Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Start a Dog-Walking Group in Your City: Guest Post from Positive Pittie Pack Walk in New Jersey

One thing we've learned since beginning our Chicago Sociabulls group is that there is never one set formula for success, and we are always learning and improving as we go along. Since we have been getting a lot of inquires from people interested in starting dog-walking groups in their own cities, we thought it would be best to showcase some of the other dog-walking groups to see what works well so we can all learn from one another. 
Positive Pittie Pack Walk is a group based out of Hoboken, New Jersey. In the beginning I had several email conversations with the co-founders discussing and sharing ideas, and it's very impressive to see how their group is so enthusiastic and well-planned! Now, 140 members later, here is the story written by the 3 co-founders of the group sharing how they started the group, the mission behind the walks, and several tips for starting a group in your own city.
"As three responsible dog owners living across the river from Manhattan in Hoboken and Jersey City New Jersey, we started Positive Pittie Pack Walk (PPPW) in February of 2012 with the fairly simple goal of wanting a new way to exercise our dogs aside from the congested dog parks in our area.  If only we had known then what we know now: that it is so much more than that.  In retrospect, we started this group not quite knowing what to expect.  We started a meetup page and spread the word to everyone we knew with a dog, and next thing we knew we found ourselves at Liberty State Park in Jersey City with over 20 dogs rearing to go.  That first walk was so exhilarating but we recognized we had so much to learn!  I remember emailing A from Two Pitties in the City and saying "how do we keep the pack together?" and "what do you do when people don't show up?" or "what should we do about the dog that can't calm down?"  It was soon after these first few walks that the three of us PPPW co-founders got together "just for a beer" and ended up staying at the bar until the wee hours of the morning writing all over our paper table cloth brainstorming ways to make PPPW the best it could be.  From there our mission statement was born: 

The purpose of Positive Pittie Pack Walk (PPPW) is to create a structured environment to exercise and socialize our dogs. We recognize the importance of being responsible dog owners in order to raise confident, stable dogs, while working towards improving the image of pit bull type dogs. We welcome all types of dogs, and encourage owners who are working on reactivity and socialization issues to join us. Our dogs are always in training, and PPPW strives to be a constructive experience for every dog and his owner, regardless of what issues they are working through.
Now, since our humble beginnings seventeen months ago, we have accepted 140 members and hosted 70 pack walks at 10 different locations.  When one of us moved to the suburbs we took that as an opportunity to expand our geographical reach so that we now do walks throughout more of Northern New Jersey, and we are always expanding both our membership base and our geographic reach.  We accept new members when they complete a one-page questionnaire about their dog so that we can get to know them a bit before their first walk.  We call this a "questionnaire" rather than an "application" because so long as the dog is spayed/neutered he or she will be accepted.  Once we've received this document, the new members are approved to RSVP for walks.  We limit each walk to twenty dogs, one handler per dog, and close our RSVP's 24 hours before the walk.  The reason for this is so that we can set our pack order prior to the walk based on which dogs are coming.  We alternate our walks between urban walks and hikes so as to try to keep things interesting for both dogs and humans.  Each one is between 3 and 4 miles long, which usually lasts about an hour to an hour and a half.
To an outsider, PPPW is just a dog walking group.  But for the members, it is so much more than that.  PPPW is a community of dog owners free of judgment, preconceived notions, or bias.  We accept dogs ranging from happy-go-lucky "dog park dogs" to dogs that have never had a positive experience with another dog.  PPPW serves as a forum where dogs can just be dogs, and owners can find other like-minded owners who "just get it."  There's no better feeling than seeing a new member come to their first walk feeling apprehensive and nervous, and then leaving saying things like, "my dog did so well, I can't believe it!"  Just as rewarding is overhearing conversations between owners about the issues they are working through with their dogs, and recognizing the trust and humility in that conversation because the owners know they are not being judged.  As one of our members once said, "Planet Fitness isn't the Judgment-Free Zone, PPPW is!"
At this point, we can't imagine our lives without PPPW.  All three of our dogs (whose issues have ranged from leash reactivity to fear of strangers to aggression towards skateboards) have benefited tremendously from the weekly walks, and we can't even count how many times we hear the same from other members.  Knowing this, we are always so excited to hear from friends in other cities who are thinking about starting their own walking group.  The following is some advice to anyone thinking of going for it.  Some of these tips were given to us before we started PPPW (thank you A!) whereas others we figured out "the hard way."
1. Delegate.  Don't be a hero.  In order to make the walks successful you're going to need a group of people who are as committed to the group as you are.  In our group we have us three organizers (we take turns leading the walks each weekend) plus a new member coordinator and a social coordinator.  Quite honestly, we could probably delegate more!  It really helps our members take ownership of the group and maintain a strong retention rate.

2. Don't be afraid to make rules.  When we first started our walks they were kind of a free for all, and we found ourselves feeling out of control and a bit nervous.  Because of that we wrote down rules that each of our members now signs off on so that everyone is on the same page.

3. Enforce those rules.  No one wants to be the fun police, but that's the only way you're going to have consistency.  Of course, with this comes the requirement of a thick skin when people push back.

4. Set a pack order.  We will never forget when A told us that Chicago Sociabulls sets their pack order before their walks.  It was such a lightbulb moment!  Up until that point we had hosted a few walks with the "free for all approach" and we usually ended up with what was essentially three different packs, all spread out, with no structure whatsoever.  The pack order sets everyone up for success from the very first step of the walk.

5. Have a questionnaire.  In order to set a pack order, you'll need to know something about the new dogs before they first come.  If there's one thing we've learned from having a questionnaire it's that people love to talk about their dogs, just like us!  The information that we get from reading this is incredibly valuable.  Plus, since it's confidential and only read by us, people are not afraid to admit certain issues that their dog might have, or request certain accommodations, whereas at the beginning of the walk they might be embarrassed or apprehensive.

6. Make time for the humans.  Every few months we try to have a humans-only social event for our two-legged members to get together and hang out without holding a leash in one hand and a poop bag in the other.  (Let's be honest, though, almost all we talk about is our dogs!)  This turns out to be great for the dogs, as well!  Out of new human friendships have come smaller weeknight pack walks outside of PPPW, private doggie playdates, dog-sitting, and foster adoptions!

7. Keep an open mind.  We have learned so much from PPPW, and we're learning more and more as we go.  Sometimes this has meant reevaluating a well-intentioned rule, or completely modifying a pack order that isn't working halfway through a walk, or accepting a member's training technique or tool that is unfamiliar to us.  

Ask us a year or even a month from now and I'm sure we'll have some additional or different advice.  That's the beauty of PPPW: it is defined by its dogs and strengthened by each and every loyal member's perspective.  We can't wait to read the rest of the guest posts from other groups throughout the country to see what we might be able to do better!"

Thanks so much to the Positive Pittie Pack Walk (PPPW) for sharing your group!
You can learn more about their group, located in New Jersey, on their facebook page by clicking here.
Please let them know what you think, or feel free to ask them any questions in the comments section.
I especially like their consistency with human socials, their Pack Walk bandanas, and hearing about their member feedback.

You can read more starting a dog-walking group from our mentor group Hikabulls here and our thoughts on making a walking group work in a crowded city here.  You can also read all walking-group related posts through this link here. 
Stay tuned for more stories of groups who have started walking groups in their own cities.
If you have a dog-walking group, and you would be interested in sharing your story, please email us using the Contact Us icon on the side of the blog.

11 comments:

Hannah@Eriesistibull said...

What great advice!! I love that you call it a "questionnaire" rather than an application - I always am explaining that there is no selection! We might be stealing that one! Oh, and the human-only socials -- brilliant! I'd love to add that one in, too!

Rachel said...

I love PPPW and I just wish I lived closer so we could attend more walks (it takes me about 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hoboken and surrounding area). Thank you, A, for telling me about this group last year! I am so happy that PPPW is so successful and that they are growing so much. Congrats to you all, what an awesome thing :)

Kirsten (peacefuldog) said...

That's so neat to hear that this incredible phenomenon is taking off in cities all over! I know there's one near me; I just haven't made the time to join a walk yet. It would be so good for Fozzie; I've gotta do it!

ohmelvin.com said...

Wow. No, double wow! I love how inspiring and passionate this all is. I love that you all, love dogs so much! Wishing you continued success (and sunny skies!)!

Two French Bulldogs said...

That is nutty!! That is success at its finest
Benny & Lily

Lori said...

This is SO fantastic! I am curious, because I am thinking of starting one of these groups now: what are your rules?

Andrea Joy said...

Hi Lori! Feel free to email us at positivepittiepackwalk@gmail.com and we can send you a copy of our questionnaire. Also check out our meetup page for a general breakdown of our rules.

Two Pitties in the City said...

I love how everything is so well thought out and organized. We are working on getting more human socials together, and I love how you do them so often. And I love your group bandanas! Nearly 2 years later we will finally have our group name bandanas soon.

Lori said...

Thank you, Andrea Joy!

Hannah@Eriesistibull said...

We saw yours on Sirius Republic's Facebook - love!

sanjali sharma said...
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