Dogs rule

A canine lover pours passion into a volunteer role

Harriet Cuthbert. Contributed photo
Harriet Cuthbert. Contributed photo

In my relentless quest for the perfect volunteer job, I might have found success at last: I am about to start working at Sarasota County Animal Services, helping with dog walking and canine communing.

I recently “discovered” the shelter and its need for volunteers when I saw an announcement in one of the local papers. And I wondered, Where have I been all this time? What took me so long to learn about this wondrous refuge?

My first step in getting approved as a volunteer at the shelter was to apply and get vetted (no pun intended), to ensure I had no criminal background. Then Kristen, the director, gave me a personal tour of the facility. I could tell from the minute we started walking around that the shelter was very well-managed and that all the animals (cats and dogs) received premier care.

The whole area is spotless. There are many play yards in the back, so the dogs can run around, either alone or with buddies, if they are allowed to interact with other dogs. Their kennels are cleaned constantly, and food, snacks and water are always available. There is also a pond and a large wooded area behind the structure that provides plenty of shade for humans and doggies. I was very impressed and could not wait for orientation — the next step in the process of becoming a certified dog walker.

Six of us were welcomed and greeted warmly by Judy, head of orientation, and the person I call “Jill-of-all-trades.” It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and after the usual intros, we began learning the important procedures for dog walking: signing in, grabbing a vest and a leash and then checking the white board for doggie availability.

The behavior of the dogs is color-coded according to degree of difficulty — blue, yellow and red. We newbies are allowed to work only with “blue” dogs, the easiest and most agreeable of the shelter’s residents. More than 100 hours of dog walking experience is required for a volunteer to move on to the yellows and reds. An even more experienced dog handler usually supervises the more difficult canines.

In any case, the ultimate goal is for the animals to be adopted by someone who plans to keep them for the rest of the dogs’ lives — a “forever home.” That means some dogs will need more socializing than others.

When I asked about the naming process, I learned that it is complicated. Dogs who are brought in by a previous owner might keep their names, though it is possible for them to end up with new ones. Dogs who are rescued are named by the staff. I noticed that the dogs responded very well to their names; they love that extra “personalized” attention.

Continuing our orientation, we learned to attach the leash to the dog while holding his kennel gate ajar, and then to let him out and quickly begin walking him at a distance from the other kennels. Loud barking is normal. Moving our dogs away from the others is of primary importance.

Image from the Sarasota County Animal Services Facebook page
Image from the Sarasota County Animal Services Facebook page

As I mentioned before, the shady wooded area is marvelous for a nice morning stroll. Still, we were told to always keep a close watch and a tight rein, because doggie behavior is unpredictable.

I learned a new procedure called “wrapping,” which is basically winding the leash around the dog’s stomach and making a loop so one can exert more control of the canine. It is never advisable to be caught unawares during a walk. Even privately owned dogs can surprise us and pull on our shoulders, as I know from experience.

We returned from our walk, opened our kennel doors, prompted the dogs to enter their spaces and unleashed them before closing the doors. After we returned our vests and leashes, we signed out and ended our first orientation in the art of dog walking at the animal shelter.

I think this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Because Saturdays are adoption days at the shelter, Kristen persuaded me to stop by the next Saturday so I could observe the matchmaking procedures. I am so glad I went. First of all, I got to walk Victor, an absolutely adorable, energetic and happy 10-pounder. I took him out of his play yard and easily attached his leash. Off we went on my first solo dog-walking adventure. Victor led me over to the woods, into the grass, around the pond, up to the street and back to the shelter. We both loved it. And when I returned him to his play yard, a family with a 4-year-old boy was waiting to meet him.

The two little guys bonded immediately and a successful adoption resulted. Life at the shelter does not get any better than this.

The dedication, energy and passion of the volunteers in caring for the dogs are awe-inspiring, not to mention their cheerful and friendly attitude. I expect you will not catch any of them in a bad mood. They are too busy pouring out love.