Boy petting dog

Q. My 12-year-old son wants to volunteer in an animal shelter. What would I need to do to arrange this?

A. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to read this, since it reminds me, once again, how many parents understand how important pets are to children — and how we’re raising the next generation of kids to love, respect and care for animals. Music to my ears!

Your local shelter will tell you if your son is old enough to volunteer there, and that’s going to be their call. Some shelters accept volunteers of middle-school age or older, and some hold out for high-school kids. There may also be exceptions for younger children if parents work alongside them, so this could be a good experience for you both.

Prepare Your Son

Most groups work to keep the experience as positive as possible for youngsters, using them to help walk dogs and socialize cats. There’s no hiding the gloomier side of working in shelters, though, so you’ll need to have an honest, open discussion with your son to prepare him for the sad fact that even in the most well-run shelters, not all pets get adopted. And, of course, you’ll also need to set some ground rules for adoption. Otherwise he’ll likely be pushing to bring home more pets than you can care for.

At a practical level, make sure that your son understands how to handle animals respectfully, because when an animal is frightened, there's always the risk that it may bite or scratch. You want this interaction to be safe and positive for your son — and the shelter animals.

You know your son best. If he’s mature enough for this rewarding work, then get in touch with your shelter. If he doesn’t meet the age requirements for volunteering yet, he can still help animals. He might be able to collect old towels — shelters go through towels like crazy — or get people to save their change for a cash donation. There are always ways to help!

If his interest in animals continues, I won’t be at all surprised to count him as a colleague some day. Seems all the veterinarians I know have spent their lives caring for animals, long before they became animal doctors.