17 Nov Volunteering with Animals Abroad – Our Week at the Dog Rescue Project in Thailand
At the beginning of our trip we were looking forward to getting some volunteering experience on the road; something we’d had little time for during our hectic lives back in London. However, our first six months on the road flew by in a whirl of adventures and by the end of it we hadn’t managed any volunteering at all – the closest we’d come was to visit the BAWA animal shelter in Bali, Indonesia. Fortunately, the perfect volunteering opportunity arose during our trip to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand where we learnt we could help out with their Dog Rescue Project.
Finding an Ethical Way to Volunteer Abroad
It can be incredibly difficult to find volunteering opportunities abroad which are ethically run, provide an actual benefit to local communities and are free or inexpensive to take part in. I learnt a bit about these issues before we left the UK when I attended a seminar about Responsible Volunteering at the World Travel Market.
During the seminar I heard stories of children in orphanages abroad who were negatively affected by the high turn-over of tourists who arrive and form close bonds with them only to leave a few weeks later causing more emotional harm than good. I was told about instances where volunteers paid to take part in building or teaching projects which took jobs away from local people and schools which were set up but never opened because there weren’t any teachers in the area.
After hearing these stories I was more determined than ever to make sure any volunteering we did had a truly positive impact. In researching further I read the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, written by Shannon O’Donnell, who has been travelling and volunteering abroad for years. On Shannon’s advice, I decided the best course of action would be to look out for locally-run volunteer projects to take part in as we travel; the Dog Rescue Project was a great example of how this strategy worked out brilliantly.
Volunteering with Animals Abroad at the Dog Rescue Project
The Dog Rescue Project was set up by the Elephant Nature Park’s owner Lek and her husband Darrick, when they first rescued 2,000 dogs from the Bangkok floods in 2011; 155 of which they re-homed at the park. Since then they have also taken in animals from surrounding areas and rescued others from the dog-meat trade; they now look after over 360 dogs altogether. While many of the dogs roam freely around amongst the elephants, most are housed in runs set further back in the park. There is also a small clinic where Erika, an international vet, and Thai veterinary nurses provide medical attention for the dogs and a small number of cats.
Unlike many animal shelters, the main aim of the Dog Rescue Project isn’t re-homing (although some dogs do ultimately get adopted); it’s to provide a happy and safe place for the animals to live for the rest of their lives. We found out about the project when we took our day trip to the park and saw posters advertising for volunteers; we were able to talk to staff about how the project was run and determine that the fees we would pay (£40 per person per week) would cover all our food and accommodation costs at the park before we signed up.
A Day in the Life of a Dog Volunteer
While I’ve spent a bit of time volunteering with dogs for the Mayhew Animal Home in London, this mainly involved helping out at events, writing some articles for their magazine and co-publishing a book of short stories to raise money for the shelter. I never seemed to actually spend much time with the animals so I was looking forward to getting some more hands-on experience during my week at the Dog Rescue Project.
The average working day turned out to be a lot more intense than I’d anticipated though; that’s not to say that the work wasn’t fun or worthwhile – we both got a huge amount out of the experience – but it could also be pretty dirty, hectic, exhausting and in some cases, emotionally draining. Alongside the regular daily schedule, emergencies would often arise. One day a dog was rushed in from one of the local villages with an infected machete wound and later died. The next day a tiny puppy, just a few weeks old was brought in after her mother had been killed in a motorcycle accident, her sister was discovered the next day suffering from a maggot-invested wound which later turned septic – an especially heart-rending experience for Maggie, one of the volunteers who cared for and hand-fed the pup day and night (update: we’ve heard from Maggie that the puppy, Bekka, has had surgery and is doing remarkably well now). Here’s our typical daily schedule:
breakfast with the other volunteers and staff at the main platform; we’d often be surrounded by elephants, buffalos and dogs as we ate against a backdrop of spectacular Thai countryside and mountains.
8am – 10.30am
Although Thai mahouts are employed to clean, feed and manage the majority of the open dog runs, volunteers are responsible for looking after around 30 to 35 clinic dogs. We’d start by walking the dogs that had been stuck in cages all night; many of which were sick or bandaged from surgery while others had infectious warts and needed to be kept separate from the other animals. Walking often involved cajoling the more nervous dogs out and lifting and carrying the injured animals, which Andrew was especially useful for. While the dogs were being walked we also set to work cleaning their cages, feeding them and helping to distribute their meds. Two people would be responsible for cleaning Steel’s cage, a big marble-floored pen built so that Steel, whose back legs are paralysed, could easily slide around. One morning I was also sent over to help out at the dog runs over the road; this literally involved shovelling huge amounts of dog shit – did I mention the work could be pretty dirty?
10.30 – 11.30am
Once the immediate tasks were taken care of there would usually be other projects to work on; bleaching areas where contagious animals had been housed, bathing and de-ticking dogs, helping with office tasks or just generally socialising with the dogs.
11.30 – 1pm
Lunch at the platform and a chance to rest.
1 – 2pm
Once again we’d walk the caged animals and take care of any cleaning that needed to be done.
2 – 3.30pm
Working on projects, de-ticking and socialising with the animals. Andrew and I liked to try and spend time in the runs which were further away and less visited; although the dogs would bark and go crazy when we initially entered normally they’d calm down and we’d have a chance to seek out the quieter animals which tend to hang around at the back of the pens.
3.30 – 5pm
Time to feed the dogs their main meals and help distribute the meds. Often a few animals would refuse to eat and would need to be hand-fed with a spoon; after that it would be time for final walks and cleaning before the end of the day.
After a shower and dinner at six o’clock we’d usually spend some time up on the main platform with the other volunteers and staff. We became quite addicted to the cheap massages offered by local women and would often indulge our weary limbs before heading back to our room at the house which we shared with four other dog volunteers. The house was located just beyond the dog runs and on several occasions we arrived back in the dark to find one of the wily creatures had escaped, setting all the other animals into a barking frenzy as we tried to catch the runaway. We were normally so exhausted that we were in bed by 9pm only to be woken several times throughout the night by the roars of elephants followed by a chorus of dog barking.
The Benefits of Dog Volunteer Work
Our week at the Dog Rescue Project was one of our favourite travel experiences to date and we’re already hoping to return there next year; here’s why:
- You make an immediate difference – when volunteering you have to recognise that your efforts are a very small contribution to the wider cause; you can’t change the world in a couple of weeks but over time the help of hundreds of volunteers like you will make a positive impact. This is certainly true of the Dog Rescue Project but I also feel that our simple actions did make an immediate difference to the animals; simply taking a dog out for a walk or spending time with them improves their day-to-day lives a great deal.
- Close contact with the animals – unlike volunteering with the elephants at the park, you get constant close contact with the animals when you volunteer at the Dog Rescue Project. All day is spent in the company of hounds and you get to stroke, cuddle and play with the dogs throughout the day – this was the best part of the experience for me. What’s unique about this project is that you get to work and live amongst elephants too, which is an incredible bonus.
- Chance to meet other volunteers – when volunteering you’ll get to meet and work with people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world. We got to meet some great people during our week at the Dog Rescue Project who all shared a common goal – to improve the lives of animals.
- Gain valuable experience – I believe taking part in any volunteer project provides valuable life and work experience which will help you develop and grow as a person; it’ll also look great on your CV, whatever industry you work in.
How to Become a Dog Rescue Volunteer
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand here are the details you’ll need to sign up:
- Location: The Elephant Nature Park, which is located about an hour away from Chiang Mai Thailand.
- Price: 4,000B (£80) per person per week*. This cost covers your accommodation (a basic room with fan and shared bathroom), transport to and from the park and three buffet-style meals a day.
- Volunteer hours: volunteers must stay a minimum of one week, working from 8am till 5pm everyday with an hour and a half break for lunch. If you work more than one week you get a day off in-between.
- How to find out more: check out the official website to find out more about volunteering for the Dog Rescue Project or leave a message on their Facebook page.
You can also become an elephant volunteer at the park; find out more on the Elephant Nature Park official website.
*Full Disclosure: we paid 2,000B (£40 per person).
PattiPosted at 20:53h, 17 November
“We were normally so exhausted that we were in bed by 9pm only to be woken several times throughout the night by the roars of elephants followed by a chorus of dog barking.”
Being woken by the roars of elephants is definitely a memory to keep! Well done Amy and Andrew! Love all of the puppy pictures!
AmyPosted at 05:35h, 18 November
Thanks Patti – it certainly was an experience to remember; it was hard work but great fun.
KerriPosted at 09:40h, 18 November
Wow! That souns like an amazing volunteer opprotunity. Do you know if they allow children to volunteer?
AmyPosted at 10:51h, 18 November
Hi Kerri, we saw children volunteering with the elephants so I’m sure it would be fine for them to volunteer with the dogs too; message their Facebook page to check though.
revlynnePosted at 15:23h, 21 June
Hi Amy I would love to go but would also need a travelling companion … I live in Devon.. studying animal ware are you still looking to go abroad sometime to Volunteer at the dog sanctuary
AmyPosted at 19:40h, 25 June
Hi Revlynne, I’m not planning on returning to Thailand right now unfortunately. You will meet plenty of other volunteers there to make friends with though, you can also check out the Elephant Nature Park’s Facebook page and put a message to see if there are any other travellers coming from the UK who you can team up with. Best wishes and happy travels!
AlysonPosted at 11:37h, 24 November
Good on you guys!
AndrewPosted at 11:41h, 24 November
Thanks Alyson 🙂
ManfredPosted at 12:42h, 24 November
That’s a very worthwhile thing to do while traveling. Makes the whole experience more rewarding and more memorable.
AndrewPosted at 13:31h, 24 November
Thanks Manfred, it was one of the best things we have done, really demanding at times but so rewarding.
Heidi WagonerPosted at 13:21h, 24 November
This looks great. I am not sure my heart strings could handle a week with the dogs, I would feel so sad for them. That said, it looks like they are in a nice place.
AndrewPosted at 13:35h, 24 November
The place was perfect for them Heidi, there were some difficult times but it was all worth it to see the effect it had on the dogs. Lots of the elephant volunteers came to see the dogs again and again since they liked them so much!
Erin Bender (Travel With Bender)Posted at 19:23h, 25 November
Awwww how did you not take them all home. Good job, good job!
AndrewPosted at 10:44h, 26 November
It was oh so tempting Erin, not enough room in our bags unfortunately. 🙂
Shannon O'DonnellPosted at 17:57h, 26 November
It looks like you found a great place to volunteer and I love all the cute puppy photos! Thanks so much for reading my book, hope it was helpful in framing the industry some for you. Cheers 🙂
AmyPosted at 16:21h, 28 November
Your book was really helpful thanks Shannon, I often recommend it to others. We had a great time volunteering and are looking for more locally-run projects to join as we travel.
raveburbleblogPosted at 02:10h, 29 November
Hi guys. Excellent article. I’ve put a link to it on this page on my blog:
Thanks for doing such a great write up. The puppies are getting so big! 😀
AmyPosted at 04:11h, 29 November
Great to hear from a fellow volunteer! Thanks for the link, I expect when we go back in April we won’t recognise the puppies at all!
Pedro VellaPosted at 10:25h, 16 December
Great blog ~ here is a pic of a couple of Sibs pups (which I named) Nelson & Mandela
AndrewPosted at 11:33h, 16 December
Thanks Pedro, great names! 🙂
LucyPosted at 20:52h, 05 January
Need to do this! Did you get help in transport from the airport to the place? Don’t think I know anyone who would join me on an adventure like this so would have to go on my own and don’t fancy travelling through Thailand on my own x
AmyPosted at 05:03h, 06 January
Hi Lucy, I don’t know whether they organise transport from the airport; we went to their office in Chiang Mai on the first day and they drove us out to the park. You can fly into Chiang Mai though, it’s a very nice, safe city with lots of tourists and expats around so you won’t have any trouble travelling there. It’s worth contacting the park through the links I put at the bottom of the article to see if they can help you further.
Larissa WilsonPosted at 20:41h, 10 February
I have been reading on volunteering abroad. I have been researching many different opportunities. I want to choose one that is financially feasible for me, but will also have the greatest impact. Is http://www.elephantnaturepark.org the right website? For a one week trip it says it is 6000 Baht. Which converts to $183.00 in US currency. This seems too good to be true since it is so cheap! I am undergraduate Biology major and after I graduate I want to pursue my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. I have been looking for volunteer opportunities that will look good on my resume and will also be a great learning experience for me and I can make a difference.
AmyPosted at 03:57h, 11 February
Hi Larissa, thanks for commenting, it’s great that you want to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park. Yes, that is the correct website for the park. For the Dog Rescue Project it’s a bit confusing at the moment and the prices seem to be changing; on one part of the website it says it costs 5000 Baht for a week and on another it says 6000 Baht – I would message them on their Facebook page to get a definitive answer. I am sure they would love to have you volunteer, the vets at the park are really friendly and I’m sure they’d love to talk to you about your ambitions!
FrancaPosted at 17:44h, 28 December
Lovely post guys! Me and Dale spent a month volunteering at ENP with the dogs and loved it so much that it was incredibly hard and heartbreaking when we had to leave them. Thanks for sharing your experience and inspiring more people to do the same 🙂
AmyPosted at 03:49h, 29 December
You do get so attached to the dogs, don’t you? I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to leave them after a whole month. I dream of going back to volunteer there one day 🙂
Lisa FortePosted at 22:08h, 29 December
Wow. This sounds like a great experience. I think I might get too attached though. Well done for spending the week making a real difference! X
AmyPosted at 11:55h, 30 December
It was amazing Lisa, I’d definitely recommend it.
Katya PartosPosted at 12:58h, 13 January
Hi, I’m looking into different things I could do during my gap year. This sounds incredible, thank you for writing about it! also much less expensive than many I’ve looked at. I really love dogs so I think this would suit me, but my concern is I’ll get too emotional about it all like if they’re in small cages etc, I was wondering what your take on that aspect of this volunteering is? and also what time of year you would suggest? ohh and how many volunteers are there at a time? thank you very much! all the best!
AmyPosted at 15:06h, 13 January
Hi Katya, I think it would be emotional but that’s a small price to pay for what you can give the dogs in terms of attention and affection. Yes, there are a lot of dogs to care for but every minute you can spend with them helps. Most of the dogs have a lot of space and are in big runs; many live completely freely in the park and go where they please. Only a small amount of dogs are kept in small cages if they’re recovering from medical care. We volunteered in November and the weather was cool, I found this preferable to volunteering in extreme heat. The number of dog volunteers varies from week to week, there were six including us when we were there. I would definitely check out the ENP Dogs facebook page to chat with some of the other volunteers and ask for more advice from the people who work there too. Good luck – I hope you enjoy volunteering 🙂
RhondaPosted at 19:21h, 28 February
oh love that you volunteered there! I first heard about the organization a few years ago when some bloggers I followed adopted an adorable little dog from there and brought him home with them. Its so wonderful to know such amazing organizations exist.. another we’ve become familiar with in Thailand is Soi Dog, in Phuket. Can’t wait to get back to Thailand to volunteer myself.
AmyPosted at 07:47h, 01 March
Hi Rhonda, yes I’ve heard great things about Soi Dog too. Volunteering with the dogs at ENP was one of my favourite travel experiences to date.
Terry BlevinsPosted at 20:22h, 04 May
I’ve been working with dogs for 6 years now and this sounds so amazing to do. I would love to help these guys and volunteer. I love dogs and would do anything to help and support them. It’s a beautiful thing they have going on. Please help me to understand how to be apart of this, I want to volunteer my time with them.
AmyPosted at 05:07h, 05 May
Hi Terry, I’m sure they would really appreciate you volunteering with all your skills and experience. You can apply to volunteer on the website here: http://www.saveelephant.org/dog-rescue-project/. Have fun!
amberPosted at 13:15h, 06 July
Hi, Im Amber, Im nearly 21 I live in the uk and I was wondering how I go about getting paid work helping rescue animals, traveling the world, I got so much time and passion for animals, if some one could please get back to me, that would be amazing, thank you for reading, hope to hear back from you soon. 🙂
AmyPosted at 21:02h, 06 July
Hi Amber, I’m afraid I don’t know about paid work, we volunteered at the Dog Rescue Project and there are many others like it that accept volunteers who work for free. You could try looking at Workaway.com or similar sites though. Good luck?
GemmaPosted at 00:08h, 06 December
Hi I have a couple of questions
Firstly, is this still running and at the same fees?
Secondly, is there wifi access and access to plug sockets?
Ps hearing about your experience was great!
AmyPosted at 16:47h, 06 December
Hi Gemma, thanks for reading. Yes, the scheme is still running although I’m not sure if they’ve raised the prices or not; you can contact the park through their Facebook page or website to find out exact rates. There was fairly decent wifi access at the main part of the park where you spend time dining and relaxing and there were sockets to charge gadgets too. We had a great experience there, hope you do too 🙂
GemmaPosted at 20:40h, 06 February
Where is the nearest airport?:)
AmyPosted at 22:21h, 06 February
Chiang Mai would be closest; you could also fly to Bangkok and then travel up by train or bus.
Ellie DentPosted at 18:12h, 28 July
Hi! My name isn’t Ellie Dent and I am currently working in a dog kennels, I left college in May after studying Level 2 animal care and I am really keen and interested in doing this to help out. I was wondering if I am able to get a little bit more information on the travelling and accommodation etc. Of the project? Thanks a lot, Ellie.
AmyPosted at 11:48h, 29 July
Hi Ellie, sounds like you’d be a perfect fit! It was a few years ago now since we volunteered there, so the accommodation may have changed a bit, but we stayed in a house near the dog kennels with three/four other volunteers. As we were a couple we had a room to ourselves but a few of the other volunteers shared, two to a room. This may be different now, so I’d contact the program direct through their website/Facebook page to find out more. As for travelling, you have to get yourself to Chiang Mai and then you’ll get a free transfer to and from the park I believe (again, things may have changed but that’s how it was for us). Good luck!
lana valensiPosted at 12:20h, 08 July
Hey does anyone know if you get to help both dogs and elephants?
AmyPosted at 15:04h, 29 July
Hi, I would get in contact with the Elephant Nature Park directly to find out, you could volunteer one week at the Dog Project and another at the Elephant project though I’m sure. Have a great trip.