Whilst we were living in Chiang Mai we were determined to undertake some volunteer work but it turns out that it’s not quite that easy…
First up in the things I didn’t know about life – most organisations want you to pay to volunteer with them. This is to cover the cost of having you there as many provide accommodation and food as well as employing a volunteer co-ordinator to look after you but on a budget like ours we just couldn’t afford to pay. Some companies were asking for upwards of £1,000 which is just crazy. I did write to a few and said that as we were already in town, had accommodation and food and so wouldn’t need support from them could we volunteer for free, but all either declined or failed to reply.
The other problem is that many places want you to commit for at least two months which is an incredibly long time in the life of a traveller, especially when you factor in visa issues.
Why won’t you let us help!?! I was gutted because I had really wanted to work at an orphanage for a month but that just wasn’t happening and so we had to look at other options.
Just when I was ready to give up and write a ranty blog post about how ridiculous it is that organisations make it so hard for people to help out, I stumbled across Care for Dogs.
Care for Dogs is a non-profit organisation which was formed in 2006 and seeks to find homes for stray dogs, nurse injured dogs back to full health, educate the local population on dog care and to reduce the overpopulation of dogs in the area by performing sterilisations. They are also fighting tirelessly to end the horrific dog meat trade which is still a big part of Thai culture.
Volunteering with Care For Dogs couldn’t be more simple. After I pinged a quick e-mail off to them I received a prompt reply confirming that we were more than welcome to join them. There is no fee, the only requirement was that we agree to commit at least 4 days to working with them which was no problem for us.
The shelter is located quite for away from town in Hang Dong and so before you commit to volunteering you need to think about how you will get there.
A songthaew will drive you there and back to town every day but this could cost you up to £10 per day which will soon add up. Instead we hired a motorbike to undertake the 40 minute commute which we found much cheaper and easier. A motorbike will cost around £4 per day to hire but is cheaper if you hire it for a longer period of time. We wrote all about hiring a motorbike in Chiang Mai earlier.
Alternatively if you don’t already have accommodation booked you could stay in the nearby home stay which is very cheap (£5 per night) but very basic. I wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you are only volunteering for the minimum 4 days.
How to find Care for Dogs
When we first arrived at the shelter we were initially overwhelmed and briefly wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into. The shelter is home to almost 200 dogs and all are barking excitedly when you report for duty at 9 am. It’s a very surreal experience and is quite alarming at first when you’re not sure whether the dogs are safe to be around or not. We were definitely feeling a little bit apprehensive that’s for sure!
This is Hobbes. He looks scary but he’s a sweetie!
All new volunteers start on a Wednesday so that the staff only have to give one induction per week. We chatted with a few other new volunteers whilst we waited for our teacher to arrive and it was nice to get to know some new people. Our little group hailed from England, Germany, America and Canada and all are now good friends (barring one who left after the first day and never returned tsk).
The induction is quick but is a little stressful as trying to hear all of the instructions over the howling dogs is quite tough. Despite this we were well informed about everything within 30 minutes which was really helpful as there is never time to waste at the shelter.
Meeting the dogs
The dogs are split into 7 areas as follows;
- Main enclosure (the majority of the dogs live here)
- TVT (this enclosure is for dogs who have very contagious sexually transmitted cancer. All are undergoing chemotherapy)
- Dangerous dogs (volunteers will not be asked to enter this enclosure)
- Shy dogs
- Recovery (this enclosure is where dogs who have recently undergone an operation live until they are well enough to return to their enclosure
This little guy was feeling very sorry for himself
We were thrown in at the deep end and were first taken into the main enclosure. There are so many dogs in here all barking and occasionally fighting which makes entering very intimidating. We were instructed to walk tall with our shoulders back to assert dominance early on. We were also told to stay away from two dogs who have been known to be aggressive towards strangers but both were wearing red scarves around their necks and so were easy to pick out from the crowd.
Upon entering we quickly realised that these dogs all just want some attention. Immediately we were surrounded by excitable dogs which, whilst alarming at first, was actually really lovely. We gave them a stroke before moving on to tour the other enclosures.
A normal day at Care for Dogs
There is a routine here which must be strictly adhered to as the dogs are well aware of it and come to expect certain things from you at different times of the day. A normal day in the life of a volunteer looks like this:
9am: Arrive and feed the dogs. The food is all prepared by staff, the volunteers just need to spread all the bowls out evenly, make sure everyone gets to eat and then collect the bowls after. This can be hard work as the dogs are very happy to see humans after a night alone and so you will find that many of them will jump up all at once. There are also several fights over food dishes, no matter how many you put down, and so it’s a very tense part of the day.
10am: Once feeding time is over the dog walking begins. Ideally we are supposed to walk every single dog in the morning whilst it is still relatively cool but this is no easy feat with close to 200 dogs to walk. Many have special requirements (lots of the dogs have only 3 limbs or are blind) and so must be walked alone, some are aggressive when walking and so cannot be walked with other dogs and dogs from separate enclosures cannot be walked together. This combined with 6 volunteers trying to walk so many dogs in just a couple of hours is a logistical nightmare. You have to be very careful when removing dogs from enclosures and some will invariable escape into the main walkway and will very likely bump into other dogs. It’s tough work but it’s so worth all the hassle as the dogs absolutely love their morning walk.
The whiteboard where we note who has been walked each day
12:30: Lunch. There is a very nice restaurant about 5 minutes away from the shelter which serves food at a discounted price to Care for Dogs volunteers. We ate here every day and the food was delicious. There are only around 5 choices on the menu and so it can get a little boring after a while but it’s good enough. If you fancied a change and had your scooter with you it’s possible to drive to another restaurant for lunch, though we never did.
13:30: If there are any dogs left to walk we would do this straight after lunch and then we move on to bathing dogs that needed it (many with skin conditions need bathing daily) we’d also poop scoop, brush the dogs or just play with them. Water bowls would need cleaning and refilling, enclosures are also cleaned once per week too with one being done each day.
16:00: Feed the dogs. The dogs are once again fed and this time it is usually much calmer. The dogs are all worn out from their walks and the sun and most will eat quietly before going to sleep.
Sleepy dogs are sleepy
Would we recommend volunteering at Care for Dogs?
Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
It’s hard to believe that the majority of these dogs will have been abused by humans. They are so quick to forgive and so ready to make friends with new people which is incredibly humbling to witness.
Some of the dogs have been badly beaten, run over, submersed in hot cooking oil, blinded or left for dead in rubbish bins. Whilst we were there a litter of the most gorgeous puppies was dumped in a sealed carrier bag on the side of the road. Luckily they were found and bought to the shelter but they could so easily have been killed.
The puppies cheered up pretty quickly!
We spent the majority of our time in the shy dog enclosure trying to gain the trust of dogs who find it tough being around people. You can’t imagine how satisfying it was when, over time, they learned to trust us and actively sought us out for comfort.
Would we go back?
It was incredibly difficult to leave the shelter on our last day. We wanted to quit our travels and take some dogs home with us. We wanted to stay and be a steady comfort figure for the shy dogs. We wanted to raise as much money as possible to keep the shelter going.
Instead we had no choice but to leave (our visas were up) and so we donated what we could afford and vowed to return to adopt two dogs before we go home at the end of our trip. We’d go back in a heart beat.
If you are interested in volunteering at Care for Dogs you can contact the shelter here. Alternatively if you would like to donate you can do so by clicking here.