I had planned on waiting until Volunteer Week to sit down and put my thoughts ‘on paper’ in this space. That was until I realised that Vollie Week is in May and it’s September, so it would be a while before I put ‘pen to paper’. Given that my main motivation for writing this piece is to shout out to the awesome volunteers and foster carers I’ve been lucky enough to work with, that seemed a bit excessive! So, here we are celebrating great volunteers in September, during a pandemic in which most volunteering has been put on hold (*waves to any of my intended audience who happen to be reading).
I’m not going to write about volunteer management, or volunteer recruitment, or assessing the efficacy of your volunteer program because there are people far more equipped in that space who you should be listening to, like Hillary Anne Hager. This week, I’m just going to write about how I see volunteers and carers who work with animals and people in need, what I’ve learned from them, and why I want to dedicate this week’s Sisco Miyagi to my volunteer and foster carer friends specifically – after all, they far outnumber paid staff in our field!
First up, I don’t think it’s possible to write about our unpaid workforce without acknowledging that these guys do what they do 100% for intrinsic reinforcement. Whether it’s due to the buzz of giving an animal a soft place to land when they needed help, or finding an adoptable animal a loving home, or simply hanging out with like-minded people, they choose to spend their time and resources helping companion animals and their people, simply because it makes them feel great. As someone who built an entire career around things that make me feel productive in a field I am passionate about, I can appreciate the reinforcement that comes from having a sense of purpose and drive to do good things in the world. Even so, it’s only been in the last couple of years (maybe less!) that I’ve truly come to appreciate that not being paid is not a compromise for many ongoing volunteers in animal welfare. I feel like that shouldn’t have come as a surprise given how much of my own personal time I have dedicated to animal welfare, but at some stage, I realised that I had been viewing volunteer work as I did when I was a university student undertaking unpaid work as a means to an end. That is, you do it to get experience, upskill, meet people in the sector, and hopefully find paid work so that your undergraduate degree wasn’t a total waste of time. Once I realised this, it was clear that my perception was just not accurate at all for almost all volunteers I know and call friends!
Realising that my understanding of volunteering was a bit off-kilter got me thinking about how to better express my sincere gratitude to this special group of people, because I have always felt a bit inadequate while trying to say ‘thanks for being you and doing what you do – you make the world a better place’. In true behaviour nerd style, that got me thinking about a story I read a long time ago, written by a fellow trainer*. The author was learning about rewards-based training and felt bad about the way she worked with her herding dogs as it did not follow the guidelines for ‘positive reinforcement training. For those unfamiliar with herding dog training, you shape the dog’s behaviour almost completely by controlling their access to the livestock they are working. Especially in the early stages, training sessions can look messy and confusing and decidedly NOT very rewarding for anyone involved. So, in the middle of a session in which her dog was performing particularly well, this trainer handed her boy a food treat. He promptly stopped, spat the treat on the ground and walked off in apparent disgust (I imagine this to be a Sisco Miyagi style lesson…). Now, you can understand her confusion at what happened – if herding sheep is great, surely herding sheep with cheese is better! The author then went on to explain how she was a passionate artist when she was young. She was encouraged by family and friends who recognised her talent for drawing, so she honed her skills to the point that people started to commission drawings from her. As a result, she turned her beloved hobby into a paying job. A short while later she realised that she didn’t love drawing very much anymore despite it paying well – when her talent had simply provided joy to her family and friends and they expressed genuine gratitude for her efforts, she felt passionate and motivated. That feeling had disappeared as a result of receiving payment for drawing – it turns out that being paid a predictable wage for doing what you are passionately motivated to do, isn’t necessarily as great as it’s cracked up to be. I mean this in the most heartfelt, affectionate, and respectful manner I can convey – I realised that our vollie workforce is full of high-drive border collies and artists! Understanding this made me love my vollie and carer friends even more because herding dogs rule the world (sorry hound and terrier peeps, but you know it’s true!). It also helped me to realise the importance of working well together to produce great outcomes for the animals in our care, for very human-centric reasons. There’s always space for banana cake, random acts of gratitude, and openly expressing appreciation to our volunteers for what they do, but none of it compares to simply working hard as a team to make a real positive difference in the world.
In addition to their passion for what they do, my favourite thing about volunteers is that they are some of the most engaged and motivated learners I’ve ever met. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years sharing knowledge with and teaching skills to various audiences, including pet owners, students from high school to undergraduate level, dog trainers, sheltering people, animal management people, and lots of volunteers and carers in a variety of roles. Without contest, my most consistently engaged learners are always the volunteers. Now I’m not going to lie, it’s always nice to have an engaged and captive audience when you are standing in front of a crowd trying to get your message across, so I’ve got a pretty positive view of anyone who listens to me bang on for any period of time. However, the more objective benefit of this keen engagement with learning is that vollies upskill incredibly quickly given the opportunity, so they are super valuable as a skilled workforce as well. This is especially the case for adult volunteers who come with a lifetime of experience, knowledge and skills, and then keep learning, building on and applying their new skills to achieve the outcomes we are all working hard for. I’m always impressed by exactly how much ‘skills and knowledge’ real estate is on offer when I do a mental audit of the breadth of expertise available in any volunteer team – if you need help in ANY area of your operations, put the call out to your volunteer team first because you might be surprised at just how much specialised help you have been missing out on!
The last thing that I’ve learned from volunteers I have been lucky enough to work with is exactly how effective we can be, if we trust each other enough to work closely together. Almost without exception, the successes I hold closest to my heart would never have been possible without the skill, effort, and dedication of some very special volunteers. Lucky the introverted food guarder who just needed a little help from an experienced carer to let down his guard and show us his gentle personality. Soxx, the rather robust big boy who benefitted from training with volunteers in the kennels as well as his ‘saint-level patience’ carer who forgave his obsession with her chickens to focus on his leash manners. Coyote, the herding dog in a greyhound’s body, who finally found his perfect people thanks to the dedication of an experienced volunteer who saw past his behaviour in kennel to the dog he could be. Cruise, the girl with a whole backpack of issues who went away to foster for health reasons and came back the best version of herself imaginable. Ada, the un-socialised and incredibly timid girl who took a team of experienced and patient people to break through her lifetime of baggage and connect with her to help her trust. I could list another dozen dogs off the top of my head, who only reached their potential in life because of the skill and dedication of people who chose to use their experience and compassion to make the world a better place in their ‘spare’ time – and they would only be skimming the surface. So to all of the volunteers I have worked with up until now, and those I will have the pleasure of working with in the future, thanks for being you and doing what you do – you make the world a better place!
*For those who are interested, I want to say that the author was Dr Patricia McConnell but I can’t find anything that she has written on this topic. I suspect it may have been someone from the Clicker Solutions list, or one of the other list platforms we trainers used to communicate with each other back in the day. Whoever it was, she did a great job of explaining the concept of the Overjustification Effect to my baby trainer brain and it has stuck with me a couple of decades later!
This week’s photo is Lucky the Introvert, the day he found his zoomie button while out in foster care. Lucky was one of my first and is still one of my favourite success stories from my time at GAP Victoria – the moment his carer sent me this photo and the video that went along with it, I knew we were on solid ground and he would find his people. Wherever he is, I hope he has a well-worn spot to lay in the sun and watch the world go by until his heart is content.