s Fund (https://www.maddiesfund.org/maddies-marketing-competition.htm) seeks to help place dogs and cats that are “elderly, shy, disfigured, or unattractive” into quality forever homes. Wherever you decide to put your money, know it will be put to good use.
A Little Crafty Are You?
Shelters needs dog jackets, “Adopt Me!” vests and bandanas, sturdy afghans (knitted, crocheted, or tied fleece), toys made from old t-shirts, jeans and socks – if you’re creative, you’ve got opportunities (and pets!) waiting for you at your local shelter. Here are a few ideas to get you started: http://www.sewhistorically.com/5-diy-no-sew-recycled-denim-dog-toys/, and http://blog.spartadog.com/44-really-cool-homemade-diy-dog-toys-your-dog-will-love/.
Ask your local shelter if they have a wish list of things they need. Central California’s SPCA (www.ccspca.com) puts these six things at the top of their list:
Neary every shelter and rescue organization keeps an updated list of items they need – paper towel and toilet paper rolls make great chew toys for puppies, heating pads keep puppies and kittens warm when their mothers are missing, plastic grocery bags can be used as pickup bags for doggie droppings. Just ask!
Ready to Take the Big Leap?
Shelters have limited space, which they try to alleviate by adopting their dogs out and by moving their animals to other shelters (see “Drive!” above). Yet in some parts of the U.S. shelters are still overcrowded. If you live in an area with shelter overcrowding (if you don’t know, ask!) one of the biggest things you can do to help save a dog’s life is to foster a dog until it is adopted. Many rescues will pay the vet bills of an aging dog in foster care and some will even pay for the dog’s food.
In their heart-warming book, My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, authors Laura T. Coffey and Lori Fusaro show the surprising joys of adopting older dogs. From internet phenom Marnie (http://marniethedog.com/about) to actor George Clooney, My Old Dog proves that older dogs make great pets.
Whether you’re looking to adopt, or just looking to help out a bit, check out your local animal shelter and take that first step by asking, “how can I help?” You’ll be glad you did!
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