Do you have an hour or an afternoon to spare? Consider volunteering at the shelter. Volunteer orientation is quick and easy. Once you know the ropes, you can show up anytime the shelter is open, grab a key, and take some dogs out for much-needed time in the yard.

Volunteer Facebook group

Once you are a volunteer in Alachua County, you can join the Volunteer Facebook Group at Animal Services. This group is a wonderful place to gain information about individual dogs, including which dogs are easier to handle and which dogs need extra help.

You can even make a post inquiring as to which dog would be a good fit for your first time out. This group is also a good place to touch base with staff members about when you are coming and which dog you’d like to take out.

Most shelters have social media groups or mailing lists. If yours doesn’t, see if this is something that you can help start. 

Getting started at the shelter

Whether you have checked the Facebook group or not, if you are unsure about where to get started at the shelter, ask a staff member or another volunteer which dogs would be a good place to start.

Every dog at the shelter wants to get out, and some are easier to handle than others. Staff and other volunteers can help you choose a dog who will make your transition into volunteering fun and easy and help you take dogs out if you are nervous getting started. 

Taking Dogs Out

There are usually around 100 dogs at Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS) at any given time. In order to make sure that each dog gets out as often as possible, there must be a method for keeping track of who has gotten out recently.

At ACAS, a whiteboard keeps track of which dogs have gone out when. Your shelter may have another system. You’ll quickly see that most dogs don’t get out for days or even a week or more at a time. This is why it is so essential for volunteers to let dogs out for supervised yard time. Once you’re comfortable choosing your own dogs, you can consult the whiteboard to see who needs to go out the most.

Getting dogs out of the kennel

You can get a key at the front desk and open kennels to let dogs out yourself. Notecards on the kennel indicate whether dogs need to be exercise-restricted because of surgery or have behavioral concerns. Watch another volunteer or staff member take dogs out several times in order to build confidence if you need to. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you are worried about taking a dog out yourself. The front desk can call a staff member or volunteer to help you. 

Opening the kennel

Everyone has their own technique for opening the kennel. In general, the goal is to open the door far enough to get your hand with the slip lead inside, but not so far that the dog can push through and past you. A tried-and-true method is to use one foot to hold the kennel door as you open it just far enough to get your hand in. This way if the dog pushes against the door your foot will hold it in place. 

It may take some time to slip the lead over the dog’s head. Many dogs have a tendency to get a foot in the noose or get it caught in their mouth. Be patient and take it off and try again if you need to. As long as you keep your foot in place and don’t open the door more than about three or four inches, the dog won’t be able to squeeze past you. 

Once you have the slip lead around the dog’s neck, pull it tight and be sure it is behind the ears and jaw. Put the handle around your wrist and hold the lead firmly as you open the door. Most dogs have a tendency to explode out of the kennel in their excitement. The more slack they have, the harder they will hit the end. 

You will let a dog loose

Accept at the beginning that there’s a good chance you may accidentally let a dog loose. The shelter is set up so that no dog can get out of the facility from the kennel. It is certainly not ideal to have dogs running loose through the shelter, but the fact is that dogs are quick and clever and it happens. Whatever facility you’re at, know where dogs can and cannot run and make sure important doors are closed when you’re taking dogs out.

If (when) you lose a dog

If a dog gets away from you, calmly follow it, don’t run, while calling and crouching down. If the dog seems determined to get away from you, go to the front desk and let them know. If you see anyone along the way call out to them that there is a loose dog. 

Generally, you will be able to corner the dog within several seconds of having lost it. Most dogs are willing to be caught as soon as they find themselves in a corner.

Barrier aggression

Barrier aggression is the tendency of dogs to show guarding behavior or aggression at doorways, gates, and other barriers. It is extremely common in domestic dogs in general, and it is even more likely in dogs who are kept in close proximity to other dogs with strangers frequently walking past their kennels. 

Dogs may seem downright vicious at the gate, but be very sweet once you take them out. Never feel pressured to take out a dog you are uncomfortable handling. If you want to interact with a dog who is displaying barrier aggression and you don’t feel comfortable opening the gate, ask a more experienced volunteer or staff member to help you.

**TIP** Try jiggling the lock on the kennel. Many dogs stop displaying barrier aggression as soon as they believe you are about to open the door. It can be almost comical watching the transformation as dogs go from seemingly aggressive to friendly in an instant.

Walking to the yard

Dogs react very differently from one another to the walk to the yard. Some dogs are friendly and curious with dogs in other kennels, some react fearfully, and others may be reactive. 

Regardless of how the dog responds, it is best not to let dogs interact through the kennel door. Think of the kennel as the dog’s personal space. Having another dog thrust its nose into that space is rude even if dogs are trying to be friendly. Keep the dog moving and don’t allow nose to nose interactions if you can help it.

In the yard

There are six yards of varying sizes for dogs to play in at Alachua County Animal Services. Your shelter may have more or fewer. Some shelters have outdoor and indoor playpens. Several yards are usually equipped with toy bins and kiddie pools. Every yard should have a trash bin, poop bags, and a water bowl. If you find that the yard you’re in doesn’t have what you need, ask a staff member where to find the equipment that is missing.

The dogs

Most of the time, dogs spend the first several minutes of their time in the yard just sniffing around and stretching their legs after the confinement of the kennel. After that, some dogs are boisterously playful. It is a good idea to have a rope toy on hand to distract dogs who want to play with you.

Most dogs want to play energetically by themselves or explore before engaging with you. Once they do engage, they can often be quite playful or cuddly and needy. Be attentive to what the dog needs, but don’t be afraid to make loud noises to distract dogs who are jumping on you excessively or performing other behavior that is invasive to your personal space. Usually, a loud sound will deter dogs so that you can redirect them into playing with a toy.

When you’re done

When you’re done playing with dogs in the yard, it is very helpful to other volunteers and kennel staff if you pick up dirty toys and put them in the dirty toy basket and pick up any poop that may be in the play yard. Remember to mark off the dogs that you have taken out on the whiteboard. You can update the volunteer booth, the front desk, or the social media page with notes about dogs that you have played with.