When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs. My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week. That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week. And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.
Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large. And strong. Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic. But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.
Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals. But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there. Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals. Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.
It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends. True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that. As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.” And she’s right.
I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends. They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross. (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud. It usually isn’t.) When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.
Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter. We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families. But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter. We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy. We are not perfect people by any means, but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.
I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters. I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise. Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……