Volunteering at The Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand


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About the Program and the Park:

Anyone who knows me knows that my absolute favorite and most highly recommended tourist activity in the entire world is the Elephant Nature Park, located north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I first visited the park in 2011, when its herd was slightly smaller and fewer tourists were coming through. Since that initial visit, which I wrote about HERE, a lot has changed! There’s more tourists in the park, which is great for animal welfare and has definitely helped this sanctuary to thrive by providing the money and volunteer hours needed to keep all of the animals happy, healthy and safe. There’s also a lot of new volunteer housing, new options for daily and over-night stays (including the Pamper-a-Pachyderm option, which wasn’t available before), and a whole lot more staff running around. One of the biggest (and my personal favorite!) changes, though, was the addition of the Dog Rescue Project, which houses over 420 rescued dogs.

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The Dog Rescue Project was started in 2011, just after my first visit to the park. The autumn of that year saw major flooding throughout Bangkok, which left many people and animals out of home and shelter. Many dogs were either separated from their owners, drowning, or otherwise in trouble, and The Elephant Nature Park took them in and created a new home for them at one of the far ends of the park. Today, the Dog Rescue Project has grown from the initial hundred-and-some dogs who were saved from the floods into the cohesive, 420+ dog program that it is today.  The dogs come from many different circumstances; some come from abusive owners, some from the streets, some are saved from the dog meat trade, and some have been poisoned. Regardless of their background, each dog is considered carefully before being placed into his or her new run, is provided with good medical care, and is given an opportunity to live a long, happy life, free from abuse and hunger.

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So, what’s it like to be a dog rescue volunteer?

I arrived at the park not really knowing what to expect this time around, but was integrated pretty quickly into the routine. The first few hours that I had at the park were spent with a combination of dog and elephant volunteers. My group and I were given a tour around the park, introduced to a few elephants, and learned a little bit more about how and why the animals had come to the park. After lunch, all of the new visitors to the park watched a video about the phajaan, or the centuries-old system for “crushing” an elephant’s spirit and molding it for human service. The phajaan is the backbone of the current elephant tourist trade, without which elephants cannot be ridden. Even though this blog post isn’t about the treatment of elephants or even about the elephant-y part of the park, I have to put it out there once again: if you’re ever traveling in Asia, please, please, please, please, please! don’t ride an elephant. Its cruel from start to finish, and only serves to hurt the gentle giants that most tourists love. On a lighter note, the elephants that have been lucky enough to find a home at the Elephant Nature Park get to live out the rest of their (hopefully long) lives eating fruit and freely roaming around, and will never be forced to perform for tourists ever again.

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But anyway, back to the dogs! After the video I was introduced to my fellow dog volunteers for the week, Izzy, Rebecca and A.J. We also met several longer-term volunteers, all of whom welcomed us and were thankfully very patient with us while we learned the ropes. Big thanks especially go out to Carolina, Ryan, Sabrina and Pedro for making us all feel welcome! We were thrown into the swing of things straight off the bat, which was a little bit overwhelming at first but became normal surprisingly quickly.

Our days went just about the same way for the entire week; we were up and at the main building for breakfast by 7:00 am, then met up at the dog clinic at 8am sharp to start the morning duties. The dog clinic is where dogs are taken if they get injured or get sick while living in their runs, with stay lengths varying between a few hours to longer than a month, depending on the problem. The clinic is divided up into a few different holding pens; in the back there’s the “Gallery,” which has both individual cages for dogs and a tiled, fenced-in area out back for the dogs to play and relieve themselves in when they aren’t being fed or given medicine in their cages. In the front there’s a row of cages with access to dirt-and-grass runs out the back. There’s also a number of cages that don’t have access to the outside, and these dogs were always our first priorities in the morning, as they needed to be walked.

Dr. Yan and Bear anxiously awaiting a walkie in one of the gallery cages!
Dr. Yan and Bear anxiously awaiting a walkie in one of the gallery cages!

When there were enough volunteers available we had people working together to make sure that the dogs were fed, watered and walked as efficiently as possible. Another volunteer would stay back to clean the cages and areas where dogs made messes so that the dogs could return back to comfy, clean cages. This could take anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on how many volunteers we had on hand and how many elephant volunteers were able to come by to help us with the walking. After we finished walking, feeding and caring for the clinic dogs, we went out to the runs, which can hold anywhere from two dogs to thirty dogs, depending on the size of the run. Here we checked the dogs for ticks, bite wounds, gunky eyes and ears, for white gums and for unusual skinniness. Blood parasites from ticks are common in the tropics, they symptoms of which include weight loss and light-colored gums. Most of the dogs in the Gallery were being treated for the parasites, and treatment lasts for about a month.

De-ticking one of the more lovey dogs in one of the open runs.
De-ticking one of the more lovey dogs in one of the open runs.

At 11:30 or so we’d break for lunch, and when we came back at 1:00 the process starts all over again. We take all the dogs out for their walks, and when we’re finished with walks we could be doing any number of odd jobs; some days we’d go back to the runs to do more tick checks, some days we’d be put in charge of moving dogs from one run to another, and some days we’d just be bathing or playing with the dogs. There was never a lack of things to do, and by 4:30 pm, our clock-out time so to speak, we were always exhausted.

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Even though I was only there for a week, I found myself getting super attached to some of the pups and it was definitely hard not to take one home with me! The ENP offers a super-easy dog adoption program for people living in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, and they’ll make all the arrangements for you to pick up your new best friend at your nearest airport. As fantastic of a home as the park is, some of these furry friends would definitely benefit from having a forever home with humans instead of a big pack of dogs.

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The Dogs:

And now the fun part! Let me introduce you to some of my absolute favorite furbabies that I got to know. Most of these dogs were in the clinic when I visited, but some were living at the dog volunteer house, and others were just dogs that made a significant impression on me when I met them in their runs.

Bear

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Bear is a super-sweetie staying in the clinic while I was at the park. He’s affectionate, walks well on a leash, and loves! giving hugs, even though he’s probably a little bit too big and heavy to be giving so many hugs. Some people might find his size and weight a little intimidating, especially when he jumps up to give his hugs, but I couldn’t love him or his hugs more! Bear also walks well on a leash and loves other dogs.

Ayo

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Ayo, the legless wonder dog, is another super-sweet dog. Ayo lives at the volunteer house, and was always amazingly affectionate and agile in spite of having three legs. For the most part she gets along well with other dogs, but apparently has been known to get jealous about her people. All-around very loving and energetic, and definitely very handsome!

Mocha

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Mocha is another dog who lived at the dog rescue house, and is probably the sweetest of them all. Affectionately nicknamed “princess” during our stay, she has an adorable habit of sitting with paws crossed and looking very regal. She also gets along well with other dogs, and is not skittish or afraid of people in the least. Total sweetheart!

Castor

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Castor was one of the dogs in the runs who absolutely stole my heart. He lived in the run closest to the dog volunteer house, and I always made a point of saying hello before I went home. Castor was just all-around super friendly, loving, and always excited to see people. Another gentle giant, he’s an absolute doll!

Nom

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Nom lived with Castor in Open Run 9, and was another treat. She loves attention and giving kisses, and would sometimes poke her head all the way through a hole in the chain-link just for a little petting. An absolutely gorgeous sweetheart and gets along well with other dogs!

Unfortunately, I can’t post about all 420+ dogs here, but I can say that most all of them are worth getting to know. Working with the dogs is an extremely emotional experience, and one that’s hard to forget (I even have ENP dog rescue dreams weekly!). Its hard when you fall in love with a dog or two or ten and then have to leave them, and its hard not knowing what their lives are going to be like once you leave. But its also extremely rewarding work, and even when you’re stressed or understaffed or emotionally drained, the dogs’ positive reactions always make it worth it in the end.

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How You Can Help

There’s a lot of different ways you can help! Obviously the most rewarding way would be to go and volunteer yourself. The dog rescue project does not get nearly as much attention as the elephant program, but the work is, in my opinion, more meaningful and allows you to directly connect with the animals in a way that you don’t get with the elephant program. But if you are planning a trip to the park and don’t know if the dog project is for you, or if you’re really, really set on doing the elephant program, you can still take an afternoon and come help out with the dogs, or even come just after lunch to help with walking. The dogs (and volunteers) need all the help they can get, and working with them is really underrated.

You can also opt to adopt one of the park dogs, and there’s no shortage of dogs for you to choose from! The park’s website has a small “meet the dogs” section, which you can find HERE. Obviously these are not all the dogs at the park, nor all the dogs available for adoption. Its a good place to start, though, so its worth a look!

If you want to help out but aren’t ready to book your ticket to Thailand just yet and don’t have the time, money or capability to take on a new fluffnugget in your life, you can also SPONSOR A DOG for 1,000-2,000 baht, or about $30USD. You could fund-raise with a charity or group to purchase an expensive item (listed below), or donate money to buy less expensive items. You can also donate any of the following (taken from THIS PAGE on the ENP website):

Expensive $$$ items:

  • Xray machine
  • Xray processor
  • Blood machine
  • Centrifuge
  • Surgery lights
  • Power generator

Mid range $$ items:

  • Cat scales (table top)
  • Various medical supplies
  • Durable dog kennels
  • Small fridge

Small $ items:

  • Medium size dog collars
  • Durable and long leashes
  • Durable toys
  • Stainless steel bowls (lg, med and small)
  • Towels
  • Blankets
  • Bleach
  • Iv extension sets
  • Soffban bandaging
  • Thermometers
  • Dog bedding
  • Dog blankets
  • Cat litter and litter trays

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The Low-Down:

Fees & Whats Included: One week’s stay at the Elephant Nature Park with the Dog Rescue Program costs ~$155USD, and includes accommodation, food & water, a t-shirt, a water bottle and a water bottle holder.

Accommodation: Accommodation is on-site in stilt houses. Each room can house 2-3 people, with double and single beds available. The beds all have mosquito netting and there are fans in the rooms.

Working hours per day: 8:00 am until 4:30 pm, with break for lunch.

Food: Buffet-style vegetarian food. Lots of options, very very tasty, but hard to eat gluten free, which was an issue for me. Celiacs beware of the fake meat, or “wheat meat,” as it is most definitely not GF.

Dogs on the dog rescue volunteer's porch.
Dogs on the dog rescue volunteer’s porch.

Bucket List Info:

Activity Type: Volunteering

Value for Money: High value! The food and accommodation alone is given at a pretty cheap price for traveling, the park is gorgeous and you really feel like you’re doing something. Its extremely rewarding and I can’t wait to do it again.

Suitable for: Able-bodied people who love animals and are willing to work hard.

Recommend: Definitely, to anyone and everyone who will listen! Its an amazing experience and the whole ENP set-up is legitimately one of the best non-government organizations (NGO) I’ve ever seen. An amazingly good cause that’s well-executed and extremely thorough in organization.

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17 thoughts on “Volunteering at The Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Add yours

  1. Hi Natalie,

    It sounds as though you had an amazing time at the dog rescue project at ENP – thanks for sharing your experience! I only decided to sign up to volunteer in the same program on a ‘last minute whim’ last week, and am flying out from Australia on Saturday 6 December. This hasn’t left enough time to get vaccinated for rabies …! The staff at ENP have advised me that all the dogs are vaccinated, and I just wondered if you have any feedback about this – was rabies an issue whatsoever at the park? Am I taking some kind of absurd risk going along unprotected? From what I can gather through yours and other blog entries, it looks as though the on-site staff/volunteers run a pretty tight ship. And let’s face it, I’m not going to back out at this late stage given I can always seek out treatment following a potential infection, but … just thought I’d try and suss out as much feedback as I possibly can before I head off!

    Looking forward to hearing back from you,

    Laura

    1. Hey Laura! The dogs are, for the most part, fully vaccinated. However every once in a while they get a dog from one of the surrounding villages who may not have been, but you will know who they are and may want to just request that you don’t walk that particular dog. I don’t think you’re taking too huge of a risk going unprotected– I was definitely never bitten and I genuinely do not believe that rabies is an issue at the park.
      I’m so excited that you’re getting to go, though! Its an amazing experience and I wouldn’t miss it for anything, and I don’t think not having your rabies vaccine would be too big of a deal. I hope you have an amazing time at the park and if you have any more questions feel free to ask!

      -Natalie

      1. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly Natalie – You have really put my mind at ease.

        However … ! I do have another question, or to be precise, the same question I asked in the first place, in relation to the Journey to Freedom project. Since I first wrote to you I discovered that you volunteered for this a few years ago as well. I know it might be tricky to comment, especially since I’m sure the program has evolved since you were there (I even get the impression that it’s migrated do a village south of CM according to the website, rather than north…?). So with all of these disclaimers in mind, are you able to comment on whether rabies was some kind of *constant threat during your stay in the village?

        *NB: I’m exaggerating for comedy’s sake but also to illustrate how guilty the travel doctor has made me feel for going over so unprepared/unprotected. She recommended I wear industrial gloves and protective clothing the whole trip!

        Laura

      2. No worries! I would definitely say the park is pretty safe. When I did Journey to Freedom they went between a few different villages, and I think they go between the villages based on need, but I’m not 100% sure.

        Journey to Freedom was pretty rugged when I went and would probably be a little bit more risky with regards to rabies. When I went we didn’t have any issues– no one got bitten by anything and we slept under mosquito nets, though the rooms were open-air. Whether or not bats with rabies would be a concern there is a little bit beyond my breadth of knowledge, but I’m going to say that its probably not a huge risk either.

        Again, rabies is one of those things that you can treat after infection, so I’d say that your best bet is to 1) buy good travel insurance, which is generally a good idea anyway, and 2) be careful, as obvious as that sounds. Make sure that you read up on rabies symptoms and if you start to feel unwell take note.

        So in summary I guess I’d just say that JTF is a little more risky than the park and that the park is pretty low-risk itself. I understand the ridiculous doctor pressure, too– my doctor always pushed Malaria pills really heavily, but the type that are prescribed in the US are mega risky. She made it sound like I was 100% going to get malaria if I didn’t take the pills, but I was in SE-Asia for two months and didn’t have a single problem.

        Best of luck! Again, if you think up another question don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

        -Natalie

      3. Wonderful … thanks again for being so helpful / quick to reply! I really appreciate your feedback. And, it’s nice to know I’m not alone with the doctor issue!

        Fingers crossed it all goes without a hitch … !

        Take care,
        Laura

  2. Hello I am interested in the program.
    I have been to Thailand before but I don’t think I have been to the park.
    I noticed when I went there that the dogs smelt differently to the ones at home in Australia. All the female dogs in Asia looked like they had had many puppies :-(. Did the dogs smell at the park?
    How far in advance did you book? How did you get to Chiang Mai? Whenever I look at flights to Chiang Mai they are a lot dearer than the ones to Bangkok. I know there is an overnight train.
    Were you ever able to leave the park? I know WiFi is limited so is there Internet cafés near the park?
    Can you have any interaction with the elephants on this program?
    I heard you need to take ear plugs for sleep did you?
    When you said they integrated you when you got there what does that mean?
    Anything I or my family need to be concerned about?
    I wanted to go longer than a week. It sounds amazing.

    1. Hello Danielle!
      Dogs smell everywhere, but the ones in the park are well cared for and bathed fairly regularly, and they’re not street dogs or strays any more. The park runs an active spay/neuter program and is actively trying to reduce the number of dogs and street dogs in Thailand, so any damage would have been done prior to their arrival. The dogs are very well tended to and though some of them have health problems and prior injuries–some of which are absolutely tragic–its a comfort to know they have a good home.
      I booked a month or so in advance, but for Dog Rescue you won’t really need to, I dont think. They always need more volunteers, but I’d still book as soon as you know when youre going to be there, just in case! I think I flew into Chiang Mai from Laos, I can’t remember 100%. If not I probably took a bus, their luxury busses are cheap and comfy, but long.

      You can leave the park once a week on Sundays, and the park is fairly rural, so no internet cafes. You’ll be able to get enough wifi, but you probably wont even really want it you’ll be having so much fun!
      We did get a personal walking tour and on the first day you get the standard overnight interaction with the eles. You’ll be close to them most of the time, though, as they’re free roaming! On the first day you get there you’ll get to feed/touch/be photographed with them so I’d say look nice on that day 🙂
      I did take them, or at least headphones, but you don’t really need it. Thailand’s buggy, as you probably know, and the dogs are loud in the morning, but for the most part its not a bad thing–we all have to wake up sometime, and early mornings at the park are common.

      I dont think there’s anything to be concerned about! I loved my time there and am dying to go back. Its incredibly worthwhile and I would highly recommend it, enjoy every second!

  3. hey Natalie by the time you get rabies symptoms it is way too late for treatment to work! you must get treatment immed after a bite or scratch

  4. Hi Natalie,
    My husband and I are really excited about this program and planning to do it early next year! Not sure how often you check this thread anymore but if you see this, I was just wondering about activities after the working hours. I know you said you were pretty exhausted by 4:30 each day (I can imagine), but what do people tend to do? Any hikes/tours/entertainment of any sort?

    1. Hi Danielle! Thanks for the comment 🙂 Usually after work everyone showers because its hot and you’ll be pretty sweaty, then dinner’s pretty early. In the evenings people usually sit and chat with one another (you can buy beer, etc, have a few drinks :)) and chat with others. There are some performances on a few days a week, and massages are available upstairs in the common area (you pay for them but it’s a fun experience!). There’s definitely entertainment available and it’s a really great way to connect with other volunteers 🙂 Hope this helped!

  5. Hi Natalie. I really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing your beautiful pics ! We went to ENP in January for 1 day and have now decided to go back for a week to do the dog volunteer program, largely inspired by your blog !! There are 4 of us – 2 couples. So wanted to ask a bit more about the accoms – i see you mentioned the rooms house 2 – 3 people. Do you know if they try to allocate the 2 person rooms to couples ? I sent that question via their website and got a very generic response that the rooms average 3 people.

  6. Hi Natalie,
    Where did you stay before going to the park? I understand that we have to make our own way to the Park for the dog rescue work. So would you recommend any nearby hotels?

    1. Hi David!
      I stayed in a hostel in Chiang Mai. I dont know which one exactly, but Tripadvisor probably has some great guesthouse/hotel recommendations 🙂 Sorry I cant be more helpful!

  7. I’m considering doing the dog program at ENP. Do you also get to spend time there with the elephants (outside of the first day)? I want to hang out with all the animals!

    1. Hi Illana! The great thing about the program is that it is immersive, so you will get to see elephants every day. There are special visitations set up for the Dog Rescue Program volunteers, and in my experience you get roughly the same amount of time with the actual animals that way. The elephant volunteers tend to do things like cutting fruit and grass, but don’t have much more time with the elephants.

      Hope that helps!

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