It was the Fourth of July, and both of the shelters run by Maricopa County Animal Care & Control were full. Fireworks displays, a notorious trigger for canine anxiety, were scheduled in the areas surrounding both buildings. Worse, history had shown that the packed shelters would take in large numbers of dogs during and after the celebration.
They could easily have bolted the doors and hunkered down for a tough night. Instead, they tried something new: inviting the community to spend the evening inside the shelter, helping to keep the dogs calm during the celebration.
And help they did!
More than 300 members of the community arrived at their two locations to help “Calm the Canines!” Participants, many of whom had never visited MCACC’s shelters before, heard a brief talk on safety and were asked to sit quietly with the dogs outside of their kennels. They read books, sang songs and gave treats to the dogs. They offered enrichment toys and puzzles to use as well.
“It was overwhelming to see how the community responded,” said Ben Swan, the shelter’s Development Manager. “It really helped spread our message that MCACC is here to help.”
Not only did the event help keep the shelters’ dogs calm during the fireworks, but many participants developed lasting relationships with the shelter, returning to provide foster care, adopt a pet or volunteer. The shelter has since added the “calming” practice in order to engage potential volunteers who haven’t gone through the shelter’s volunteer orientation yet. “Calming the Canines” was such a rousing success that it will almost certainly become a community tradition.
Interested in creating a similar event at your shelter? Here are a few guidelines:
Invite the community in!
Let the public know that your organization needs help via social media, press releases and other forms of communication. “People want to help, but you have to ask the community for what you need,” Swan said.
Keep dogs safely in their kennels
Allowing dogs outside during fireworks displays can be terrifying for them and increases the risk of escape. The safest, quietest place for them to be at this time is in their kennels.
Keep it simple, with a few guidelines
“The quick safety meeting beforehand helped, making sure to tell the people what we were hoping to accomplish,” said Swan. “We had very few limitations on what people could do with the animals. Mainly we asked them not to put fingers in the kennels, and to reassure the dogs that they’re there to ease their fears.”
Create a sign-in sheet so that you can follow up with thank-you notes. Have options ready for quiet activities attendees can do, like a Kong-filling station, children’s books to read aloud and puzzle feeders — or ask them to bring their own to donate!
Consider seating and lighting
Ask participants to bring something comfortable to sit on, along with a flashlight or portable lamp. “Overhead lights were distracting, but having the kennels dark was difficult,” Swan said.
Keep the momentum going
Hosting an event such as this is great way to engage your community in longer-term relationships. Many participants will develop emotional connections with the dogs they meet, so make sure information on foster care and adoption is readily available. “We pulled this off in a matter of days, so if we had had more time, we probably would have created a flier that people could take with them about the event and the services we offer,” said Swan.
“People will come from all areas and will give up their time to do what they can to help homeless pets,” he added. “Never miss an opportunity to let your community help.”