By Marni Hills
“Saving just one dog won’t change the world, but it surely will change the world for that one dog.” — Richard C. Call, Philanthropist, Community Leader
Is the daily grind of grooming dogs becoming a little bit monotonous? Do you yearn for adventure? Do you wish you could do something to give back? Consider an international trip to volunteer at an animal shelter. A highly specialized skill like dog grooming turns out to be an incredibly valuable way to do good in the world of dog rescue—as I learned on my recent volunteer vacation to Guatemala.
“Voluntourism” is a quickly growing concept. Doing something to contribute in a foreign country is a wonderful way to experience another culture, learn a new language, meet like–minded people and maybe gain some perspective on how you live your own life back home.
I decided to apply to volunteer at Animal Aware Guatemala—the largest dog rescue in Central America. Located in the mountains outside the picturesque Spanish colonial city of La Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage site), it seemed like the perfect combination of an interesting destination and a place in great need of help.
As the trip date approached, I emailed the shelter director Xenii Neilsen, an American woman who started the shelter over 20 years ago, and asked, “Should I bring my grooming equipment or do you have something on site I could use?”
She replied, “Oh we had some grooming equipment donated so don’t worry, we have stuff here.”
I thought about that for a minute and then considered; what kind of grooming equipment does she think she has? What if it’s dirty, rusty, unsharpened, not a size that works for me? Too many variables and she may not know anything about “grooming equipment”. But packing it in my luggage or shipping all my own equipment seemed risky—that’s my livelihood and what if it got lost or damaged?
I decided to bring everything I might need and a bit more; grooming loops, clippers with lots of short blades, blade wash and disinfectant, several of my favorite shears, muzzles, nail clippers, dremel, brushes and combs, my grooming smock and pants. I packed it carefully in my checked bag and hoped for the best.
A successful volunteer visit requires adaptability, improvisation and a strong constitution to deal with whatever needs to be done. I expected the rescue to be primitive and possibly shocking. But it was more dreadful than I expected. When I arrived and was given a tour of the grounds, my initial response was overwhelming hopelessness and I thought “where do I possibly begin?!”
Panic was setting in as we walked through a variety of concrete fenced pens spread over many hilly acres in the woods. Three hundred dogs and eighty cats were housed here and while most looked just fine, some were in really bad shape. The two young women giving me the tour were both volunteers (Erin from Canada and Julia from Germany) who had arrived a week before I did. They showed me a list they made of over thirty dogs they felt had an urgent grooming need and each was ranked—from bad to worst—either matted to the skin with urine, mud and feces, fully infested with fleas, hairless and scabby from unknown underlying issues, horrendously overgrown nails or a combination thereof.
It turns out that, although these dogs have been rescued from a life of abuse or starvation and are now living in a safe environment with food, water and shelter, they are not “out of the woods.” Obviously certain breeds of dogs need ongoing grooming care of their coat and all need bathing and nail trims. A large shelter such as this in a developing country is staffed with a skeleton crew of local young people with very little training or background with dogs. Yes, there is a stream of sporadic visits from international volunteers, but without special skills or some training they cannot address this need. There is simply no one there qualified to help the dogs with these specific issues.
Thank god I brought my own equipment. There was nothing set up for grooming and no clippers or blades or shears. What the director called grooming equipment turned out to be a donated grooming tub filled with an old vacuum, a hose that attached to nothing, a couple buckets and a wide variety of flea and tick and other shampoos and conditioners. This all stood in the middle of a dirt lot outside a dilapidated “clinica” building.
Time to adapt and improvise! The building that housed the clinic was not an option as it was filled with stacked crates full of dogs and had no good overhead lighting. We carried a narrow steel operating table from inside the clinic and outfitted it with a grooming arm and an old feed bag wrapped around it with leashes to provide a solid spot for dogs to stand. We put it up on cinder blocks so it was a good height. This was my headquarters arranged outdoors on a semi-shaded side of the clinic building. Mornings were cool and comfortable but sweat and sunburn were the norm every afternoon.
As I set up my stuff around the grooming table, Erin and Julia went out into the pens to find the worst dog on their list. They returned with a purebred Chow named Nasha. Tears filled my eyes when we put her up on the table to see what we were dealing with. Her coat was so tightly matted that I could not get anything but a 30 blade under the hair. This was probably years of pain for her. I had to adjust my thinking (“never shave a double coated dog”) and my training on which blades to use when had to go right out the window.
The change in Nasha’s demeanor after her painful coat was shaved off was remarkable. Before her groom, she was just a big lump in the corner of her pen—barely moving, no expression in her face. Once we got her down off the table to go back to her pen she was wiggling furiously and wagging her tail, spinning in circles, hopping and jumping up on us, nosing our legs, mouth open with a big smile. What a wonderful feeling to have improved her life.
We continued with this routine for the rest of the week. Each day we progressed down the list so the grooms got easier and the issues were slightly less heartbreaking. I showed Erin and Julia the best ways to brush, trim nails, and bathe the dogs so they helped me immensely. If they had not been there to help me—holding the wiggly dogs on the table, running to and from pens with dogs, bathing them after they were clipped—I could not have accomplished nearly as much as we did working together as a team.
I had the weekends before and after this volunteer week to explore La Antigua’s historic churches and ruins, the open air markets, the surrounding volcanoes and some wonderful restaurants and street food. The city is touristy but also uniquely geared toward volunteers. Certain restaurants even offer weekly “Volunteer Nights” that encourage meeting and sharing experiences with volunteers from all over the world.
If you’re not comfortable planning a trip alone, there are hundreds of organizations that offer packages and tours for people interested in combining volunteering and travel to international destinations. For a fee they will arrange things like airport transfers, hostels or homestays with local families (meals included), language school classes, and the security of organized group travel—but do your research to be sure your work will truly be meeting a local need in that community.
Volunteering requires an open mind, a humble approach, and a lot of self–motivation. Even though I knew I possessed those qualities before this trip, the experiences I had in Guatemala changed me for the better. The trip and the people and dogs I met served to expand my mind, improve my abilities and open up my world view more than ever. The first thought I had when I got home was, “When can I go back?” ✂
Marni Hills is a writer, world traveler and NDGAA-registered groomer. She recently completed training in restorative skin and coat care through Iv San Bernard USA and is now one of a small but growing number of Certified Pet Aestheticians in the country. Marni is currently grooming at Harmony Pet Clinic in the Greater Milwaukee area. Her pet family includes rescues Rune, a 16 yr old Amstaff mix and Lily, 6 yr old yellow lab. If you would like more information about joining future international volunteer grooming trips please email Marni at [email protected]