About Amy: Amy Burkert runs the award-winning pet travel website, GoPetFriendly.com, which makes it easy for you to plan trips with your entire family- including your pets. Amy’s blog, Take Paws, is an encyclopedia of pet travel tips, pet friendly destination advice, and stories of the adventures she and her husband share while traveling full-time in their Winnebago with their dogs, Ty and Buster.
Once a month, wherever in her travels her family may be, Amy spends a day volunteering at an animal shelter. She has dubbed this part of her adventure, “Take Paws to Volunteer”. She goes with helping hands and gifts from sponsors. By day’s end she comes away with a of wealth of wisdom about what contributes to the well-being of resident animals and best practices for helping animals get adopted.
In our interview, Amy shares about her experiences and what she has learned.
Tell us what inspired you to begin “Take Paws to Volunteer”?
The reason for starting the Take Paws to Volunteer program is pretty simple – I missed helping out at my local shelter! When Rod and I started traveling full-time in our motorhome five years ago, I found it difficult to meet the time commitment that most shelters ask of new volunteers, because we moved around a lot. Eventually I stopped pursuing it, and instead focused on writing my blog and building my social media audience. Last year I realized how deeply I missed volunteering, and it occurred to me that I could leverage the blog traffic and social media platforms I’d built to help the shelters. It’s been a win-win situation every since!
Why is it important for you to volunteer at different shelters while you’re on the road?
There’s really nothing like the feeling you get from volunteering. I’ve been lucky enough to see animals I spent time with in the morning, go home with their new families in the afternoon. Just being there to experience that joy – you can’t help but be affected by that. And I think it’s a little bit addictive. I also have a soft spot for dogs who are shy or fearful, because both of my dogs are that way. Shelter staff and volunteers work hard to bring these dogs out of their shells, but it can be a slow process. Sometimes I’m the new face that can spend the time it takes to go slow, let the dog come to me, and learn that strangers aren’t so scary – in fact, they may come bearing treats! The hour I spend could be the last little boost a dog needs to approach a potential adopter, make a connection, and find a forever home. Whatever I can do to brighten an animal’s day while they’re waiting for the perfect family to find them is well worth my time.
How does Paws to Volunteer benefit shelter animals?
The shelters get my time for the day – and I’m happy to help out with whatever tasks are most helpful. I also post pictures of the animals I spend time with on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, to help give them some extra exposure in hopes a potential adopter might see them. Finally, I publish a blog post about my visit to the shelter, highlighting the unique aspects of what they do, and list creative ways that people can help. It gives the shelter a nice look at their operation from an third party’s perspective.
How has this experience affected you personally?
This has been an even better experience than I imagined when it started. Not only have I gotten to spend time with some wonderful animals and give back to the communities we’ve visited over the past year, I’ve met some outstanding people! The staff and volunteers who work in animal shelters and rescues every day are a special breed. They’re generous, compassionate, thoughtful, and friendly. Just being around them helps foster those traits in me, and I’m a better person for it! People thank me for coming to volunteer, and I don’t think they realize how much they’re doing for me, just by allowing me to be there.
What have you noticed has the most positive impact on quality of life for animals while they are in the shelter?
There are three things that have really struck me in how much they affect the quality of life for the animals. The first is organization. My most recent visit was to the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA in Phoenix, Arizona. They have a system of tracking the animals that knocked my socks off! They keep notes on each animal – from when they were last walked, to training needs, to health issues, like they’ve been sneezing – and keep it all on a centrally located white board where all the staff and volunteers can see it. Everyone is encouraged to write their observations on the board, and any animal with a note has an indication on their kennel, so people can check the notes and watch for any changes in the animal. It’s a spectacular way to communicate across the wide variety of people interacting with the animals.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that the more volunteers a shelter has, the better it is for the animals. Having a wide variety of people means everyone has the opportunity to focus on doing the things they like. The Animals Rescue League of Iowa (http://gopetfriendlyblog.com/take-paws-to-volunteer-animal-rescue-league-of-iowa/) is a great example. A local group of runners started volunteering at the shelter – they come in and take some of the high-energy pups along on their morning jog. There are people who love connecting with people – so they work in the lobby as greeters. Other volunteers staff the on-site gift shop. There really is something enjoyable for everyone who wants help out.
What are some of the best practices you’ve seen for promoting adoption?
The most powerful thing I’ve seen to promote adoptions is getting great intake photographs. I had the opportunity to join the photography team at The SPCA for Monterey County and learned how they slashed the amount of time the animals spent in the shelter by taking “glamor shots” rather than “intake photos.” Many people start their search for an adoptable pet online, so making sure the animals look their best in their photos is a good way to help them get adopted more quickly. A month later I was lucky enough to help teach the philosophy at the Hesperia, California Animal Shelter.
The other thing I’d say is that being creative in your promotions can make a huge difference. When I visited the Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden, Colorado they were in competition with 50 other shelters, striving to push their limits and save more lives than ever before. All told, more than 2,600 dogs and cats were saved in three months – an increase of more than 1,000 lives over the same period the previous year! They did it all though extremely creative promotions to catch the public’s interest and get them to come into the shelter.
What else would you like to share with our readers? (thoughts, encouragements, whatever related to rescue, volunteering, shelters…)
I used to think that I couldn’t volunteer at an animal shelter because it would be too sad … or I’d come home with all the animals. I’ve come to realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I look forward to every visit, have to drag myself out at the end of the day, and come away feeling uplifted. No matter what your skills, what you like to do, or where you live … there is a place for you to help someone or something. Do it – it will change your life.
Thank you Amy for sharing your adventure and wisdom with us. Read more about each of Amy’s Take Paws to Volunteer experiences here.
Readers, please post your thoughts and questions for Amy in the comments below.