A solid volunteer-run behavior helpline can be a valuable addition to any shelter. Having a call-in number that adopters, owners and members of the public can turn to for questions about behavior and best practices for their pets can help in reducing the relinquishment of animals (for which behavioral problems are a major contributor), and also provides a first line of service for families which have adopted pets through the shelter. Setting up your own helpline service may at first be a daunting task, but with enthusiastic people and the right know-how, you may find that it will pay off in the long run.
We at the Center for Shelter Dogs strongly believe that the goal of an animal shelter should not just be to adopt out a large number of pets, but to help the community keep these pets in their forever homes. One vital step is to encourage appropriate matches between pets and owners, through behavior evaluations and communication with prospective owners. However, despite how good the match may have been at adoption, sometimes certain issues can arise during the first few weeks and months as the pet is adjusting to living in a new home. Or perhaps issues that seemed manageable in the shelter may be more difficult than anticipated to deal with in the owner’s home. Having resources available for adopters can help them manage the transition of having a new pet, especially if they run into unexpected issues. After all, these adopters did an amazing thing by adopting an animal from the shelter. Shouldn’t we as the shelter give them the support and post-adoption care they deserve? Just as a helpline can be invaluable for a shelter’s adopters, the service can also be a useful resource for your local community. As the coordinator for the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s behavior helpline, and a long-time volunteer, I’ve always been amazed at how seemingly simple issues can be quite frustrating for pet owners to solve. By providing information about animal behavior to these owners, I felt that I was able to keep many pets in homes – pets that would have likely ended up at the steps of the shelter intake office. The helpline volunteers whom I oversee and train may not have all of the answers to the questions that they receive, but they are definitely equipped with a comprehensive basic knowledge of animal behavior and a vast number of additional resources in case they don’t have the expertise to answer a specific question. Our passionate group of volunteers forms a front line in our mission to keep pets in their forever homes.
So, how do you go about establishing a volunteer helpline?
The first component of a successful volunteer helpline is a capable staff member, either a shelter dog trainer, a behavioral manager or a shelter manager. This key person will need to be well-versed in behavior and be ready to dedicate many hours to developing content, guidelines, training manuals, and to training the volunteers. He or she will also need to set up a helpline number, ensure that the helpline number is distributed to all of the adopters and available to the general public, and once the helpline is established, she or he will need to dedicate approximately 1-2 hours a week to manage and maintain the helpline. It is advisable that the call-in number can be managed remotely, particularly for those who would prefer not to have a fixed location or office dedicated to the service, or for those who want to manage the helpline from outside the office. Managing a helpline also includes ensuring that the volunteers are answering and logging the calls, and following up with callers if the volunteer is unable to answer their question or direct them to an appropriate resource.
Volunteers are one of a shelter’s greatest resources. Whenever I put out a call for more helpline volunteers, I am always surprised by the number of volunteers who are quite well-versed in behavior. Often, dog and cat “socializers” from the shelter have a vast knowledge of behavior that they may not even be aware of. These volunteers spend hours with our shelter animals and are often versed in methods of positive reinforcement, one of the behavior techniques that we frequently utilize, without even knowing it.
Volunteers should expect their initial training to take approximately 8-9 hours, and then working on cases to take anywhere between 0-3 hours per week, depending on the number of calls they receive. In our system, each volunteer chooses one day to answer calls and they are asked to return the call within 24-36 hours after it is received.
The volunteers of a behavior helpline should be trained on various aspects of behavior, including:
- introduction of other animals (cat-cat, cat-dog, dog-dog, dog-cat)
- play aggression in cats
- hiding in cats
- house soiling in dogs and litterbox miss/non-use in cats
- barking in dogs
- destruction in dogs/cats
- disobedience (jumping up) in dogs
- mild anxieties and fears (separation, noises)
- not eating or drinking shortly after adoption
Something to consider is how to handle calls about aggression. At our shelter, we made the decision to refer calls about aggression (except feline play aggression) to area trainers and behaviorists, for a variety of reasons, including liability, insufficient expertise, and the dangers presented to owners and pets.
Our volunteers are also trained on how to accurately take a behavior history of the issue or problem behavior, and keep a log of the calls they receive, the advice given, and also about what type of calls to forward on and to whom to forward them. Keeping excellent records is highly beneficial for tracking down miscommunication, checking progress, communicating with the rest of the team and adds to your pool of data, so you can keep improving your service in the future.
The trainings generally run for four consecutive weeks, one day per week for two hours. Generally on the last day of the training, the volunteers can participate in “mock” helpline calls where they practice how to troubleshoot the types of calls they receive and how to provide the best advice they can.
Follow-up and Management
Once the trainings are complete, the volunteers are ready to begin answering calls. At this time, the helpline begins to run itself. Aside from following up on issues that the volunteers are unable to answer, the helpline manager only needs to monitor the log, and every 3-6 months can hold a meeting to discuss a behavior topic in more detail (perhaps one that seems to appear most often in the log). It is useful for the manager to keep in mind that he or she may need to begin calling for volunteers again as members of the current team move on. We find this is usually 12-18 months after the training of the previous wave.
Adding a behavior helpline to the services offered by the shelter can be highly beneficial. By providing this service, we can help keep pets in their forever homes, while at the same time being mindful of the resources of the shelter, and extending the reach of its services to the greater public. With a little effort and a diligent group of volunteers, you may be surprised at the good you can do for your shelter, your adopters, and your wider community.
For any of our training resources, lectures, and materials, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Members of the public can also check out ARL Boston’s Behavior Helpline.