Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The thing about shelter consulting

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about shelter consulting over the last few weeks. The thing is, shelters need help. There is a massive amount of work to do to make things better for the animals who are unlucky enough to end up in the American shelter system. Some shelters do things pretty well, some not so much, but they can all do better, and they can all benefit from the work being done by shelter medicine specialists. We have learned so much in the past decade about how to get animals out of shelters faster and how to keep them healthy while they are in there, and that information is percolating into the shelter system at an upsettingly low rate.

But how can the specialists work with the shelters to get these changes implemented? I have seen specialists offer to help shelters for free, because they are paid by animal welfare organizations and by universities to offer free consulting and extension work. The shelters accept in theory, but when the time comes for the director or the board to commit to real change, they push back. No, we’ve always done it this way. No, what you’re saying doesn't make sense to us. No, we don't think this is the right thing to do.

And why shouldn’t they? The consultants have years of expertise, but it’s hard to believe that someone who’s giving you advice really knows what they’re talking about unless you’ve seen them in action. And the staff at these shelters don’t get to see the consultants successfully helping other shelters. They just see the consultants coming in from the outside, not having worked at their shelter, not understanding their specific history, with no close personal ties to shelter staff. (Some of the shelters where these stories have played out are in small communities where everyone knows everyone and always has.) They often don’t even understand the consultants’ credentials. This one is a “doctor” but apparently not a veterinarian — what does someone with a PhD know about shelters? This one is just a "consultant" and not a veterinarian — what’s her actual experience? This one is a veterinarian, but veterinarians aren’t shelter staff, and in the staff's past experience, most veterinarians don’t know much about how shelters operate. She says she has advanced training in shelter medicine, but what does that really mean? How is it relevant to this shelter?

The consultants almost inevitably get impatient. It is hard to take the time to get to know a shelter, build ties with the staff, and introduce change at the rate at which staff can accept it. It’s hard to do that with one shelter when there are dozens more that need your help too, and you just want this one fixed so you can move on to the next one. It’s hard to take the time and accept the slow rate of change when you see animals being neglected and even abused in a shelter, with the staff not understanding that the level of animal care is unacceptable. When you truly feel that the situation in a shelter is an emergency, how can you take the time to do things right? How can you stop yourself from barging in and just getting it done? But if you do those things, you will lose the trust of the shelter staff. When is that worth losing?

Sometimes shelters actually go out of their way to invite big consultations with multiple specialists. I have seen this in universities. A shelter sends a request, and often pays for the service. A dozen or so veterinary shelter medicine specialists spend a week crawling all over the shelter. They often antagonize the staff, simply by watching and photographing them at work. The staff feel that they are being graded and judged — and they are; there's really not a way around it with this "learn everything about the shelter in one week" approach. At the end, the consultants give their findings. I have seen staff cry at the final presentation. I have seen consultants deliver massive documents, hundreds of pages long, with recommendations. No one should be surprised that these recommendations are not followed. The experience isn’t pleasant. But is there a better way?

Shelter consultants are actively seeking better ways, and while I was at a shelter medicine program, I saw the consultation procedure evolve rapidly. But I think the essential dilemma remains: how can consultants give a single shelter the time that it needs to digest change, when their job is to help many shelters? Is the process simply too labor-intensive?

One shelter director told me recently that she didn’t feel the need to work with consultants because there is so much information available directly to her now, online at Maddie's Fund and ASPCAPro and at shelter conferences like Expo. Why should she let outsiders tell her what to do when she can learn herself? There is a lot to be said for this approach. I am absolutely a fan of education, and of providing new findings to everyone who’s interested. I think that if shelter staff really own their own education, they will accept new procedures much more quickly. Personally, I’d always rather make my own decisions after understanding the problem space, rather than being told what to do by someone else. (Flashbacks to being a teenager!)

But I think that if all these available resources lead shelter staff to feel that they can do it all themselves without consultants, they are missing a valuable resource. Consultants are experts. They are immersed in this stuff. And, perhaps even more importantly, they can take a step outside of the experience of one shelter, and draw on experiences from multiple shelters, something that can be extremely difficult for staff to do. They can focus staff on their primary problem -- something staff may not even be able to recognize, due to having lived with it for so long. I visited one shelter with dogs who had been on site for years. The shelter was full of behavioral emergencies, dogs who were engaged in full blown stereotypical behavior, dogs who were terrified constantly, dogs who were aggressive to all strangers. The shelter staff couldn’t see it. The dogs were great with them.

So, does it ever work? I am going to close this pessimistic post with a video about one time when it did work. Here, the two leaders of the Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida accept recognition from the city council of a nearby community for their help with that community's municipal shelter. Watching this video made my heart warm. The councillor presenting the award listed accomplishments I never would have expected a politician to recognize as important. Maybe it is all possible. May we all find a way to work with shelters, not against them. And may shelters find a way to work with us.


  1. I don't think it's a pessimistic post at all. It's realistic, and I really appreciate that you didn't make it a rant against "those stubborn shelter directors" or suchlike.

  2. Thank you. I definitely think the problem is two sided. My side has certainly messed up plenty :)

  3. I liked it too. And agree, it wasn't pessimistic but still hopeful everyone can find the answers they need. 8-)