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Volunteering Through the Eyes and Ears of a Dedicated Dog Volunteer

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By Mikey

Photo of Dog

I am a 13-pound Shih Tzu with long silky black and white fur. I am very, very friendly and I enjoy people and like to make them happy. My pet person is married to a nationally known trainer. He and I have helped with view graphs, talks and books on how to manage volunteers, so we knew what to look for as we headed out to volunteer. I am the one writing about our experiences while sitting on my person's lap to protect both the guilty and the innocent. See what you think of the things that happened to us.

Getting Started, Sort Of

Our volunteer adventures began a few months after my pet person retired. My person and I decided that we would like to visit the elderly and sick, particularly Alzheimer's patients, so I could play with them and bring a little cheer into their day. At the same time my person decided to help out at the Science Education Center 1 in the area. Since he is a Ph.D. scientist, he thought that his skills could be useful teaching science to children and the public. That has proven more frustrating than our experiences together, but more on that later.

Since they have a program for dogs to visit the sick and elderly we applied to the local Dogs and Cats Helping People Society 1 in August 2001. In December, after filing a second application in November, we still had not received a reply of any type. My pet person's wife, the trainer, took me to have my picture taken with Santa for Christmas. While there she saw someone from the Dogs and Cats Helping People Society and asked if anyone was reading applications for volunteers. Well, the person who was assigned to do that job was moving and they had not assigned anyone else. In fact, no one was answering requests to volunteer, but we were assured that they would get back to us.

In January a very nice lady called and said that I had to have a current check up, shots, etc., and then give the Dogs and Cats Helping People Society a fecal sample. I wasn't very cooperative with that, but I finally performed. They only process fecal samples one day a week and a sample has to be processed within 24 hours to be valid. They lost mine.

So the next week we went through the same challenging process again. Again I was not very cooperative but I did give a sample on Wednesday. The Dogs and Cats Helping People Society received two samples that day. They only tested one. Unfortunately, they forgot to label which sample was which and decided that the sample they tested was the other dog, because he had been in the program longer.

So.the third week we went through the same thing again! But this time it worked. Now my pet person is scheduled for an orientation session. The time and place is set for an evening at a local restaurant. He goes. The restaurant is closed, permanently I think. He wanders over to the Dogs and Cats Helping People Society office with the other prospective volunteers who show up. There is a lady there. She doesn't know anything about orientation, but we can play with the cats if we want.

My person goes home.

His wife, the trainer, asks: "What are their policies?"

He answers: "I don't know."

She: "Are they a no-kill agency?"

He: "I don't know."

She: "Did they ask you for any identification or fingerprints?"

He: "No."

She: "Did they ask about any criminal record or are they going to do a background check before you work with the elderly?"

He: "No."

What my person learned was this: Since the Society needs office workers, you are not allowed to help with pet adoptions unless you are willing to work in the office at least one half day per week. He never did get any real orientation from the overall society.

Things Get Better

In January, I finally started visiting patients and I love it. While the Society never did get around to giving an orientation, the people who helped us get started in the dog visitation program were wonderful. They and their dogs went with us on my first visit to see if I was going to be a good boy in the hospital and qualify for the program. Then they constantly gave us tips and had meetings with other people and dogs in the dog visitation part of the Society program. Now I spend one hour every Tuesday with Alzheimer's patients in a group setting and then I go to the long-term recovery ward where I visit patients for another half-hour. I walk very fast into the hospital because I am anxious to see my friends and I walk very slowly out because I am sad to leave them. On Christmas, I dressed up in a little Santa costume and brought all of them candy canes.

Fortunately some of the people on the board of the Dogs and Cats Helping People Society saw the same problems that my pet person and I experienced. The organization was originally an all-volunteer organization with the same small group of people sitting on the board, running the programs and exchanging offices every year. The group was trying to raise $2,000,000 to build a new building and greatly expand services in our area. They had already raised $700,000 but there was little accounting of what money came from where and if any of it had any restrictions on its use.

The new president hired some consultants to evaluate the organization, its mission and propose a new outline of a plan. SURPRISE!! The consultants said that the organization should at least have a paid executive director. The board should be a governing board making policy and not directly running the programs. There should be a new set of by-laws making this a board-managed organization instead of a "membership" (anybody that pays dues or has ever paid dues) organization. The most surprising finding was that there was no need for expanded services in our geographical area.

We have gone through most of the transition and it has been painful with programs changing and some people leaving the organization, but it has been worth it. Before the change the same people directed the programs, were part of the board, and exchanged offices each year. Now the board directs the organization and other people direct the programs. This has required a lot more volunteers to get involved in managing the organization. Some programs have disappeared because they were "somebody's baby" and that person either wanted to be on the board or left the organization because of all the changes.

The director of our program now has time for a lot more training and has quarterly meetings where five dogs come and tell what they do and what they would like to do next. We also go to the volunteer orientation meetings to help people know what the programs are like. Sometimes the prospective volunteers cry when they hear some of the stories my pet person tells about my visits. One lady with Alzheimer's was very, very sad and would not tell the doctors why. When I sat on her lap she told me why she was so sad and upset. She was reliving her time in a concentration camp. She told me about her experiences while she was there. The doctor came to listen so he could help her. Now they sometimes take notes about what people tell me when I am sitting on their lap.

I still visit patients every week and there are now over 50 dogs visiting the sick and elderly. The supervision and training is much better that it was and there is a real orientation now. A wonderful "Paws to Read" 2 program has been added, too, and so my pet person and I are doing even more volunteering.

My person and I and some of my dog friends and their pet people go to the public library and let first through fourth graders who are having reading problems read to us. Thirteen dogs go into the common room. We each stay on our pad and a child comes to read to us for a half hour. We do not judge and we do not correct. We just enjoy and let them play with us while they read. We take a short break and then another child comes to read to us for another half hour. Because the children are beginning to enjoy reading, the school system says that there is a marked improvement in their reading scores because of this program. It is nice to know that we are really making a difference!

My Pet Person Goes It Alone

My pet person told me a little bit about his experiences trying to volunteer at the Science Education Center . Filling out the application was easy. Since the person that he talked to was a professional volunteer manager he decided to use Marlene Wilson 3 as one of his references. Unfortunately the volunteer manager did not know Marlene, had never been to any national volunteerism conference and, in fact, did not know that any existed.

Then came the orientation (or maybe it was training because he had permission to work exhibits as soon as it was over). They could not seem to find a time to hold it. Then they could only hold it when most people could not come. Finally one was held in the evening and my pet person went to the training. The volunteer manager was not there but the speaker, in all seriousness, gave vital instructions such as: don't tell people in wheel chairs to take the stairs, don't spank or hit visiting children, and if people call on the telephone for directions to the Center, don't tell them that these can only be found on the Web site. These instructions were given to the volunteers in writing so they would not forget. There was nothing said about the exhibits, or how to do the volunteers' jobs. My person was told that the experienced volunteers would take care of that when he started work.

There was to be a second training session but it never happened and he was told to just read the manual (ten pages in a really big notebook). About three months after he started volunteering they finally got around to checking references.

He started work - sort of. The shift he was given on Wednesday afternoon did not have any visitors after 1:30 p.m. when the school children left. From 1:30 to 5 p.m. he and the other volunteers talked, played video games and twiddled their fingers.

He asked to be change to a morning shift in hopes of finding a more meaningful job. He changed to Thursday morning when a lot of school children came though - in large noisy groups. Now it was different. There was either nobody or there were 50 junior high kids in a small dark room (frequently without their teacher, who had gone for a cup of coffee or snack). Needless to say there was very little teaching of science or feeling that you were making a difference. Frequently there would be two or three people assigned to the same spot with nothing much to do.

Special events were the worst. Ph.D.'s in science were assigned to the coat room or serving food while high school students would handle science exhibits.

The only time that they have crowds at the Center is on holiday weekends or special events (viewing of Mars has been big recently). There are very few people there during the week except for school field trips. Of course most of the staff is off on weekends and holidays so interaction with the public is done mostly by volunteers when there is a big crowd. On weekdays, when the staff is present, the revenue is low because there is almost no one that visits the center except school groups and they get in for a very reduced fee. So most of the cost to run the facility is incurred when little of the revenue is generated, while when paying crowds arrive, most of the interaction is done by volunteers, not paid staff.

There have been three reductions in staff of about 30% each over the past 15 months. With volunteers filling the gap, particularly during weekends and holidays, the staff/ volunteer relationship is not wonderful.

My person decided to take the summer off because he is very busy and last summer there were so many high school and college summer volunteers there were usually more volunteers than customers. Now that summer is over, he has just been notified that the volunteer manager position has been eliminated and her duties will be spread over a number of remaining staff, some of whom see well-trained volunteers as a threat. My pet person wonders how the volunteer environment will be after this last 30% staff reduction with no reduction in hours for the center.

My pet person has a Ph.D. in physics and is very interested in helping excite young people about science, but he has given up and will not go back to the Science Education Center .

What I've Learned

The moral of my little story – every word is true – is that it sometimes takes a lot of patience and persistence to become a volunteer. Once you are one, some organizations pay very little attention to making sure that you are having a good experience while others make sure that you really feel fulfilled with your experience.

I am just a dog but these are a few of my observations/ recommendations from my experiences as a volunteer:

  • If you are having trouble getting new volunteers you might ask a few of your newer volunteers how difficult it was to "break into" your organization. Is finding and filling out the paperwork, going to orientation, etc. and integrating into the social structure of your organization the hardest job they will have to do as a volunteer?
  • Do you really want volunteers? Will you take them seriously? Do you expect to give them any orientation or are you just having meetings because someone said that you were suppose to have them?
  • Are you prepared to give volunteers jobs that they will find meaningful so they feel that their time and talents are being recognized, or do you just want to fill a slot with whoever shows up at the door?
  • Once you become a volunteer you have to be prepared for the organization to change around you. Both the Dogs and Cats Helping People Society and the Science Education Center are very different organizations today from the ones that we joined a year and a half ago. As a volunteer you have to continually ask yourself if the changes are ones that you like or if you should re-evaluate your commitment to the organization. Some volunteers will attempt to become agents of change but most will "vote with their feet."

One of the organizations that my pet person works with is on the right track. They are getting organized. Although they have a small budget they have hired a professional director, have a good board, have instituted good fiscal policies and now have good, meaty orientation meetings. More importantly my pet person and I both feel that we are really making a difference with visiting the sick and elderly, and in helping young students with reading problems. The organization is not very wealthy but it is providing a wide range of needed services, has a large and dedicated group of volunteers (including 50 dogs, it was only 45 when I first wrote this article but it is growing very fast), and is always getting good publicity.

The other organization seems to be going down hill. What they do have is an $80M facility built with government money and support of the school and city budgets. They have a new director but the staff is about one third of what it was and they have very few visitors. The volunteers and volunteer manager are leaving and no one feels that it matters. The new director has announced that the Center is in serious financial difficulty and her first priority is the see that it survives. Personally I doubt if the Science Education center will survive, and since very few people come, I don't think it matters. Clearly having a facility and government money has not overcome a flawed model for the organization.

I think that the trainers and professional volunteer program managers still have a lot of work to do to train organizations in how to effectively incorporate volunteers into their program.

Special thanks to my Pet Person and co-author, Charles Stallings.



1 The names of organizations have been changed to protect the privacy of the organizations.

2 This is the real name of the project, provided to give some positive recognition.

3 Marlene Wilson is a famous American volunteerism pioneer whose name ought to be recognized by most volunteer program managers.


My pet person and I were just included in a very nice local television news story about the Paws to Read program. Click here to see the video -- keep an eye out for both of us! abclocal.go.com/kgo/news/salutes/