Surviving the Shelter...as a Human
I've been working full time at the shelter for six months now. In my years as a dog trainer I really thought that I was completely in touch with the shelter world. I've fostered dogs. I've helped to re-home client dogs. I've re-homed a couple of my own dogs. I've always understood that the puppies in my classes might not live with their current families forever and it was my job to do everything I could to ensure that they would. I counseled many a client who was ready to make that trip to the county shelter. And of course I had lots of connections with colleagues working in a shelter or rescue who were constantly sending me info about homeless pets.
All of that was not enough to prepare me for the everyday, constant barrage of animal relinquishment, face to face in real life. The stream of confused animals, heartbreaking reasons for relinquishment and transparent excuses just doesn't stop. I was warned about all this, but you just can't fully understand the weight of it until you're in it.
I knew after a couple of months that I'd better put a plan in place to keep my sanity, not to mention my humanity. It's so easy to become hateful toward people when you are repeatedly in the position to pick up the pieces that they've left on your doorstep. It's a quick hop to the conclusion that the entire situation is hopeless. I don't do well with hopelessness!
So, the first thing I had to do is to is to look at things from the dogs' perspective. Yes, there are dogs who are terrified and confused. But there are even more dogs who are no more stressed than a well-loved dog being dropped off at a boarding facility. They don't know that their owner just left them forever. They have no idea what has happened or what will happen.
In fact, for many of the dogs this new environment is exponentially better than where they came from! Suddenly their health issues are being addressed, people are talking to them sweetly, they're getting regular meals in stuffed Kongs (we're an Open Paw shelter) and they have their own bed with cozy blankets. Sometimes I think, "Thank goodness their owner brought them in! That is the best thing they ever did for this dog."
I deal with my sadness and frustration over the dogs who are terrified, due to a lack of socialization, by helping them. Sometimes action is simply the only way out of overwhelming emotion. I remind myself that while the situation is upsetting and was preventable, I am here now and able to make a difference.
The second thing I had to do is to deal with the inevitable anger toward people. When the majority of the people you see in a work day are those who are giving up their dogs after failing to socialize, train or even feed them, it's easy to become angry. When I wasn't angry, I was sad. There's a lot of financial hardship going around these days and pets are paying the price in many instances.
I've had to make a special effort to connect with and be around really great dog owners with really great dogs. I've had to remind myself that there are lots of happy, healthy dogs who will be in their homes until the day they die. I've had to continue with my private training practice outside the shelter in order to be reminded that most dog owners highly value their relationship with their canine companion.
I've also had to find at least a tiny bit of compassion for those dog owners who just are not great. Some of the people who relinquish, neglect or even abuse animals have very serious issues of their own and a very sad history that has led them to where they are. Some of them have problems so big that the care of or relationship with an animal is the very, very least of things.
I think it's imperative to protect that compassion for my own species if I am going to be successful in making the world a better place for other animals. Compassion and empathy are cornerstones to education. If I stop trying to understand people I will become ineffective as an educator. If I can't educate humans, the dogs don't have a chance.