Finding Joy: How to Stay Positive While Volunteering with Shelter Dogs

how to volunteer with shelter animals without feeling emotionally overwhelmed
June 28, 2023
Stephanie M. Casey

Are you interested in helping your local shelter or animal rescue via volunteering but concerned about the emotional toll? This is a valid and common concern.

Volunteering at a shelter or rescue and spending time with lovable dogs can be an incredibly rewarding experience. However, it's natural to feel sadness when confronted with the difficult circumstances many shelter dogs (and the shelter itself) face.

The key to staying positive and finding joy in your volunteer work lies in focusing on the positive impact you're making and implementing self-care strategies.

And, guess what? Rescue animal volunteer work is not for everyone and that is okay!

Being at the animal shelter may feel depressing. But there are ways to cope as well as volunteer opportunities in which you will never need to directly interface with the animals but are still doing important work to support their journey.

In this article, we'll explore tactics to manage the emotional toll while cultivating a positive and fulfilling experience as well as highlight alternative volunteer opportunities which still greatly help the cause.

• Embrace the Power of One

It's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of dogs in need, but remember that you are making a significant difference in the life of at least one dog (see the starfish parable). Instead of focusing on what you can't do, channel your energy towards the positive change you can bring to that individual animal. Celebrate each small victory, be it helping a dog get exercise, feel excited about a special treat, enjoying some cuddles, or finding their forever home. When you help that one dog, it means everything - it is their whole world and counts for so much.

• Set Realistic Expectations

Recognize that you can't solve all the problems of dog overpopulation and the resulting animal shelter issues, on your own. Accepting this fact will help you manage your expectations and avoid feeling discouraged. While you may not be able to save every dog, your efforts and dedication matter. Every act of kindness, no matter how small, contributes to the overall welfare of the shelter and the dogs within it. Whatever you are doing is important… and enough!

• Practice Self-Care

Volunteering can be emotionally taxing, so taking care of yourself is crucial. Make sure to set aside time for activities that recharge and rejuvenate you. Be very aware of what Compassion Fatigue is and the signs of it setting in. Take breaks when Compassion Fatigue hits. You cannot help well if you are not well. Prioritizing your mental and emotional well-being will enable you to show up with a positive mindset and make a more significant impact.

• Share Success Stories

One of the most uplifting aspects of volunteering is witnessing the positive impact your efforts can have on a dog's life. Take the opportunity to share success stories with others. Post updates on social media, write about heartwarming experiences - you never know what eyeballs and ears are on the other side of your media. By spreading the message of hope, you can inspire others and amplify the impact of your work.

• Take a Break

THIS IS IMPORTANT. Step back when you need to. Whenever needed and for however long you need to. Pause volunteering or fostering for a bit. Snooze social media accounts which trigger you. Step away, refuel, refresh then come back strong!

QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE (aka my instagram stories)

  • “The pressure of doing just one more thing” This is when it will start to get overwhelming… when you overload yourself. With volunteer hours or activities, with fosters, with too many tasks. Remember the wellness tip - you can’t help your best if you are stretched thin and overwhelmed. Know what you can handle and stick to that!
  • “I get too attached to the animals and it is hard to see neglect and abuse cases” The way I look at this is: even if an animal ends up euthanized, there are worse fates than euthanasia. With neglect cases, I try to hold on to how dogs live in the moment and when they get to the shelter, they are in a better place with hope for the future - their new journey has begun. We cannot undo their past, we can only help them from that moment forward. That is the light and the part of their experience to focus on.


If you want to help but working directly around the animals would be too emotionally taxing, most animal shelters and rescues have many opportunities to accommodate. Some examples include:

  • LAUNDRY SHIFT At DAS, the laundry room is behind all the kennels but serves an important purpose cleaning bedding and toys
  • SOCIAL MEDIA, BIO WRITING, APPLICATION APPROVALS, FOSTER COORDINATION, EVENT COORDINATION, GRANT WRITING, OUTREACH These are a few of the volunteer requests I have seen pop up from shelters and rescues which can be completely remote and are a big help. If there is a particular organization you are interested in supporting, contact them and tell them what type of volunteer opportunity you are looking for to see if they have a match!

Volunteering with shelter dogs can be an emotionally rewarding experience, despite the occasional sadness that may arise.

By embracing the power of one, setting realistic expectations, practicing self-care, focusing on the dogs' little joys, and being mindful in the moment, you can find joy and fulfillment in your volunteer work.

Remember, even the tiny bits of your dedication and compassion are making a positive difference in the lives of these deserving animals.

Watch a Reel I made about the topic of this post <3

DAS Volunteer Info

Insider guide to remaining positive when volunteering with rescue animals...
Insider guide to remaining positive when volunteering with rescue animals...

Dogs live in the moment - every moment of love, grace, affection, and attention you give them means to much to them! Perhaps working with them can help teach US to enjoy those moment, as well.