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    Guide To Utilizing Shelter Shifts At Your Animal Sanctuary

    a caregiver holds a scrub brush and walks behind two pigs who are eating.
    Lucie, one of the caregivers at GroinGroin refuge in France goes about her daily chores. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

    Resource Acknowledgement
    The following resource was written for The Open Sanctuary Project by guest contributor Jill Tedeschi of Healthy Herd Consulting

    Coordinating the helping human hands at your animal sanctuary often takes more planning than you may initially anticipate. There usually comes a tipping point when it doesn’t make sense for one person (or team of people) to complete all the sanctuary’s tasks together. Instead, splitting the shelter responsibilities and caregiving duties into “shifts” for their staff and volunteers is more efficient.

    For this resource, we define a “shift” as an extended period (about 4 hours or more) where one individual is responsible for a defined set of tasks or duties. The defined responsibilities don’t change based on which caregiver is assigned to the shift that day. 

    In this resource, we’ll examine the common ways shift duties are divided and the various factors you may need to consider when creating the task list. Additionally, we’ll explore training people on the shift, collecting feedback, shift burnout, and how/when to tweak the shift’s duties. 

    Common Shift Divisions

    Sanctuary shelter shifts generally fall into one or a combination of the four categories outlined below.

    • By Type of Task: This shift style is organized around a common task. Examples of shifts based upon tasks include Feeding/Watering, Medication Administration & Healthcare, Habitat Cleaning, Errand/Transport Support, Volunteer Guide, etc.
    • By Species or Resident Group: It may make sense at your animal sanctuary to break up shifts by species or resident group. For example, a shift may entail all bird care, goat/sheep care, or Cornish cross & turkey care.
    • By Location: This shift style is split based on the sanctuary’s layout. For example, one shift might be Quarantine Space Care or Upper Ruminant & Pig Barn Care.
    • By Time Frame: Or, it may make sense to split shifts based on the time frame tasks need to occur and when caregivers need to be onsite. For example, Morning Meds/Feeds/Cleaning might be a shift that covers 6 AM – 2:30 PM, while Evening Meds/Feeds/Cleaning covers 2 PM – 9 PM.
    • Combination: You might need multiple concurrent shifts that combine the four divisions for larger sanctuaries. Example shifts might include AM Medications & Healthcare for Birds in Lower Barns or Feed/Water for Ruminants (7 AM – 12:30 PM).

    Factors To Consider When Creating The Shifts’ Task Lists

    Once you have a general idea of how to divide the duties, it’s time to create the master task list for the shift. As you’re compiling the master task list, keep the following factors in mind so that the shift remains manageable for all assigned to it.


    First, who are the responsible parties on this shift? Will it be staff members, interns, or volunteers? Not all tasks are appropriate for all onsite workers to complete. What intrinsic knowledge of the sanctuary and its residents is necessary for the shift’s tasks? For example, an infrequent volunteer may not be best suited to conduct the day’s primary animal healthcare observations or safely navigate residents who mistrust humans. What would the consequences be if the task was done incorrectly, and should that responsibility fall upon paid staff members or volunteer positions? Although there are consequences for each task, some have higher risks. For example, the results could be fatal if a medication is not appropriately prepared and administered or if the residents are not secured overnight with the proper temperature accommodations. Such high-risk tasks would be better suited to shifts completed by individuals you trust who have demonstrated adequate knowledge, skill, and communication. Each sanctuary has a different personnel base, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

    Providing Conflict Support for Sanctuary Staff
    In addition to considering the various skill sets and levels of experience of your staff members, it’s also important to consider relational work dynamics as you develop and modify shifts. What kind of support can you offer your personnel to help them navigate potential conflict as they work with one another and complete their daily tasks together? What kinds of tools can you offer to help your team build work relationships that are built on trust, solidarity, effective communication, and mutual support? If you’re interested in learning more about these topics, please take a look at our resources on conflict support for animal organizations: Conflict Support for Your Animal Organization Part 1: Understanding Dominant Culture, How it Shapes Our Behaviors and Envisioning Alternatives and Conflict Support for Your Animal Organization Part 2: Building Transformative Relationships: Tools for Challenging Dominant Culture in Everyday Interactions.

    Location & Layout

    Imagine watching someone conduct the shift from above. Is the path that a person walks or drives logical and efficient? Or does this path have the individual doubling back to locations unnecessarily? Organizing shift tasks by location and layout refers to arranging and prioritizing tasks to minimize unnecessary movement or walking, ultimately saving time and energy and increasing efficiency. Although this factor is crucial for sanctuaries with multiple buildings and significant acreage, it also is true for smaller sanctuaries. Don’t underestimate how much time walking back-and-forth within one structure takes! There will be times when doubling back to locations is necessary, such as to collect food bowls, rejoin separated individuals, or if you have to rush to the next space to finish time-sensitive tasks.

    Necessary Skill Set

    What skills are needed to complete the shift’s tasks, and does the person conducting the shift have adequate training? Similar to Factor #1, Personnel, not all tasks are appropriate for all onsite workers and volunteers. Make a list of required knowledge. For example, this might include administering medications, recognizing irregular behavior, handling or separating individuals calmly and safely for supplementary food or treatments, specific machinery operations, or being the first point of contact for the public.

    Physicality Of The Tasks

    As noted in Accessibility for Folks with Physical Disabilities at Your Animal Sanctuary, it’s vital that animal sanctuaries specifically consider the experiences of folks with physical disabilities. Even while following ADA guidelines and adopting the principles of Universal Design, a person’s physical ability or desires can change over time. While compiling the list of tasks on a shift, zoom out to assess the physical demands. Although you might be used to the daily miles and moving supplies, this ease usually comes from repetition and building muscle and stamina, but can also change on a daily or even hourly basis, particularly for folks with dynamic disabilities. So, as you’re creating shift task lists, it’s important to consider factors such as:

    How much time does that person need to spend on their feet walking?
    What is the topography of the sanctuary site? Are there many hills?
    How is this shift impacted by weather – heat, humidity, mud, rain, snow?
    How much lifting is required, and what is the weight capacity?

    Are Modifications Or Accommodations Possible?
    With the above in mind, consider if there are any modifications or accommodations the sanctuary can build into the shift that might help minimize the amount of time a person needs to spend walking, climbing hills, and carrying equipment. For example, are there any automobiles, ATVs, or UTVs available for personnel to use to get around the sanctuary more manageably?

    Necessary Physical Support

    Consider if one person can complete all the tasks on this shift or if additional physical support is needed. For example, if the habitat cleaning shift you’re creating requires escorting all cow residents out of their enclosure for deep cleaning, can one person easily do this? Or do you need to ensure another concurrent shift is happening in that area so that multiple folks can help relocate the individuals? Or does this shift need to be assigned to more than one person for part or all of the day?

    Necessary Tools & Equipment

    Be sure to consider what types of tools and/or equipment are necessary to complete different tasks and how many of these tools or equipment are available. While some necessary tools (such as a scrub brush to clean drinking waters) are inexpensive, making it fairly easy to increase your inventory as needed, others may be in more limited supply. For example, if there are large water troughs on site that are too far from spigots to be filled via hose and instead water must be brought in with a utility vehicle and portable water tank, consider the logistics of multiple shifts needing this equipment in order to complete their tasks. Does it make more sense for one shift to be responsible for cleaning and refilling all large water troughs that require use of this equipment? Alternatively, is there a way to space out tasks to reduce the chances of folks on different shifts needing to use the equipment at the same time or holding each other up while equipment is in use?

    Strenuousness Of Tasks

    In addition to thinking about the physical abilities of the people completing the shift, be mindful of how many physically demanding tasks are stacked upon each other. Although it might make sense logistically to have a shift that distributes all the forage/hay to residents, depending on how those bales are moved and where they are stored, it might be too taxing for one person to complete. Is there a way to balance the physically demanding tasks or build in rest time and appropriate space(s) for staff to rest as needed?

    Time Constraints & Sensitivity

    How long does it take to complete all tasks on the shift, with ample time built in for things to go awry? Not everyone will complete the tasks at the same pace, and the more frequently someone completes that shift, the more efficient they will naturally become. As the orchestrator of the shift, you might naturally move faster and more efficiently than someone who is just getting started or someone with an invisible or dynamic disability. This is particularly important if part of your shift includes time-sensitive tasks, such as administering medications, specialized feeding, or letting residents in or out of their enclosures for the day. If all time-sensitive tasks cannot be completed within the allotted time frame, you may need to run another concurrent shift to split the responsibilities.

    Pleasantness Of Tasks

    Unsurprisingly, some sanctuary tasks are more exciting or directly rewarding than others. Those tasks, too, are essential to keep the sanctuary operating. However, take consideration to ensure that there’s a mix of pleasantness within each shift to maintain fairness and job satisfaction. For shifts conducted by volunteers and unpaid interns specifically, these “fun” tasks must be peppered throughout their shifts – they’re gifting your sanctuary free labor!

    Also Be Sure To Consider How The Shifts Fit Together!
    In addition to the above considerations, it’s important to also think about how the different shifts work together. This is particularly important when considering the timing and flow of different shifts. Do folks on different shifts need to work in the same space or with the same group of residents at the same time? In some cases, this may be fine, but in others it could make it difficult for one or both of the shifts to be completed. For example, if two folks need to prep veggies at the start of their shift and the area in which produce is kept and prepared is cramped, this could make the task more time-consuming and challenging than it needs to be. Similarly, be sure to consider how the tasks one shift completes might affect tasks on other shifts, even if folks are unlikely to be working in the same space or with the same residents at the same time. It’s also important to consider the shifts from the perspective of the residents. For example, if you know that your pig residents want to take a nap inside shortly after they eat, you’ll want to make sure the folks responsible for cleaning their living space aren’t scheduled to do so right after they have eaten.


    Now that you have defined the task list for each shift, it’s time to train folks to complete the shift’s duties. As the creator of the shift, the flow of tasks may seem organic and clear to you, but be mindful of someone coming to the shift with fresh eyes. Training on a multi-hour shift can be overwhelming, especially when training the individual on new skills. Pacing training is key.

    Pacing training looks different for each sanctuary, each shift, and each individual. As a general guiding principle, you’ll want to keep the information most general at the start of training so that the trainee develops a foundation of why they are performing specific tasks and the importance of completing them correctly. As training continues, you can add nuances and further detail. You may train on consecutive days so the trainee can apply their knowledge immediately and help move the information to their long-term memory. You may also choose a more hands-off approach where you are dictating and directing the trainee so that they are completing the tasks themselves to build muscle memory further.

    Recognize That You May Not Always Be The Person Best Suited To Train Others
    When first creating shifts, it will likely make sense for you, as the creator of the shifts, to train others. However, as time goes on and folks become more experienced on the different shifts, it will be important to think carefully about who is best suited to train new personnel. Depending on your current role and how involved you are in the day-to-day caregiving responsibilities, it may make more sense to have an experienced staff person take the lead on training (so long as you set clear expectations about their role and they seem comfortable taking on this additional responsibility). Even if you remain heavily involved in day-to-day operations, giving a trusted staff person the opportunity to train others may add to their job satisfaction if it is something they’ve expressed interest in.

    Bridging The Knowledge Gap During Training

    How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School outlines the following two challenges as important things for an expert in a field (i.e., you, the shift’s creator) to be aware of when working with novices in the field (i.e., your trainee). Recognizing these challenges can allow you to work more productively with your trainee to develop their expertise. Remember each challenge while training to help bridge the gap between your knowledge and their newness.

    The development and retention of new knowledge depends in large part on the relationship between what one is learning and what one already knows. Because novices in a field typically don’t know much of the content in that field, they have little to which they can relate the things they’re attempting to learn. So they retain less…. 

    The expert’s fluency can conceal the very principles and strategies that the novice must learn in order to become more expert. These principles and strategies are often invisible even to the expert precisely because they are second nature. And they’re invisible to the novice observing the expert because they’re implicit in the expert’s work.

    Center For Teaching, Vanderbilt University

    Essentially, be mindful that you are training with much more context and knowledge than the trainee. Try to be mindful of any invisible knowledge, experience, and skills that you inherently apply that the trainee has yet to develop or learn.

    Training Communication Tools

    Aside from narrating the shift’s tasks and physically demonstrating them to your trainee, think about what communication tools would benefit the trainee. You may choose to utilize a checklist or laminated sheet for them to carry around and use when they are not supervised to ensure everything is completed. You can also use these sheets to highlight any key actions that would have dire consequences – such as not rejoining residents after eating or double-checking that habitats are locked up a certain way. 

    As the trainee gains confidence in the shift, they inevitably will not need to carry about the checklist. From there, you may choose to highlight key information on whiteboards within the living spaces. For more details about using lists, laminated sheets, and whiteboards, see Utilizing Whiteboards at Your Animal Sanctuary.

    Too Much Time Is Just Enough

    As outlined in The Caregiver’s Guide To Developing Your Observation Skills and Observation: An Important Caregiving Tool, observation is not a task you cross off the to-do list. It’s a process of being observant during the entire caregiving day (or shift). When folks rush to complete their tasks, they may not have time to observe what’s happening around them thoughtfully. Be sure to buffer time into the shift so folks can move with ease and take in their surroundings – it’s not time wasted. Additionally, sanctuary life brings unexpected challenges, and building this buffered time into the schedule allows tasks and observations to occur despite the inevitable emergency or mishap.

    Practice, Practice, Practice!

    Once folks are trained on the shift, let them apply their skills immediately before training them on a new or different shift. Although there is demonstrated benefit to cross-training staff, it’s imperative to establish mastery first.

    ⚠ Shift Burnout

    Shift burnout may occur when someone is on the same shift with little-to-no variance in their schedule. Although practice and repetition are essential to learning the shift, variety can be equally important to maintain job satisfaction. Only you and your staff will know what works best for your team. We recommend having group discussions (and possibly individual discussions, if needed) about how much shift variety folks prefer and/or need. It’s a delicate balance between being in a satisfied flow state that only comes with repetition and getting burnt out on lack of variety. 

    What happens when an individual gets task burnout and wants to learn a new shift, but you can’t accommodate that right now? Perhaps it’s because they need additional nuanced learning and skill mastery that’s required for a more independent shift. Or maybe the schedule is too tight to accommodate training days. In both scenarios, consider having an open dialogue with the individual about the circumstances, explain why they’re still on the same shift, and gameplan together what they can do, learn, or practice to expedite the process (if applicable). Set clear expectations and a timeline of what needs to happen for them to be able to get trained on another shift, and be sure to follow up.

    Note On Control & Creativity

    As trainers, we may feel that the way we complete the shift’s tasks is best. However, each individual trained brings unique creativity and perspective. Creativity in task completion should be highly encouraged as long as all tasks are completed safely and within the time constraints. Not only does it create a sense of ownership and increase job/task satisfaction, you may learn a more efficient or enjoyable way to get things done!

    Feedback & Reevaluation

    Collecting feedback on how the shift is going is paramount, especially if you are not routinely on the shift. Inevitably, things change once you have created the shift and have folks trained. It may be because new tasks must be added or subtracted, or because folks need more time to consistently complete the shift as scheduled. On every level of organizational management (from developing and implementing a mission and vision statement to day-to-day care), it is important to give everyone a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

    Some folks may be shy to let you know they are struggling with the shift, and trainers must provide a safe environment and modality for them to express themselves. You can conduct one-on-one check-ins with folks, offer a suggestion box/Google Form that people can submit, and ask for direct feedback during team meetings. 

    Validating folks’ experiences if they’re struggling is important. No one wants to feel like they cannot perform the same duties as their peers. There may be a reason why they are having more difficulty than other people (including lack of training, misunderstanding, or disability) that you won’t know about until having a curiosity-driven, open conversation.

    Quarterly Scheduled Evaluation

    Even without anyone voicing concerns, it’s worth evaluating the shift at least quarterly to ensure all the tasks make sense, are seasonally appropriate, and that the shift is effective and efficient. Shift tasks also tend to change depending on the sanctuary’s current population, season, weather, and length of daylight. By adding “check the shifts” to your centralized record of tasks, you’ll be sure to stay on top of these predictable variables.

    Regular Observation/Tag-Along

    Aside from asking folks to provide feedback on how the shift is going, you may benefit from occasionally tagging along as a trainer. With a buffered perspective, you’ll be able to witness how the shift is flowing and identify any irregularities or problems. Plus, you’ll gain insight into how other people customize and optimize the shift and can share and highlight their “hacks.”

    In conclusion, there is much more to utilizing shifts at your sanctuary than initially meets the eye. Shift creation and maintenance is a skill set in its own right! With the many ways shifts can be divided, and the various factors and nuances contributing to the shift’s flow, we hope this resource provides both framework and perspective.


    Accessibility for Folks with Physical Disabilities at Your Animal Sanctuary | Open Sanctuary Project

    Accessibility for Blind and Visually Disabled Community Members at Your Animal Sanctuary | Open Sanctuary Project

    Shift Planning | ADP

    How Do You Define Invisible Disability? | Invisible Disabilities

    How People Learn | Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University 

    Curve of Forgetting | Campus Wellness, University of Waterloo

    How Long Should Employee Training Be? | Easy LMS

    If You’re Burning Out, Carve a New Path | Jennifer Moss, Harvard Business Review

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