Introverts at the Shelter: Exhausted by Humanity? Spend a day with shelter dogs!
If you’re a shy person looking for something to do, have I got an idea for you! My daughter and I have been volunteering at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter (sfhumanesociety.org) for a few years now. It’s important to state right at the beginning that we don’t do this altruistically or to put another notch on our volunteering belts. It’s just that after a week or so of dealing with people, well, both of us would rather hang out with dogs.
Friends and family, please don’t take this personally, we love you all. But human interaction is so complex and full of social pitfalls that it’s draining. My daughter and I are both by nature introverts. Introverts are not, as is commonly thought, individuals who are oblivious to social interaction. Rather they are often so aware and sensitive to every emotional current that it exhausts them.
That brings us to the dogs.
We did our Shelter orientation class in 2015. We spent our first volunteer hours doing laundry and basically proving to the staff that we were trustworthy. Our next step was to learn how to help socialize the resident dogs, to get them ready to be comfortable with people (how ironic). This consists of hanging out with dogs in their kennels.
For the shy and introverted, it’s refreshing to be around beings who are so clear about relationships. Dogs let you know exactly what they think of you. Some dogs sit on your lap. Some, not so trusting and a little nervous, will go to the farthest part of the kennel and look at you. Others will just ignore you and continue to stare under the door. Then there are the dogs who are so happy for companionship that they sit by you, lean into you, their bodies sighing in relief. I note in those moments my shoulders relax and the tension I carry releases. Who, I ask, is helping whom?
Of course, dogs are capable of deviousness. Our dog Tank will intentionally begin barking during breakfast to distract our other dog, Nellie, from her food bowl. Nellie takes the bait every time and rockets out of the house and Tank eats her food.
But most dogs are direct and honest. This, for the introverted, is a godsend after days of trying to navigate the currents of human emotions.
We’ve also developed a set of our own guidelines for the shelter. When we drive up, we always spend a minute swearing to each other that we will not adopt a dog. We have two and if we didn’t abide by this hard and fast rule we’d be animal hoarders. There was a German Shephard, a Husky, a Lab mix and countless Pit Bulls that have tugged at our heartstrings. Then, when we began puppy socializing, well, it became even more important for us to stick to our pledge. There are people who’ve tried to sneak out of the shelter with a puppy under their coats. . . and I totally get it!
Next, Sully always makes a beeline to the Pit Bulls. They are the sweetest dogs at the shelter. We have innumerable pictures of Sully hanging out with Pit Bulls with names like Athena, Sam, and Blitz. I tend to be more generalized although I did raise eyebrows when instead of the usual ten minutes, I spent almost a half an hour with that same German Shephard a while back. Hey, we were bonding. That was the closest I came to violating our pledge.
A word or two about the staff. They are devoted to the dogs. And there is a lot going on! Dogs walking, dogs being socialized, individuals with questions about adoptions. There is the occasional kid trying to sneak in to see the puppies. Then of course, there are the occasional escape-artist dogs who trick their socializer and bolt past them into the hallway. This results in someone yelling, “Dog Out!” and suddenly there is a staff member there to capture the errant animal and calm things down. Not that I have ever been that socializer, well, at least not more than a couple of times. I’m just too trusting, I’ve been told.
Busy staff that trusts you. Dogs that (mostly) love the attention and are straight forward in what they want and need.
If you are slightly shy and exhausted by the hubbub of humanity, the Shelter is a great place to hang out.
A box of puppies on the side of the road. An elderly woman stops, picks them up and brings them to the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. They are approximately six weeks old. They are taken home by a Shelter “Foster.” Two weeks later, with all their shots, they are returned to the shelter and staff is amazed to see these puppies are the most social puppies they’ve ever seen.
This is the third column about raising bomb-proof dogs. In the previous columns I’ve written about advice great trainers have, but I have one final question. That is, how does the Santa Fe Animal Shelter help nurture bomb-proof puppies?
The answer is foster care: the angels are called “Fosters.” The program is called The New Hope FosterProgram.
First, a little science. For dogs the first eight weeks of life are crucial for their emotional development. Canines — like humans — are social animals. Think about wolves and coyotes in the wild. During that period, the pups are in constant contact with their siblings, their mom and the pack. They are always touching and in close contact. The wiring for socialization, for how to act with others is laid down during those first eight weeks. Take a puppy out of that environment and raise them alone and they cannot socially develop.
At the shelter puppies and pregnant dogs are constantly arriving. The staff often has no idea how these dogs have been treated. They know that a puppy or a dog that is not socialized — doesn’t go up to people, is scared or aggressive with other dogs or cowers in the corner — has a low probability of adopted. To solve this problem, the New Hope Foster care was developed.
Currently, according to Chelsea Gregg, the New Hope Coordinator, there are over one hundred foster families — how cool is that! — in Santa Fe on call to take the moms, litters or that occasional solo puppy. Their task is to create a safe, clean and loving environment that “feels” to a puppy like home.
I spoke to Raya Albin, one of the veteran “Fosters.” As a sidebar, Raya has worked as a volunteer with Shelters in New Orleans and Phoenix. She is enthusiastic about Santa Fe Animal shelter, calling it amazingly organized and helpful. Stop here for a second: Quivers go up my spine when I hear about something be amazingly organized in Santa Fe.
Raya told me her job is to mimic the litter’s mom; feed them every few hours, play with them, clean them and cuddle. I did a quick poll of our household and no one could think of a better job description. When Raya has just one puppy, she often carry’s him or her around in a sling while she works at home. Warm puppy, snuggled and sleeping against your chest. That would eliminate 95% of my stress. She noted that most puppies given a choice between food and being held, will choose being held. I told our food-obsessed Bernese Mountain Dog Tank this tidbit and he snorted in disgust.
The Fosters are responsible for bringing the puppies in every two weeks for shots and to be weighed. Before they can be brought back to the Shelter for adoption, they must be socialized, two months old and weigh at least two pounds.
In the background of this entire process is more science and care for the immune systems of puppies. Because their immune systems aren’t fully developed, it’s important that they are not exposed to canines diseases usually transmitted by unvaccinated dogs. Since many of the Fosters have pets, the New Hope program makes sure that all the dogs in the home are vaccinated. The best of all puppy worlds is when there are other dogs, a cat or two and kids. But protecting the health of the puppies comes first.
When they come back to the shelter for adoption the care continues. Puppies are kept by themselves with their littermates or puppies the same age. There is another cadre of staff and volunteers who continue the socialization work. In the name of good journalism, my daughter Sully and I volunteered to do the difficult and challenging work of keeping the socialization going. This meant a grueling hour of swaddling and holding puppies. They are squirmy and constantly trying to lick your face. Then, if that wasn’t enough, they’d fall asleep in your arms! We stoically soldiered through it.
But in the end, these little ones are socialized, near bomb-proof and ready for the big world of yards, adventures and love.