Revitalizing a Shelter Volunteer Program in the Wake of the Pandemic

Written by John Reilly, MS, CBCC-KA

Overhead photograph of The Potter League for Animals, a modern-looking gray building surrounded by trees.

Summary: Animal shelters were significantly impacted by the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Among other issues, lockdowns meant that animal shelters could no longer rely on their volunteers in the same way. As communities begin to reopen and shelters start to recover, they must find ways to restore their volunteer program. This article discusses how one facility, The Potter League for Animals in Rhode Island, is meeting that challenge.

 For the past two years, animal shelters have experienced unprecedented challenges in providing care for the living creatures in their care, serving their local communities and simply keeping their doors open and functioning. The pandemic caused shelters to radically change their business practices in order to accommodate health and safety measures. They were often required to limit the number of people working on site, restrict access by adopters and implement new protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On top of this, many shelters faced a loss of revenue as donors experienced financial insecurity, shortages of critical items due to supply chain interruptions. In addition to these pressures, there is an increase in pets being turned over to shelters resulting from their owners dealing with loss of income, increases in the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing.1

In addition to these pressures, the pandemic has caused shelters to undergo high levels of volatility and shortfalls in staffing, both in paid staff and volunteer workers. While this is a widespread problem affecting the non-profit institutions nationwide2 it is being particularly felt by animal welfare organizations. A 2021 survey by Best Friends revealed that 87 percent of responding animal shelters were experiencing pandemic-related staffing shortages that affected shelter operations3.

The Potter League for Animals, located in Middletown Rhode Island, is no exception. The Potter League is a privately funded, nonprofit shelter, providing intake and adoption services of companion animals. In addition to the care and placement of shelter animals, this organization provides additional services to Rhode Island residents, including a low-cost spay and neuter facility, a veterinary clinic for low-income families; as well as periodic low-cost vaccine and microchip clinics and pet food pantries. The impact of the Potter League on the welfare of animals in Rhode Island is well documented: In 2019, prior to the pandemic, Potter League adopted out 1,449 animals and provided veterinary care for over 6,100. Like most animal welfare non-profits, the shelter staff has been kept at the minimum level needed for efficient operation with a considerable dependency on volunteers for all aspects of shelter support. The volunteer cadre at Potter League has traditionally assisted in a wide range of activities, including animal care, dog training, cage and kennel cleaning, laundry, grounds and building maintenance, fund-raising and administrative support.  Volunteers also supported the shelter’s veterinary clinics, youth camps, outreach programs, food banks and fostered animals that weren’t ready for placement for various reasons.

When the pandemic began in 2020, the Potter League was required to drastically revise its business practices and reduce the levels of support provided by volunteers. At first, the shelter ceased all volunteer activities and limited public access by eliminating walk-ins and requiring all visitors to make prior appointments. During 2021, the shelter was able to gradually reopen and resume limited access by the public and by volunteers as state mandates permitted. As Rhode Island began to emerge from the pandemic emergency, Potter League was able to relax its restrictions on occupancy and distancing, and resume normal operations along the lines of its pre-COVID practices.

However, the pandemic had taken a serious toll on the shelter personnel. The staff experienced a high level of volatility and turnover, particularly in key leadership roles.  From 2020 to 2022, the turnover of key personnel including the Volunteer Manager, the Director of Shelter Medicine, the Animal Care Center Manager, the Business Manager, the Chief Philanthropy Officer, the Humane Education Coordinator and the entire Behavior Services Team. This loss of experience and institutional knowledge was felt throughout the organization. And the loss of volunteer assistance was equally dramatic.

In 2019, the shelter was assisted by 855 volunteers, who provided a total of 35,240 hours of unpaid assistance.  Of these, 115 volunteers were considered to be “engaged”, meaning that they contributed more than 48 hours of their time. However, the pressures and strains associated with the pandemic severely impacted this cadre of volunteers.  In 2020, the number of engaged volunteers and the total hours contributed by the shelter volunteers declined by 40 percent. This decline in volunteer support continued through 2021, during which the Potter League was being assisted by a total of only 229 volunteers across the whole spectrum of shelter activities, of which only 54 were considered “engaged”. The total hours that were contributed by these individuals had dropped to 19,340, approximately half of the pre-pandemic number. This was exacerbated by the loss and turnover of staff personnel. The shelter was only able to resume actively on-boarding and training new volunteers in August of 2022.

This left the Potter League facing a serious dilemma:  How to rebuild its volunteer cadre and quickly overcome the loss of experience and training that it had enjoyed with its past level of volunteer support. This required the shelter to balance the time and cost associated with developing a comprehensive training program with the need to obtain the services of new volunteers and quickly as possible.  It was also necessary to implement a program that volunteers found interesting and engaging, in order to encourage them to actively support shelter operations. Lastly, the shelter had to implement a training program that emphasized the safety of new volunteers while also ensuring the emotional and physical welfare of the animals in its care. As Howard and Digennaro Reed found in their 2015 study, various methods of providing training in a shelter environment, including written materials, video lessons and personal coaching, all entail an investment on the part of management in terms of staff time and production costs.4

Since the Potter League had to implement training for essentially all aspects of shelter operation, the decision was made to incorporate basic training on shelter operations into the volunteer onboarding process. Additional training needs were identified for those new volunteers who would be engaged in the care and husbandry of the shelter’s animals, with still more training required for those individuals who would be actively handling, training and socializing the animals.  In order to accomplish this and provide the maximum benefit with minimal time and expense, the shelter incorporated several methods of providing that training.

All applicants for the volunteer program are asked to attend a one-hour information session, conducted online, in which the shelter’s organization, programs and services are discussed in detail. The session also includes a full briefing on the opportunities for volunteer involvement, and requirements for training and participation in the shelter’s operations. Following this, volunteers attend an orientation class and are provided with a tour of the shelter in which they are provided with additional information and are familiarized with the opportunities for supporting every aspect of the Potter League’s operations. They are also provided with access to the shelter’s web-based volunteer portal, which allows them access to detailed information about the shelter and the ability to schedule themselves for meetings and training sessions, and record their activities. Each new volunteer is provided with a 156-page handbook that provides detailed information on the various programs in which they can participate, safety protocols, the shelter code of conduct, animal care and handling as well as other important aspects of the shelter operation.

Following this, potential volunteers are asked to attend a one-on-one interview with the shelter’s volunteer coordinator. During this session, they are able to specify their interests and desired level of participation and can schedule the training needed to meet their goals. They are then invited to attend a two-hour class on maintaining and cleaning the animals’ enclosures, the basics of handling the dogs, cats and small animals, and an introduction to dog walking. After these classes and information sessions, new volunteers are cleared to assist with supporting shelter operations and basic husbandry of dogs and cats; and are able to help socialize the small animals housed at the Potter League.Dogs and cats cared for at the Potter League undergo behavioral and veterinary evaluations upon arrival, and are categorized by their sociability and ease of handling.  These rankings are Orange, Green, Teal and Gray. These assessments are subject to change during the animals’ time at the shelter, as they become habituated to the facility and as the staff and volunteers continue to observe and interact with them. Volunteers who complete the introductory training listed above are permitted to handle and interact with dogs and cats who are rated at the orange level, but must complete additional training before being allowed to interact with animals that have more challenging characteristics.


Orange Dogs: Orange Dogs are the easiest to walk and include many of our senior dogs, small dogs, some puppies, and certain adult dogs. These dogs are comfortable in all situations, are easy to leash and spend time with. 

Green Dogs: Green Dogs are typically young and strong dogs that require strength and dexterity to handle, or dogs that need some special handling. These dogs tend to be jumpy, pull on leash and may just need a little more training. Most of these dogs are walked with a harness to give some extra control to the walker. 

Teal Dogs: Teal Dogs are usually jumpy/mouthy, reactive, shy or fearful or leash biters and are on a specific training program being run by the staff trainers, which cannot be varied.

Gray Dogs: Gray Dogs are on individual behavior modification plans. Volunteers help to execute the plans. These dogs typically display more severe behavior concerns, resource guarding, or extreme shyness/ fearfulness.


Orange Cats: Orange Cats are comfortable in all situations, are easy to spend time with and have a higher tolerance for petting, holding and carrying. They tend to include many of the kittens, younger cats, and some adult cats. 

Green Cats: Green Cats typically include cats that are simply shy or have a shortened ability to be handled and petted. They tend to have less tolerance for carrying. These cats require more awareness of cat body language and behaviors and some special handling. 

Teal Cats: Teal Cats tend to be extremely shy or fearful cats and will need specialized handling and understanding of cat behavior. They may be easily overstimulated or have a history to vocalize or scratch. 

Gray Cats:  Gray cats are on individual behavior modification plans. Volunteers help to execute the plans. These cats typically display more severe behavior concerns, such as aggression, have a bite history, or extreme shy/fearfulness.

Small animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, are not leveled in the same manner as dogs and cats. Volunteers work with these animals under the supervision of shelter staff, primarily socializing them with human handlers and providing enrichment and building positive associations with being handled by people. Volunteers also take part in “bunny playgroups” in which groups of the shelter’s rabbit population are socialized in safe outdoor enclosures.

The additional training for volunteers who are helping with socializing and exercising cats to advance from Orange to Green levels, they are required to attend a web-based instructional video on cat body language. They are also required to log a minimum of five hours socializing “orange” cats, to obtain a basic level of experience.  In order to progress to handling cats designated as Teal, volunteers must complete twenty-five hours of socializing and working with “green” cats. Time spent taking the web-based Fear-Free Shelter instruction,  is also accepted in place of actual hands-on time with shelter cats.


Green Level Requirements:

Attend an online video session on dog body language, attend a minimum of two in-person classes and spend a minimum of five hours at the shelter walking, playing with and socializing “orange” dogs. *

Teal Qualification:

Attend a minimum of four in-person classes and spend twenty-five hours walking, playing with and socializing “green” dogs. *

*The online Fear-Free Shelter course can take the place of the five hours of dog socialization.


Green Level Requirements:

Attend an online video session on cat body language and spend a minimum of five hours at the shelter socializing and playing with “orange” cats. *

Teal Qualification:

Spend twenty-five hours socializing and playing with “green” cats. *

*The online Fear-Free Shelter course can take the place of the five hours of cat socialization. 

Volunteers who wish to walk and work with dogs who are categorized at the “green” or “teal” level, meaning that they are somewhat more challenging for various reasons, are required to take additional training. They are provided with additional written materials, including illustrated guides to dog body language and a “Do’s and Don’ts” guide to handling shelter dogs. In addition to watching an on-line video on dog body language and spending time gaining experience at the “orange” level, these volunteers are also asked to attend in-person training and coaching sessions, conducted by the author. These sessions consist of six classes, conducted on a weekly basis and which can be attended in no particular order, intended to provide new volunteers with skills needed to safely work with stressed or anxious dogs.

The curriculum for the classes is flexible and the material tends to be repeated between sessions, based on student feedback. These sessions are structured to allow new volunteers to have hands-on experience with selected shelter dogs under the author’s supervision, all the while concentrating on positive interactions with these dogs. The sixth class session is left open so that the author can address any questions or issues that are raised by the new volunteers. This training format allows the instructor to obtain real-time feedback not only on the course content, but on the presentation and method of instruction. The volunteers have participated enthusiastically and the feedback relating to the instruction has been uniformly positive.

Class 1                                                                                      

Fitting a dog for harness, putting the harness on dogs.             

Correctly fitting a Martingale collar.                                           

Safely and securely attaching and holding a leash.                     

How to enter and leave a dog kennel.                                        

Loose leash walking.                                                                  

Brief discussion of dog body language

Class 4  

Loose leash walking

How to handle pulling dogs.

Class loose leash walking exercise

When to play with the dog/recognizing and handling overexcitement.

The importance of quiet time

Class 2                                                                                      

Refresher on harnessing dogs.                                                   

Refresher on entering kennels and leashing dogs                        

How to identify signs of stress or fear.                                        

Discussion of distancing and calming signals

Class 5 

Basic training techniques — how to teach sit, stay, down, come when called, drop it, and leave it

Class 3                                                                                      

Refresher on harnessing and leashing dogs.

Approaching strange dogs, proper introductions.

Ways to detect and reduce dogs’ anxiety and stress

Handling and “consent signs”.

What to do if the dog refuses to move or return to the building.

Class 6 

Open session covering any topics the students wish to cover. 

It should be noted that volunteers are not trained to handle the dogs and cats that are considered to have severe behavior problems. A select group of volunteers are invited to work with animals at the “gray” level, based on their experience and demonstrated ability, under the supervision of the shelter’s behavior management staff.

By implementing the program described in this article, The Potter League for Animals is incorporating a variety of approaches, including written instruction, hand-outs, web-based training, video-based training, and in-person instruction and coaching, to provide new volunteers with the skills they need in the minimum amount of time. By maximizing the use of in-house resources, the shelter is keeping training costs to a minimum, and is able to modify or tailor the training program based on feedback from both volunteers and staff. As Rhode Island emerges from the pandemic, Potter League is slowly rebuilding its cadre of volunteers through active outreach efforts, and is able to provide them with the information and experience needed to effectively support the shelter.


  1.  Best Friends (2022), Animal Shelter Crisis 2022:  100,000 More Shelter Pets At-Risk of Being Killed Now Than This Time Last Year due to Pandemic Problem.  Last accessed 1/18/2023.
  2. Fidelity Charitable (2020), The Role of Volunteering in Philanthropy. Last accessed 1/18/2023.
  3. Best Friends (nd) Staffing Shortage Survey Data.  Last accessed 1/18/2023.
  4.  Howard, V. and DiGennaro Reed (2015).  An Evaluation of Training Procedures for Animal Shelter Volunteers. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 35:3-4,296 – 320.

John Reilly (MS, CBCC-KA) is a volunteer dog trainer and behavior consultant for the Potter League for Animals in Middletown, Rhode Island, and runs the training program for volunteers who assist with the shelter’s dogs.  He is also the owner and primary blogger at

TO CITE: Reilly, J. (2023) Revitalizing a shelter volunteer program in the wake of the pandemic. The IAABC Foundation Journal 26, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj26.6