Shortly after readjusting to the city life back in Chiang Mai after staying on the farm, we were off to our next endeavor. About twenty minutes out of the city is a non-profit organization, Care for Dogs, which was founded in 2006. The foundation’s objectives are numerous. Since there is an abundance of stray dogs on the streets, Care for Dogs aims to reduce this number by providing vaccinations and sterilizations, rescue dogs and provide new homes, improving the health of street dogs, fighting the dog meat trade, and educating the public about animal welfare. We saw some ill dogs in poor condition, but they were in good hands and were healing slowly, but surely. However, most of the dogs were quite happy and active. They all just needed a home and some love. Currently, about 200 dogs live the shelter either healing or awaiting adoption.
Apparently, the shelters in Thailand are very different from those in North America. Instead of the dogs being in individual cages, they live together. Packs form and group dynamics of dominance can be observed. The different cages besides the main yard were puppies, recovery, older dogs, shy dogs, and some special cases had their own fence.
The employees are swamped with medical treatments, feeding, cleaning, adoptions, paperwork, and other duties, so they’re only able to give the dogs basic care. The volunteers are the ones who can come in to give them the love and attention they crave. Some dogs were mistreated by humans in the past, so they need to slowly warm up to humans before getting adopted. Also, since there are so many dogs and limited staff, the dogs only go out for a walk when there are volunteers. So any help is much appreciated, both long-term (mainly expats) and short-term volunteers (travelers).
Our Volunteer Experience
We arrived on Wednesday morning for orientation at 10am. Two long-term volunteers, Mike and Jamie, gave us the run-down and answered all of our questions before we jumped in to go for a walk together with the shy dogs. Upon opening the cage, about a dozen furry friends dashed toward the exit. While the excited dogs jumped on volunteers and caused chaos in the tiny space, we leashed them all up, claimed two or three dogs each, and headed out toward the dog park.
Each dog is only able to go for a walk once or twice a week. Judging by their eagerness and energy, it is easy to believe. The pups pulled my arms in all kinds of directions, sensing the world with their noses and intermittently marking their territory. The dogs are able to roam freely and take a bath in the dog park, about a ten minute walk from the shelter. The volunteers sheltered in the shade and gave hugs and love to any dog that came their way.
Every day, we came in around 9:30 when the dogs got fed. Meal time is chaos. Aggression is revealed as some become territorial over their bowls. Teeth show and nasty barking wars commence as they claim dominance. The fighting is intimidating and we usually let them sort it out themselves as it can be dangerous for a human to get involved. Rabies shots are highly recommended to volunteer there. We didn’t end up getting the shots though. Luckily, Chiang Mai is loaded with good hospitals so treatment is easily accessible if needed. With or without the three-series vaccination, you’ll need the same jabs if bitten. The only difference in being vaccinated is that you’ll be granted more time to do so. Still, medical attention should be immediate upon a bite. That being said, bites are quite uncommon at the shelter. Additionally, all dogs have had the rabies vaccine, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Our duties as volunteers were pretty flexible and dependent on each person. We went for walks a few times a day, played with them, helped with feeding time, cleaned the water dishes, groomed, and had the glorious pleasure of cleaning up dog poop! Someone’s got to do it. Volunteers also can give baths, detick them, and volunteer at adoption events in town. It wasn’t easy work. We got dirty, smelly, scratched, sweaty, and good workouts baking in the sun and being pulled by multiple dogs. But it was all rewarding and worth it.
Working at a dog shelter is out of character for me. There are several incidents I distinctly remember since a child that caused me to fear dogs. Generally, I’m not afraid of pet dogs, but if a stray came up to me on the street, I would feel afraid.
Spending time with the dogs at Care for Dogs reversed this fear though. I finally realized how lovable they are and how much they crave human attention and companionship, as though dogs and humans evolved to have this special relationship. It’s a shame that some of them remain in the shelter with dozens of dogs their whole lives. Sometimes, I wondered if some are better off on the street. They are taken care of well in the shelter, but it is obviously not the optimal environment.
If I ever can sit down and settle, I would adopt a dog from a shelter.
Do you want to help?
First, I want to warn potential volunteers that it’s not all about frolicking around with adorable happy puppies among the rainbows and unicorns. Yes, the dogs are cute and they’re fun to play with, but it is still a sad reality that some of them, especially the older ones, will not go to good homes. There are also some very ill dogs so it may not be easy to stomach for some. But it is still a rewarding experience and the help is greatly needed and appreciated.
If that didn’t scare you away, great! Before signing up, check out the website, Care for Dogs, and read about the volunteer opportunities. If you’re traveling, it’s better to start on a Wednesday when they do orientations at 10am. Most traveling volunteers work from Wednesday until Saturday. Time is up to you, but we were usually there from 9:30am until 4:00pm. Email the volunteer manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) expressing your interest and she will promptly reply to work our details.
We took a taxi to the shelter. It’s not easy to find and most drivers do not know it, so do call one of the numbers that Care for Dogs provides in the information packet ahead of time. It cost us 250 baht and it took about 20 minutes.
The area is very quiet and peaceful with a handful of restaurants and resorts. We opted to stay at a homestay around the corner of the shelter. For 250 baht, or around 7 USD, a night, we got a large clean double room with a fridge, toaster oven, kettle, utensils, private bathroom, bicycle, drinking water and outdoor patios. It might not seem special to some people, but I felt like it was a luxurious treat! Our accommodation experiences in India have been extremely basic, so these extra amenities were appreciated. I would recommend stocking up on breakfast foods in Chiang Mai because there aren’t many shops in the area. There are decent restaurants in the area, but not many options as far as breakfast.
There are several other types of comfortable accommodation available if you have a higher budget. Check with the shelter to help make arrangements.
During time off, there’s not much to do in the area besides hang out with fellow volunteers, bicycle around, enjoy the scenery, eat at some local joints, watch the sunset over the rice fields, and relax. There is also the Grand Canyon of Chiang Mai, a man-made canyon with cliffs overlooking 30-meter-deep water. Even though it’s man-made, it is still a beautiful sight and a nice way to cool off in the heat of the day. You can also test your guts by jumping off the cliffs into the water.
The staff and dogs are really grateful for any help people can offer, so even just a few days of walking dogs makes a huge difference. I would highly recommend it for people looking to mix travels with volunteering but don’t want to commit their entire visa stay to an organization. Also, do wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and stinky!