What it’s really like volunteering at an open access shelter

This post has been one I’ve been wanting to write for a while. It couldn’t have worked out better with timing because today is also the day I get to announce that my Fetch Eyewear partnership will benefit our city’s homeless pets! Now, with every purchase using code “Rescueinstyle” Fetch Eyewear will donate $10 from each sale to Rescue Chicago. My code will give you a discount, save Chicago pets, and support this blog. Plus, 100% of the proceeds from Fetch Eyewear is donated to animal rescue organizations. So, if you’ve wanted a pair of glasses, sunglasses (both Rx and non-Rx!), or blue light blocking glasses (non-Rx available!) now is the time!

I knew that when I announced this partnership on my blog that I wanted to also speak about what it means to be a volunteer at our city shelter. This post will give you a good idea of what a municipal shelter is and why they are the ones that need the most help. Then, read the rest of this post below!

A little background on open-access shelters

In a nutshell, open-access, or “kill shelters” as people often (sadly) call them, are shelters that take in every single animal that comes through its doors. No matter the breed, age, size, health, or behavioral conditions of the animals, open-access shelters must provide care for them. 

Unfortunately, there’s only a finite amount of space at these shelters. Animals pour is daily and every animal must have a spot. Because of this, hard decisions are made to euthanize animals. I want to be clear, nobody who volunteers or works at the shelters wants to euthanize these animals. However, until our community starts providing homes and stops overbreeding animals, we have no choice. 

The good news is that Chicago Animal Care & Control, our city’s open-access shelter, had a Live Release Rate of 92% for 2019. That means 92% of the animals that came through our doors found forever homes either through adoption or rescue.

Now that I’ve given a teeny background on what an open-access shelter is (please for the love of dog stop saying “kill shelter”), allow me to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to volunteer there. For the most part, this post will be focusing on the dogs because that’s where I spend the majority of my time. I do, however, volunteer with cats from time to time and love my feline friends. 

Let’s start with the bad things…

I’ll start with the obvious, yes, it’s hard. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, it’s exhausting. I come home from volunteering in need of a quiet bath, some pizza, and lots of trashy TV. Walking dogs that only get out once a day (if they’re lucky) is challenging. They’re often so excited to be outside and out of their kennel that they have so much energy to burn off. Who can blame them? My Olive Oyl arms are no match for a 60-pound dog on a mission to smell. Luckily, there are plenty of runs you can step into with the pup to let them explore off-leash. It gives everyone a break!

Beyond the physical, it’s emotionally tough too. I’ve fallen in love with so many dogs that I wish I could take home. It’s sometimes crushing putting them back in their kennels afterward. I feel guilty for not fostering more or working harder to find them a foster or adopter. Sometimes it’s overwhelming feeling like I’m not doing enough for them. It’s at these times that I try to remember what my friend Tara once told me. She said that the time before the walk and the time after the walk are out of my control. I can only focus on the time I get to spend with those dogs and be in the moment. Those 15-30 minutes are the best minutes of their day so I make them count and spoil them endlessly.

Mentally, volunteering is challenging as well. There are some days I feel like I knew what I was doing and there are other days where I’m at a complete loss. Sometimes I get anxious before taking a new dog out, worried that I’m not capable of handling it. I’ve built up a ton of confidence over the past year but I still doubt myself at times. More experience and picking the brains of other volunteers has really been invaluable. 

And the worst part

As a newer volunteer, I usually only walk dogs in the first two pavilions. These dogs are for the most part, better known and less likely to be euthanized. While I have known dogs that were put to sleep, it’s rare. It’s crushing when it does happen and can take a bit for the sadness to go away. Volunteers will mourn and share anecdotes to heal together. You remember that you’re not in this alone. My heart goes out to the volunteers that walk dogs in the back pavilions, they are true warriors and battle weekly with disappointing outcomes.

Now the feel good stuff

I hope you’re still reading because this is where the good happens. I can’t explain to you how much I love volunteering at CACC. It’s weirdly become my happy place, somewhere I go to forget my life responsibilities. There is no greater joy than taking out a dog and giving it the best time of their day. The kisses, the games, the snuggles, the laughter… I could go on and on about how freeing it is. The dogs ask for nothing and want so little in return. Some of them are coming from horrible backgrounds and you know that CACC is the first time they’ve ever experienced warmth, love, and a full belly. Being a part of that is magical. 

When you volunteer at a city shelter, you get to see how resilient these animals truly are. They learn tricks, become social, and start to bond with the volunteers. Watching a sad, scared, shut-down dog grow into a social butterfly (I’m looking at you Lucy!), is one of the most inspiring things to witness.

It also doesn’t stop there, most of these dogs have a journey until they find their forever. Take Milton for example. He was a senior dog that I fell in love with in November. He was just my type: chill, calm, old, ridiculous. He was one I considered fostering so when he was pulled out of CACC by One Tail at a Time, I was thrilled! Then, just this past weekend, he was adopted by his foster parents. Now he has his own Instagram that I stalk daily and I consider myself so so lucky to have been just a small part of his story. 

I have learned so much about animals since volunteering at CACC, but even more about people. I get to help the public in choosing what pet to add to their family. Working with adopters wasn’t something I was anticipating, but I really enjoy it. Even when they don’t end up adopting, I am so thankful to people who choose to visit our city shelter. They could get a pet from many places, and they chose to visit the most under-served and underfunded facility. It’s (usually) a pleasure getting to work with them.

Volunteering at Chicago Animal Care & Control has been the best decision I’ve made in the past year. If you want to become a volunteer, attend an upcoming orientation. Hope to see you there!


Navarro – This boy was actually found running along the Eisenhower Expressway. Two Good Samaritans stopped to get him and he jumped right in their car. He’s so gentle and knows basic commands. He needs special attention so he needs a foster home to get out of CACC. If you’re interested in fostering, please let me know via email: Christine(at)rescueinstyle.com. 

Lou – Poor Lou is clearly upset and missing his family. This gentle-mannered boy would love nothing more than to snuggle up with you and enjoy the good life again. Lou is an older guy but very chill and easy on leash. He’s available for direct adoption. 


I’ve already talked about Fetch Eyewear, but just a reminder, using the promo code “Rescueinstyle” gets you 15% off and a portion is donated to Rescue Chicago to help our city’s homeless pets. 

A big thank you to RBC Showroom for lending me this coat! Shop this bodysuit at Kiz



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2 thoughts on “What it’s really like volunteering at an open access shelter”

    1. Aw, thank YOU Shannon!! I’ve loved watching your journey with rescue and fostering. I’m so thankful you decided to open your heart to an animal in need <3

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