Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 1
Having talked about training in various and sundry forms for a lot of weeks now (people still think of me as a nutrition guy), I actually sort of wanted to either do a research review or talk about fat loss or something (you know, gotta move that product) today. But it’s the end of the season and I’m weird about cycles and I want to wrap up this weird year (I run on a sports calendar) with a series of posts that you probably never would have expected to see coming from me. But tough, here it is.
Because, among other things, this series of articles are going to be almost universally positive, something that is rather rare for me. Most people think of me as nothing but a misanthropic asshole who dislikes everybody and everything (that’s untrue by the way, I simply dislike 97% of everybody and everything) and in certain contexts there is certainly some truth to that.
But it’s not universally true, I just tend to operate at two extremes. When I hate, I hate with all my heart; but when I like or love I do it with all my heart too. There’s often no middle ground. And what I’m going to write about today is something that I’m on the extreme end of ‘This is important and good and something I want to tell people about.’ This topic is extremely important to me both for general and personal reasons as you’re going to find out.
And with that tediously vague introduction out of the way, today I want to talk about my experience at the Austin Humane Shelter this summer; an experience which I referred to recently as my doggy therapy since it’s a big part of what helped pull me out of my depression. This is actually going to be five parts which I’ll run this week to get through it.
In Parts 1 and 2 I want to focus on the shelter itself, what they do and why it’s such important work. In Parts 3-5 I’m going to focus on how the Austin Humane Shelter affected me personally. And in Part 5 I’m going to try to make you cry your eyes out. Make no mistake, I may make you cry before that but it’s on in Part 5 and you’ve been warned.
And make no mistake you will cry. And you’ll thank me for making you do it.
Join Us…..Joiiiiiiin Ussssss
Now there is a bit of a tendency for people who get involved in various volunteer activities to become somewhat of born-again advocates for their favorite cause. Hell, at the two volunteer projects I work with, they ask us to try to recruit new people. It’s a bit like a cult mentality without the Kool Aid or promiscuity.
Of course, usually people who do certain volunteer works do it because they believe in the cause (either in the abstract of helping those of lesser fortune or the specific cause) and that’s a great reason to do it and get others to help too. Most volunteer organizations are underfunded and overworked and rely on volunteers to get everything done. More people willing to give even a little bit of time are better.
But I’m actually not coming at it from that angle per se, a point I’ll come back to in Parts 3, 4 and 5. Certainly I love dogs and think that what the Austin Humane Shelter (one of many animal shelter organizations in the Austin area) does is good and important work. But that’s not why I’m writing this piece per se. I’ll let others be general advocates.
The Austin Humane Shelter has much more relevance to me than that, as I imagine it does to many people who are involved with it. But I’m not going to talk about that until later. So first I do want to be a general advocate and thump on about how awesome the Austin Humane Shelter is.
The Austin Humane Shelter (AHS)
The Austin Humane Shelter is located in a smallish building underneath the big freeway overpass in Austin at the intersection of 183N Frontage and Lamar blvd. It’s a moderate sized building clean and not in the nicest area of town. There’s lot of parking but it’s easy to miss if you don’t know where it is; we have access to a field which the church behind us generously lets us use for walking the dogs. I can’t seem to find a picture of it but it’s just a building so no loss. Here’s a picture of Pierre instead.
As a humane shelter, clearly the goal is to bring in needy dogs and treat them humanely with an ultimate goal of finding them a permanent home to live in. As far as I can tell, if there’s space, the AHS doesn’t turn any animal away (unless there is some real problem). I’ve never seen the kennels full and don’t know what would happen if they were; but all animals are at least taken initially I believe.
Dogs come in for all kinds of reasons: sometimes folks simply can’t care for the dog anymore and bring them in, some simply tie their dogs up outside and walk away, strays are often brought in. But there’s never a shortage of dogs that need adopting. All new animals go through a rigorous intake procedure including medical and behavioral tests before they are even moved to the main kennel to be up for adoption. Until that point they stay in pre-adopt.
The Austin Humane Shelter is actually a no-kill shelter although that, realistically, means, that they try to keep animal killings to 10% or less. Certainly some animals simply aren’t adoptable, for whatever reasons; and they aren’t trainable. And they have to be put down. But that’s always the last resort at the shelter.
As well, in lieu of massive behavioral problems that can’t be fixed, animals stay at the shelter as long as needed until they get adopted. They don’t get put down for being there too long EVER. Some dogs stay a few days, some weeks, some stay months if they need to. Time is never the reason for them to be sent away.
As well, the Austin Humane Shelter doesn’t single out breeds for putting down. If a dog is put down, it’s because it has intractable behavioral problems; not because of the kind of dog it is. Advocates for some of the ‘bully breeds’ know what I’m talking about and so help me god if someone tries to start any bullshit about pitbulls in the comments, there’s going to be hell to pay.
While I’m on that topic, I want to point everyone to a 5 minute video that is truly worth watching. It’s a short piece on how dogs help war veterans cope with their PTSD; the vets help the dogs and the dogs help the vets. It may give you a different perspective on pitbulls if you watch it with an open mind. I can’t embed it unfortunately but click the link and then come back to this article. You won’t regret it.
The Austin Humane Shelter is staffed by a lot of very motivated, very conscientious dog and cat lovers who, I’m quite sure, wish they could save every animal on the planet. But since they can’t they do the best they can and save as many as they can and work to find them good homes.
On top of getting them off the street and giving them humane treatment and a temporary home and food and stuff, the ultimate goal is to get the animals adopted and into good homes with the right people (I’ll tell you about the adoption program below) so everyone wins at the end of the day. I don’t actually interact much with the staff although they are always friendly when you run into them.
Animals Get Sick Too
The shelter has a full vet clinic in-house that is constantly busy with the animals. Spaying and neutering goes on for both dogs and cats and animals go into surgery for other reasons. I haven’t had much interaction with the vets although I could get qualified to help out in the clinic. It’s bizarre seeing a dog laid out on it’s back with a tube down it’s throat getting surgery when I walk past the window. The vets do good work.
Of course, they can’t do everything. Some dogs need more medical attention than the shelter can afford or take care of. One dog needed thousands of dollars of dental work for example and the shelter held a fundraiser to try to get the money. Another, Rosler, came up lame and needed his front leg amputated something the shelter clinic just isn’t set up to handle. Local Austin vets often will do these types of operations pro-bono or at massive discount; and kudos to them for doing it because the shelter couldn’t afford it otherwise.
Here’s Rosler, looking happy as hell. He adapted to the loss almost instantly; unlike us ‘smart’ humans, dogs don’t have time to wallow in their self-pity. It’s adapt or die for them. Rosler got adopted a couple of weeks ago and has a home now, just so you don’t worry.
All dogs are given shots (and people who adopt get a free month of insurance and a free checkup at a local animal hospital as part of the package) and either spayed or neutered before being eligible adoption to help with the pet overpopulation problem. The local colleges intern some of their vets here, I’ve seen them doing classes in the auditorium. They get hands-on training and the animals get attention that the shelter couldn’t otherwise afford. I’m sure there’s tons of stuff going on at the shelter that I simply haven’t seen. But on and on it goes and the Austin Humane Shelter works tirelessly to do what they can for the dogs and cats.
The Adoption Program
As you’d imagine, the adoption program itself is excellent and organized. You can’t just show up and pick out a dog and take them home (it’s not a pet store). There’s a process. First you look in the kennels; if you see a dog you like you go fill out an application. And you have to do that before you play with or hold the dog; we often have to gently ask people to go fill out an application since they tend to just open the cage and grab the dog they like. But the application comes first.
Then you talk to an adoption counselor who makes sure the dog is the right fit for you (every dog has paperwork with behavioral stuff). A high-energy dog isn’t right for an older person. Some dogs don’t do well with other animals or children. Some dogs need to be exercised more than others, if you can’t do it; they aren’t the right dog for you. Not every dog is right for every household no matter how much you want it to be.
If that goes well, then and only then do you get to hang out with the dog in the viewing room or go to the field with a volunteer to interact with them. If you have a pet already, you set up a dog introduction where you bring your pet to the shelter and they are introduced to the dog you’re looking at in a controlled environment to make sure they get along. If they don’t too bad; you have to find another dog and do it all over again.
And only after all of that has been done can you actually adopt the dog. If the dog hasn’t been fixed, you have to wait. If you’re not sure about it, you can put a 24 hour hold on the dog and nobody else can take it until you make up your mind. Adoption fees are reasonable (at the Austin Humane Shelter it’s $85 for adult dogs and $100 for puppies, the shelter often runs specials; one weekend it was only $35 for adult dogs). You get a lot of perks when you adopt and it’s a bargain at twice the price so go adopt two.
I think you get the idea. The goal is to put the dogs in the right home so that everyone wins. Sadly, sometimes dogs come back. They act differently in their home than at the shelter or the person ended up with the wrong dog or whatever and the dog gets returned. The Austin Humane Shelter hates to see it but it does happen. But better they come back quickly and get put in the right home for them than stay somewhere they can’t be truly happy.
I’d say the shelter has all its ducks in a row but they don’t do ducks.
The Volunteer Program
In addition to the core staffers who work hard to keep the shelter running and find the animals homes, there is a huge, well run volunteer organization which is almost a more important part of the shelter’s operations (I may be projecting a bit). The program really is excellent and the goal is to ensure that the dogs are not only taken care of as well as possible but are treated and trained consistently. And that’s why I’m going to gush a bit.
The volunteers spend the bulk of the time with the dogs and make sure they get walked and pottied and stuff; it’s their job to train the dogs to help them get adopted and keep tabs of things (e.g. I noticed when Rosler was lame and we made sure the clinic knew about it). Without the volunteer program, the shelter simply couldn’t do what it does because the staff doesn’t have time to do the grunt work that needs to be done.
But the way things are set up, volunteers vary day to day and hour to hour (or shift to shift). Who is walking the dogs one day may not be walking them the next. And like athletes getting different feedback from different coaches, dogs don’t respond well to varying training; they get confused and stressed. So we are all trained to handle the dogs the same way; it’s the only way the dogs take to the training.
And the program really is excellent on so many levels. In the 3 months I’ve been there, I’ve already learned a staggering amount and I intend to learn more by taking more and more classes. I’m effectively being taught how to train dogs and am doing it for free (my time and attention being my only investment and I’ve got both in spades right now). Classes for further qualifications are offered for free and given by higher level volunteers who come on their own time for no pay to teach us and make sure we all know what we’re doing and handle the dogs the same way.
Now, there are a lot of different routes you can go in the shelter. You can help out with adoptions per se, do general housekeeping (keeping the shelter clean, doing the endless laundry and toy cleaning), work with the cats and there are tons of other opportunities that you can look into depending on what you’re interested in. I was there to walk dogs and that’s the program I’m going to talk about.
What a BRATT!
Apparently back in the 80′s, the shelter went through a big acronym phase and the dog walking volunteers are referred to as BRATTs (Behavior Re-homing Assessment Training Team); it’s what I do and that’s what I’m going to mainly talk about. In that program, everyone starts with basic green dog walking (this will make sense tomorrow) with a handful of other simple tasks and that’s all you do or can do at first. But you can become eligible for other classes over time if you’re so inclined. You simply have to show up consistently (to show that you’re serious), get enough hours and then sign up through the website.
Usually, with the exception of field walking (a simple one hour class, which lets you take the dogs to the field rather than just to the runs), the higher level training stuff is where the line in the sand is drawn. The realities of programs like this is that a lot of volunteers come in a few times and never come back, some come in sporadically but have no interest in working with anything but the easiest of the dogs and are never going to bother taking the higher level classes. Some don’t even bother with field walking.
Please don’t misread me here; I’m not downplaying their importance or contributions or saying what they do is better nor worse than what anyone else does. At least they are at the shelter which is more than you can say for most people who can’t even cut away from updating their Facebook status to come in for 2 hours/week.
But they just don’t have the time nor inclination to do more. Regardless they are still crucial to the shelter and the dogs. Every hour someone is walking the dogs, any dogs, is a good hour. Even as a green BRATT, when I’d come in, a higher level volunteer ALWAYS thanked me for coming in even if I was only there for an hour. So don’t read my comments about some folks never taking the higher level classes as criticism. They are there, they are helping doing what they are willing to do on a consistent basis; that’s more than most do and it’s more than enough.
You Are Here to Learn the Art of Dog Handling
But some of the folks who get involved, like myself, really get into it. We are the ones who pursue the higher level classes out of a desire to do it and will probably be involved for life with the shelter for whatever personal reasons of our own (you’ll find out about mine in Parts 3-5). But it’s only a tiny percentage of the initial Green BRATTs who will ever pursue any of the higher classes.
When I took the field walking class, there were 8 people there, that’s of the dozens and dozens of potentials (we had 30 at my orientation alone and I know that more than that at least sign up judging by the number of name tags I see). So a tiny percentage even bother with the simplest next level class up. And that’s not even getting into the serious stuff.
They told us that we were the ‘cream of the crop, the best of the best’ because we were the ones who would be staying around long-term and working with the higher level dogs. And they thanked us for doing it. I was going to be Maverick and make a fly by on the tower to a Kenny Loggins song. Here’s 4 Paw General Sid to tell me no.
Because the dogs never stop coming and there’s never enough volunteers all the time, especially for the higher level dogs. There are always way too many green BRATTs for the number of dogs; and too few higher level BRATTs for the dogs who need more work and attention. They need motivated consistent people willing to learn how to and then work with the higher color level dogs and it has to be done day-in day-out no matter what. And to understand what that means, I have to explain how the dogs are classified.