My first day as an official, independent dog walker at the shelter was a cold one. I was wearing my volunteer t-shirt though, really, there was no point to that; it was hidden under a sweatshirt, a down jacket, and a windbreaker.
Each exhalation condensed into a little puff of fog. Inhaling the frigid air felt like setting fire to my lungs. The weather in Michigan can be as unpredictable as extended family dynamics at the holidays, but the dogs still need to get out, snowing or merely miserably cold (Michigan’s winter equivalents of rain or shine).
I signed in confidently, grabbed my badge and headed to Dog Town. I walked down the kennels, then realized I forgot a scrap piece of paper on which to record the dogs I could (no blue dots!) and wanted to walk. I stashed my gloves into my jacket pockets and got a pen and paper from the volunteer station. I walked down the aisles of kennels and recorded eight numbers and names of dogs that I wanted to walk.
Then, I returned to the volunteer station and checked out a beautiful hound dog, Tracker*. I was pleased that he didn’t need a harness (why make my very first independent walk a tricky one?!). I armed myself with lots of gear: volunteer apron, poop bags, a soft toy, treats, and a sturdy leash.
When I approached Tracker’s kennel, I had momentary amnesia. If the outside of the kennel was being cleaned, how were we supposed to get the dog out? Where was I supposed to put the lock? When I brought him back, would I put him in the inside or outside? Luckily, there was another volunteer in the volunteer station, so I went back and asked about the best way to take a pup out during cleaning (from the inside, down the shortest end).
Feeling less confident, my hands were shaking as I opened Tracker’s kennel to slip in and leash him. What if he darted out? I did my best contortionist act sliding in (Elastigirl from the Incredibles comes to mind – we have kids – but I am sure that I am giving myself too much credit with the smoothness of the endeavor. Especially with all my many layers, I probably more closely resembled the Hulk, top heavy with lots of space near my legs for a dog escape!).
Tracker was wagging like crazy when I successfully entered his kennel. I clipped the leash to his collar easily, put my gloves back on, and reached through the bars to let us both out. We walked quickly past all the other kennels to a chorus of barking and emerged into the outdoors (still frigid!). Tracker and I walked the back loop, the front loop, and then the back loop again.
He pooped, and I did that winter walker thing where we take off a glove, retrieve poop bag, open bag, collect poop, tie bag, and put glove back on, all while maintaining control of dog while other canines parade past (more superhero evocations!).
Tracker was a quick walker, so we were finished with our walk while the staff was still cleaning the outside of the kennels. I had forgotten, of course, to inquire about coming back into the shelter with a dog, having returned a dog to the outside of the kennels during training, so I decided to take Tracker to the play yard until the cleaning was complete.
In the play yard, Tracker was sooooo adorable, running around like crazy and throwing snow up from his heels like a frisky foal in the spring. We played ball for a while, both of us smiling, the cold no longer bothering me at all.
Finally, it was time to return Tracker to his kennel and walk another dog. But Tracker had other plans! Each time I approached him with the leash, he would dart away! I kept smiling and waving to the passing dog walkers, but internally, I was panicking! I could just imagine myself stuck in the play yard with Tracker all morning, my ruse uncovered when someone else wanted to use it!
The next time I picked up the ball to throw and Tracker was close to me, I gave him a treat before throwing it. I kept this up, with the leash stowed around my neck, for a few more times. At last, Tracker got even closer to me and I quickly leaned forward and clipped the leash to his collar before giving him the treat. Whew!
We walked to back trail one more time (I was feeling guilty about having tricked him!), and then returned to his kennel. I gave him some love then slipped back out (Hulk style!). When I got back to the volunteer station, I realized that I had forgotten to read the information book before taking Tracker out. Several volunteers had noted that Tracker had been reluctant to be leashed again after playing in the play yard. What other mistakes had I made? Which mistakes did I have yet to make?
It was time to pick another dog…
* Some pups names have been altered
Learn more about volunteering at HSHV!
Read about my experiences with Dog Walker Training at HSHV.