Belén García Bonds with Shelter Dogs

I started visiting the Center d’Acollida d’Animals de Barcelona (CAACB, Barcelona Animal Refuge Centre) in the summer of 2010 while studying biology at university. I became a regular volunteer in 2013, about the time I learned how to train dogs.

We always had dogs at home, but when I lived on my own in Barcelona, I missed them terribly. Being a volunteer helped fill that void.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

Volunteering is addictive. You get attached to some dogs and begin to feel for them; they weigh on your mind if you can’t make it there.

Each volunteer deals with it as best they can. It’s a unique, personal experience—everyone lives it differently. I know several volunteers who have stopped coming because the situation overwhelms them, or others who became sad when a dog they bonded with left. Most can manage the difficulties.

People may try to avoid becoming attached to a dog. Forging a bond with a dog doesn’t bother me. That’s what motivates me to continue.

How can you help shelter dogs? It’s simple, just put yourself out there, take action. Share information on social media, for example. Some see the dogs profiled on Facebook; they share the information and that helps. Sometimes they find homes and you think, of the 10 cases that I have shared today, two dogs have found a home. Great, I’ll continue sharing information. Another way to help is to volunteer, of course. Show up and dedicate your time. You leave there knowing you have given them quality time and have contributed something to their lives. People must do it according to their skills; there are people who don’t know how to manage it. Everyone must find a way that makes them feel good and feel helpful, without getting depressed or down. But the goal is always the same: to find them a home. The dogs must leave the shelter.

Maybe you don’t want to be in direct contact with cases but want to do something for animals. You could become a vegan, which is also a way to contribute indirectly. Some people volunteer in administration, working in logistics. Or involve themselves with animal rights movements. If you are an expert in a required field, you can be an advisor. For example, you may be an expert on animal abuse. There are thousands of ways to help.

Shelter dogs bond quickly with a person. Walk the same dog two or three times and he remembers you. If he’s happy to see you when he doesn’t know you, imagine what happens after you take him out of his cage a few times. There are also cases where you develop a stronger connection … I developed a crush on one dog from day one! Now, every time I go to the shelter, I save the last 10 minutes for him alone. You can have a healthy bond with a shelter dog. But keep in mind, the dog should be also bonding with other people, not just you.

Occasionally there are cases when the dog enters the shelter very fearful and must learn to trust people. At first one person gains his trust. It can be a gigantic step. When one person wins his trust, then another must do the same. Then another, and so on until, little by little, he trusts people. These are small steps, but the dog benefits immensely. This is the ideal scenario. Of course, there are dogs in the shelter which are walked by only one volunteer. However, problems arise when there is the possibility of adoption. I understand that there are dogs that, if it were not for the one person taking him out for his walk, would never leave the cage. But ideally, they learn to be confident with many people.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

I adopted Balu in September 2016. He entered the centre when he was 6 months old, and I thought, what a beautiful dog! I was sure it would be one of those cases where someone snaps up the dog quickly. Myself, I thought I’d adopt an elderly dog. But we had a connection. I guess the dog chooses you. I would see him every week during his stay – about a month and a half – but tell myself he’ll be going soon. He had come in with another dog – his brother, I think – who soon left and Balu was on his own. Once I went into his cage to spend time with him, and he quietly fell asleep in my lap. Not once in four years as a volunteer had that happened to me. There he was, snoring away. Someone adopted him, but they returned him 24 hours later. I was there the day they brought him back and when I saw him back in the cage, and saw him… Well, I just couldn’t resist anymore. I saw that poor, lost look they get when they’re back in the same place. You can’t understand it until you see it. Besides that, the poor boy had a fever, he was sick, and I couldn’t bear to look at his sad face. I adopted him that same day.

Belén and Balu, photo by Santos Román @retratista_animal

The idea of ​​21 Hogares (21 Homes) is to help the “invisible” dogs, those that have been in the shelter for a long time. I met a photographer who volunteered at a shelter. She told me she took pictures of the dogs and of their success rate. After disseminating their picture, people adopted them within days. That was a revelation and the start of an initiative. Together with Emma Infante (of Futur Animal), we worked on the idea. Soon, more people and more shelters became involved, and we created a group, of which I am a spokesperson.

We’re outraged that a dog can live in a cage for 8 years. They become invisible. The idea behind photographing them is to capture their appeal in a quality image. This awakens compassion in people; it helps people connect. Instead of focusing on sorrow, people see them in a positive light. We focus on their tender qualities, their cheerful natures. Unfortunately, it just so happens that most fall under the label of potentially dangerous dogs, according to the breed-specific law. Or they’re older dogs—many are between 8 and 13 years old. There are also younger dogs who don’t fall under breed-specific legislation but who have been in the shelter for many years. These are dogs that people don’t see, who go unnoticed. A mystery, really, and sad.

We made a list of those that we consider urgent, who we’d like to see adopted as soon as possible, and there were 21 dogs on the list. That’s where the name comes from: 21 Homes. Because the chief aim is to find homes for them. The list has expanded since then, but the name stays the same. It reflects our goal to find homes for these “invisible” dogs.

Belen Garcia, lives in Barcelona

Biologist, Anthrozoologist and Canine Educator at Sentit Caní www.sentitcani.com