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The PupJoy Post

The Ultimate Guide to Volunteering at an Animal Shelter

By Emily Bruer via FetchFind

Looking for a meaningful way to spend Memorial Day weekend?

Before the barbecues and picnics get started, consider spending some time with rescue dogs in need!

Volunteering at a local animal shelter is not only a rewarding, heartwarming experience that makes your soul happier — it's a great way to get to know the dogs.

If you're considering adoption but don't know what you're looking for or where to start, volunteering will give you quality time with the dogs in a non-committal situation. Plus you'll be helping them. Win win!

For many the hardest part of volunteering is the unknown. Getting started can be a daunting task, but with this guide, you will be a pro in no time!

The first thing for you to do is find a shelter in your area. It’s best to start with an organization that has its own building, as they are usually bigger and can give you more hands-on-training than a smaller, foster-based program may be able to.

1. Find Your Shelter

Start by searching local shelters on Google, or entering your zip code on Petfinder.com and Petango.com.

These searches will pull up the dogs that are up for adoption in your area, as well as the shelter where the dogs reside. From their you can check out their websites and contact them about volunteering.

Once you find the shelter you like best, it’s time to figure out how to get started.

Many shelter websites will actually have a special tab on their site with information on volunteering. This part of the site will usually list who to contact so you can get started, or it will list the times they hold volunteer orientations.

2. Orientation

Your orientation, whether one-on-one or with a group, will be a great learning experience.

Most shelters have lots of opportunities for you to help, from hands on work with the animals to cleaner options like fundraising and office duties.

While many people choose to volunteer doing hands on work with the animals, no matter what you choose you will be doing the organization a huge service!

3. Volunteer

One very important thing to keep in mind when looking for a place to volunteer is that every day won’t be full of dog kisses and touching rescue stories. Animal shelters, while amazing places, are faced with hard decisions and sad stories on a daily basis.

You may witness a dog come in whose owner has just died, a cat who has been left without food and water for weeks, or even a goat who has been hit by a car.

What you have to keep in mind when faced with these heart wrenching stories is the good that will be done for each animal—the homes that will be found for the ownerless animals, the reuniting of lost pets with tearful owners, and the healing of animals that are brought in injured.

My Own Personal Story

When I moved to Kansas City five years ago I was already a seasoned volunteer, and I missed the experiences I had left behind in my hometown of Ohio. I quickly began looking for volunteer opportunities and came across an organization called Unleashed Pet Rescue.

At the time, Unleashed was a foster based program that was pulling from super high kill shelters in the area like the Kansas City, MO and the Kansas City, KS municipal shelters.

While I didn’t learn much about the Kansas City, KS shelter at the time, I began picking the dogs I would foster from the Missouri shelter.

The first dog I picked was a dog named Olive. I found her picture on the shelter’s website and told the director of Unleashed that she was the dog I wanted. In her picture Olive was an adorable, healthy blue and white pitbull who had the cutest expression on her face. I immediately fell in love.

However, when the director went to pull Olive she was no longer the healthy dog in the picture. She was starving.

Underfunding had led the shelter to feed the dogs just enough food to keep them alive and not a kibble more. I picked up Olive the next day and she weighed only 23 pounds.

Olive was the sweetest dog you could imagine, and over the next few months I worked with her on training and got her back to a healthy weight so she could be adopted.

You may be wondering why I told you the story of Olive.

It’s because thanks to the amazing dedication of volunteers that horrible city shelter was changed.

A few months after I brought Olive home a nonprofit called Kansas City Pet Project took over the shelter, and I was one of their first employees. The early days were rough, we were still underfunded and understaffed, but there was a new energy in the building. Every employee was there for the animals and no one went home until each animal was fed, medicated, and happy.

Over the years KC Pet Project has grown exponentially. They now have two satellite locations and have added tons of lifesaving programs to the mission. However, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the help of dedicated volunteers.

Here are just some of the needs at shelters.

Dog Walkers

Just about every shelter needs dog walkers, and they can make a huge difference in the psyche of the dogs in the kennels.

When you take dogs for a walk it is important that you are not only getting the dogs exercise, but you are also giving them mental stimulation. To do this, invest in a treat pouch that can be worn around your waist and keep tasty treats inside.

My favorite to use is dehydrated meat, this is a very high value reward and you can make it yourself at home! Then spend 10-15 minutes on training the dog while you are walking him.

Some great things you can teach him are commands like “sit”, “shake”, and “down”, leash walking skills are invaluable as well.

Another great training game is to teach him to look you in the eyes. To do this look at him, and as soon as he makes eye contact say “good” and give him a treat, once he gets the hang of it you can start lengthening the amount of time he has to hold the eye contact before he gets the treat.

This will help him to bond with people, and it will teach him to think and wait patiently for treats.

Playgroup Attendants

While not all shelters have doggie playgroups, those that do need people to help walk dogs to and from the playgroups and help watch the dogs in the groups.
While walking the dogs to and from group is simple enough, if you would like to be a playgroup attendant you will likely need more specialized training that the shelter can provide.


If you are a photographer that is willing to donate your skills—every shelter needs help getting their pets exposure. A great picture can do amazing things for a shelter pet.

A super cool organization behind this activity called Hearts Speak. Check out their website at heartsspeak.org to learn more about becoming a shelter pet photographer!


There is no end to the amount of cleaning that needs to be done at an animal shelter. From scooping litter boxes to deep cleaning, no one will turn you down if you choose to help with one of these daily tasks.

Writing Biographies

If during your time as a volunteer you feel you have gotten to know a particular dog or cat well, write him or her a bio. This is a time consuming task that can have a huge impact on adoptions!

Be sure to include what the dog or cat likes and what you think their ideal home would look like. Be sure to keep the bios upbeat and focus more on the animal’s happy future than his potentially sad past.


Unfortunately, most nonprofits are operating on shoestring budgets, and every little bit helps! If you have a great idea for a fundraiser run it by someone higher up for approval and then take the reigns. Some great fundraising ideas are:


There are a ton of different auction ideas out there, start by mapping out your plan, then soliciting items to auction off. Local businesses are usually very supportive as are some chains. Don’t be afraid to ask, but be sure to be prepared with donation receipts and your plan for the auction.

Nights Out

Many restaurants and boutiques are happy to have designated nights where they donate a portion of their proceeds to the organization. It helps them by bringing in new customers and it helps the organization with much needed funding.

Supply Drives

This is a fun and exciting way for you to get the items off your shelter’s wish list. You can do a smaller scale drive by just putting a box with the wish list up at your work (be sure to get your boss’s approval beforehand), or a larger scale drive by asking a local grocery store or pet shop if you can sit outside with a booth and hand out wish lists to passers by.Be sure to point out to the store that this will help them by encouraging shoppers to buy more than they originally came for in the spirit of giving.


The sky is truly the limit on fundraising. If you can dream it up, you can make it happen and the shelter will thank you for your help!

Office Help

There is always something that needs to be done in the office of a busy shelter, some requires more training than others, but the most common are:

  • Data entry
  • Adoptions
  • Filing
  • Answering phones
  • Cleaning
  • Landscaping

If you love the outdoors there are tons of things you can do to help beautify your shelter! Plant flowers, pick up doggie droppings, mow the grass, pull weeds, rake leaves, and pick up sticks.

If you like to build things check with the staff to see if they need any benches, agility equipment, signage, or picnic tables.


If you have the time and space required to care for an additional pet or two fostering is a great way to help! Most shelters are always low on space, and taking a dog or cat home for a short or long term stay can be lifesaving.

Some of the most common foster needs are seniors, animals with medical issues, pregnant or nursing moms and babies, and orphaned babies that need to be fed with a bottle!

Volunteering can be a fun and rewarding activity! Find the shelter nearest you and look into their program. No matter where you are, the animals and the staff will thank you for your generosity!

Featured image source: Catawba Humane Society