Burnout: The Monster in the Rescue Closet

Burnout: The Monster in the Rescue Closet

By: Staff  Date: 02/13/2003 Category: | Canine Issues | Rescue |

"I'm so tired and discouraged all the time. I feel like I'm on duty 24/7 and never get a day off. The harder I work, the harder they want me to work. Nothing ever gets better, it seems like it only gets worse. The dogs don't stop coming no matter what I do."

"I have days where my hands shake just thinking about picking up the phone to call another owner who wants to dump their dog. I can hardly bring myself to do it anymore. When I do, I just want to scream at them."

"My bills are all past due, I owe a fortune to the vet, there's no food in the fridge, I'm using the charge card to make ends meet and I'm over my credit limit again. I don't know how I'm going to buy dog food this week."

"Sometimes I grieve for the life I had before rescue. It's been so long, I hardly remember the fun I used to have, hobbies, trips, friends. I miss them so much!"

"I want to quit so badly but I can't. The dogs are depending on me to save them. Thinking about quitting makes me feel guilty and ashamed of myself. But I can't go on this way much longer. I really wish someone would rescue me!"

Do any of these sound familiar? If you've been a rescue volunteer for any length of time, I know they do! They're some of the innermost thoughts of overextended rescuers, rarely expressed out loud even to each other. How do I know? Because I've been there myself. All of those thoughts have been my own at one time or another throughout my rescue career.

Rescue is an extremely stressful activity with a high rate of burnout. The same applies to people who work in animal shelters. Burnout is a common problem that eventually affects almost everyone. It's hard to prepare new volunteers for this because their enthusiasm blocks out the warnings of the more experienced. You can tell them about it but it goes in one ear and out the other. They don't understand until they've arrived there themselves, and then they don't know how to cope with it.

Oddly, for as common as it is, burnout is seldom discussed. It's hard to get people to talk about it. The subject makes people uncomfortable, especially those who are suffering from it. I'm not a psychologist but I imagine there must be reasons for this reluctance: maybe we're afraid we'll be seen as weak, unable to measure up to saintly expectations; maybe we think we've failed somehow. Whatever the reason, this silence has created a gaping chasm that many rescuers fall into, never to be seen again. Burnout is probably the most dangerous problem that rescuers face. We need to talk about it and help each other through it.

To cope with burnout, you have to take back control of your life! We get into rescue to help animals in our spare time but it quickly takes over all our time and resources, becoming the only thing in our lives. To put rescue back in perspective:

  • Take care of yourself first. You're no good to anyone or anything if you're tired, miserable, broke, or angry all the time. Neglecting your own needs makes you less effective, not more. You deserve to eat and sleep well, to be healthy, to have fun and be happy as much as anyone else.
  • Look at your situation and compare it to where you want to be. What are your true personal priorities in life? Make a list of them beginning with those most important to you. Are the ones at the top of your list getting the largest amount of your time and resources? If not, rearrange your time so they are.
  • What activities besides rescue do you enjoy most? Do you (or did you) have a hobby? Make another list. Do something from that list every day. It doesn't have to be a big thing, it can be as small as reading a few pages of a novel or taking a walk with your dog. The important thing is to make time every day to do something that makes you happy. Don't put this off until you have time - make time! This little daily break will do wonders for your attitude and well being.
  • Take at least one day a week off from rescue. Do whatever you want or need to do on that day as long as it doesn't involve rescue. Even shelter employees have days off and so should you!
  • Stay connected to the 'real' world. Some volunteers get so deeply involved with rescue, they isolate themselves and develop a very narrow negative mindset. Read books and newspapers, visit with non-rescue friends, go places, meet new people.
  • Set a SMART goal for yourself and do something every day toward reaching it. A SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Realistic, and has a Timetable. An example of a SMART goal is "I am going to teach my foster dog to sit and stay on command within two weeks." Goals like "I'm going to end all pet abuse in the US" or "someday I'm going to move to the country and build a sanctuary" are noble thoughts but too big and vague to keep you focused on them. They usually produce discouragement. SMART goals automatically steer you toward progress and achievement that provide personal satisfaction and the enthusiasm to set and reach your next SMART goal.
  • Keep a record of your successes and look at them often. In rescue, the negative can seem to overwhelm the positive. Our efforts can feel insignificant and we forget how much good we've done. Keep a photo album of all your placements, all your happy endings, and review them regularly, not just when you're feeling low. You'll be amazed to see how much you have actually accomplished. Be proud of them! They'll charge your batteries for another go.
  • Ask for help. None of us are in this alone although many of us seem to think we are. When you're discouraged, depressed, overwhelmed, or just need to vent, tell somebody! We all need support at times. When we support each other, we all feel better.
  • Evaluate your rescue activities and make adjustments that allow you to have a life as well as a rescue program. If you've been in rescue long enough to feel burned out, you've been in long enough to know what you're best at, what you can afford, and how many dogs you can care for properly. Use this information to set new priorities and limits for your program - and then stick to them.


This last is probably the hardest for rescuers to put into practice because it means saying "No" sometimes. We're not very good at that, are we? The emotional aspects of rescue weigh heavy on us. We're constantly pressured to say yes. It's very very hard to say no and it's usually attached to a guilt trip. It's amazing how many burdens we'll take upon ourselves to avoid feeling guilty, but they'll bring you to only one place: burnout. You have to say no to survive for long in rescue because the animals never stop coming and people will never stop making demands of you. Saying no is the only thing that gives you any real control over what happens to you in rescue. It's the most powerful thing you can do to get your life back on track and make yourself happy and fully effective once again.

About The Author

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All Authors Of This Article: | Vicki DeGruy |
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