An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When 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……

87 thoughts on “An Unexpected Gift

  1. I applaud you and thank you for your work at an animal shelter. It’s one of those things that I’d really like to do as a volunteer, but I’m not sure I’m strong enough-emotionally. I think your job helping with the shelter dogs is the reason you’ve become so close to others who work there. It’s almost like doctors who work together in a stressful small clinic. You see things that make you so sad that you need to band together to get through it. And hopefully you see joyful things like when a dog is given a home with a wonderful family. You all are beautiful people, and I know the dogs love you for it.

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    • Thanks! And that’s exactly right, we are close because we are “down in the trenches” together, sharing the joys and the sorrows. There are so many people who do it, most more than I do. But what I tell anyone who is thinking of helping at a shelter is simply to connect with other volunteers and/or staff. Because you need each other, it’s impossible to do this on your own. Thanks for your kind words!

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    • I think you are right…animals that have been homeless do see to appreciate it all the more when they are adopted. And thank you for adopting your cat! Trust me, the people who worked at that shelter really appreciated it!

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  2. We have a lovely shelter not too far from our home and I’ve thought about becoming a full-time kitty cuddler. I do worry about the emotional toll working with the animals could take. One of these days, I will probably rise above those concerns and be brave like you. In the meantime, thank you for stepping up.

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    • You have to made the right decision for you, and you’re right, shelter work is not for everyone. But if you do decide to become involved, I think you will find that the good stories far outweigh the bad ones. And on the tough days, reach out to other volunteers and staff…they will understand your feelings and give you the support you need. It really does help!

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  3. What a beautiful heartwarming post. In all walks of life we get back what we give out and clearly the love, care and compassion that you show to both the four legged canines at the shelter and your human counterparts has come full circle to you. Kudos to you Ann. I loved this post. ❤️

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    • I consider myself very lucky to have found such good friends, when all I was really looking for was a chance to help shelter dogs. But you’re so right, we get back from life what we put into it. And so the more risks we take, the more enriching our lives become! Thanks for your support, Miriam. Someday I’ll write a post about blogging friends, and you’ll know I’m writing about you!

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  4. Helps you, the shelter, the dogs. A fine journey, and probably not the one you imagined when you started. We are dealing with an elderly (20 in june) cat now. When she goes, I’m considering doing fostering for the local humane society. Temporary relationships with cats or kittens, but not another 20 year commitment. Glad this has been such a good gig for you. And yes, one of the keys to this sort of work: shower after!

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    • I think fostering is an excellent idea, as I know the need for foster homes is so great! And it just goes to show that we each have different gifts to bring. I can walk the dogs, but I don’t have what it takes to be a foster home (I’d have too much trouble giving the animal back!) Others can’t walk the dogs, but either foster or work relentlessly to market the animals and thereby increase adoptions. It takes all of us together, each doing what we are best at, to truly help the animals!

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  5. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of these animals. It is such an important gift you are giving them. It’s wonderful that you have gained beautiful friendships from this experience. I loved this post! You are such a beautiful soul! 💞

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    • Thank you! I have been so incredibly lucky to meet such wonderful friends at the shelter. And I honestly wouldn’t have the strength to be a shelter volunteer without their support. A group can often accomplish what one person can’t, I think.

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  6. Beautiful post Ann. You are clearly with like-minded and like-hearted friends at the shelter, and share a bond over your love for animals. Thanks for being willing to be vulnerable and open your heart to animals and other volunteers who need you.

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  7. Oh you know how much I appreciated seeing you and all of the Pet Pals …most of all, is seeing the animals know that you are there for them !!!! It’s amazing through out the years, how the strong stay strong, with the help of each other, to carry us through week after week. It’s a chapter in my life that I will cherish deep in my heart!!. Thank you for just being you ……(and I love one Patty K comment as “ditto” ) Hugs to all

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    • Oh, Sherry, I hope you know that you are the reason that we Pet Pals were able to keep going year after year. You always made time for us, listening to our problems, advising us on what to do, and answering our questions. You were truly the best example of what a shelter employee ought to be, and you were an example that all of us tried to live up to. We owe you the thanks, not the other way around! And I am SO glad that you are still in touch with us, as we all need you so much!!!! Hugs to you, my friend!

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  8. Thank you for the insight about what is happening in the dogs shelter and how the dogs feel there. I am glad for you, that the dog shelter has become much more over the years then a place to just walk the dogs.

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    • Thank you, Svet! And yes, it has been the support of the many friends I’ve made there that has helped me do this for so long. We all help each other, and the shelter dogs benefit. And you are so nice to always leave an encouraging word on my blog. I really hope you know how much it is appreciated!

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    • Thanks, Michele! By the way, I tried to leave a comment on your latest blog post (it was so touching, with your thoughts on having the birthday celebration and also on how we have lost some of our ability to connect with each other on a personal level due to our tech devices), but I didn’t see a comment section. Did you mean to turn that off? If so, it is fine. But I just wanted to make sure, because I’ve known other bloggers that had it turn off without their knowing.

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  9. I could not do what you do but apparently you and the other volunteers get something back from the dogs and each other. My son fosters but I could not do that either. We each do what we can. Kudos to you and the other volunteers!!!!!!

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    • Thank you! I couldn’t foster either (a dog that lives in my house becomes MY dog, period), but you’re right in that we do get so much back from our work with shelter dogs. It is rewarding beyond measure, even during the hardest times. In the end, we each just do what we can do (and please thank your son for fostering, that is so important and needed), and together, we get the job done!

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  10. My heart is so touched by this post that I have tears in my eyes. The sacrifices that you make seem so far outweighed by the rewards you receive…. even with the mystery brown spots 🙂 You continue to amaze and inspire me dear Ann! Charlie and I thank you so very much for your time and efforts with the humane society. Hugs and doggie kisses.

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    • Thank you, Jodi! But honestly, the opposite it true. I get so much more from volunteering at the shelter than I ever give. The friendships I have made, the satisfaction from helping shelter dogs, the things that the dogs have taught me, and even the chance to see the whole process from a dog that is frightened of the whole world finally blooming into the happy, confident dog he was born to be is a true gift!
      The thanks go to you, and people like you, who come to the shelter to pick out their next family pet. You are the ones who give these dogs (and cats, and rabbits, etc.) the homes they need… and you are our heroes!!!!

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  11. What a rewarding endeavor to be involved in, Ann! As a real lover of all canine types, I can only imagine some of the joy and the pain you’ve experienced working there. I appreciate what you do, and thanks for sharing some of it with us.

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    • Thanks, Des! There are so many people who help with shelter animals, in all sorts of ways. I’m just a very small part of a very big team, but it is rewarding to be helping make a difference. And you’re right about there being both joy and pain involved. I think most things that are worth doing are difficult on some level. Thanks for the comment!

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  12. Such a beautiful post. I’ve thought about becoming a dog walker but have been afraid of all that energy, pulling, and knocking me off my feet. You make me want to give it a shot anyway. I’d love to find the friendships you’ve found doing this.

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    • I hope you do give it a try! And even if you discover that it’s not for you, there’s no shame in that. At least you tried! Plus, most shelters do allow volunteers to set their own limits for what they can do physically, and sometimes even emotionally. See if they will allow you to walk only the smaller and/or calmer dogs, at least to start. Trust me, you’ll figure out which dogs are too much for you very quickly! The older I get, the more often I go in search of a younger and stronger volunteer when there’s an especially large, strong and rowdy dog to be walked. I’m just not as strong as I used to be.

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      • Yes, I should. I’ve seen some volunteers just sit in the kennels holding and loving on the dogs. I could really do that!

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  13. Bless you and all the volunteers who work at animal shelters anywhere. It is such hard and heartbreaking work. I am very emotional when it comes to animals being hurt and neglected. I do my best to at least try to educate people when I see them abusing an animal by trying to get them to understand that the animal has feelings to. Sadly many cultures think of animals as just being for work or for protection and are oblivious to the fact that they have feelings. But then again cultures such as our own where people value dogs and cats as pets still abuse and neglect them, which is why shelters are so full.

    What a wonderful benefit and gift you received from working there! Good karma.

    Peta

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    • Thanks, Peta! And you are right that even in cultures such as ours where most animals are valued as pets, there are still far too many people who are willing to abuse and neglect them. But you are also right that volunteering at the shelter has been a real gift to me!

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  14. So many in my field (veterinary medicine) are developing compassion fatigue – the new words for what was formerly known as burn-out. But after 39 years in the field the truth is compassion fatigue doesn’t happen if you have a strong support network and caring friends. Your experience just confirms that. Rescues are on the whole so very grateful to their new owners – they know that they have been given a new start!

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    • That’s a good point. The shelter actually has offered a seminar on compassion fatigue a few times, but honestly, I have found that what helps the most is the support of friends. We all understand what each other is going through, and that validation and support is priceless. I hope that those who work in the veterinary field develop those same kind of relationships!

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  15. It is fabulous you have stayed the course this long. You are so right; when we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, to let others see our vulnerability, we open ourselves to unimaginable gifts. You have bonded with other good hearts there and this is a precious gift. We have a large house in the country and now, even though we have two indoor (rescue) cats and one outside (feral) cat (the mother of one of our indoor cats), I have thought many times of fostering kittens. I’d be in danger of keeping them all, but I think it’s very worth “the risk.” I love this post. Your heart shines through, Ann, again. ❤

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    • Thank you! That is such a nice thing to say. And good for you for taking care of those cats, and thinking about fostering. There’s such a need for foster homes, but that is something I don’t have the emotional strength to do either. I just couldn’t give them back! And so I’ll just keep walking as long as I’m able, and meanwhile I have tremendous respect for those who do foster.

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  16. powerful post … volunteering is a treat in itself and when the team gel like this it gives true meaning to community! Thanks for all the hard work and for sharing it Ann 🙂

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  17. A thought for folks who might think that volunteering at a shelter would be too hard to deal with emotionally: it averages out. Sure, there are hard cases, critters with health issues or unfortunate backgrounds. But there are also sweethearts that lighten your day, and anytime you can help soften the hard cases or help folks make a connection with a new companion it makes up for the more difficult ones. And after you deal with a few hundred animals the itch to take ’em all home with you eases.

    So go for it, it’s a win-win situation.

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    • You are right, the good outweighs the bad! And you are also right about the “I would take them all home” syndrome not lasting very long. After a while, you realize that if you took home all the animals you’d like, you’d become an official hoarder and the shelter would be rescuing animals from YOU. And more importantly, you see enough adoptions that you realize there are others who can, and will, give these animals a good home. As for the bad times, that’s where the shelter friends come in. They make it bearable.

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  18. you are truly an angel for those animals! if i lived close to a shelter i too would be a volunteer. all my dogs and cats have been from the shelters. they definately know the real meaning of love and are my inspiration.

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    • I think you are right. The fact that we have a higher purpose is what makes it easy for us to connect and form such deep bonds. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this comment. I think something is wrong with my blog, because I’m not seeing all the notifications when I get a comment!

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  19. This is so beautiful. It reminds me that I don’t have to get a dog to fulfill my desire for dog time. And the friends me make while doing the things we love are often the best kinds of connections. Awesome, thanks for sharing your story.

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    • Exactly! I have one good friend who is a volunteer there who can’t have dogs at her house, so she especially enjoys her time with the shelter dogs. It’s a win-win situation!

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  20. Thank you Ann for your service to the less fortunate of our four-legged friends. You and the other kind-hearted humane society volunteers are an inspiration to me to support this truly compassionate cause.

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