Monday, August 19, 2013

How to Start a Dog-Walking Group in Your City: Guest Post from Seattle WalkABulls


Since we started our Chicago SociaBulls group, we've been getting a lot of questions from people about starting groups in their own areas. While we are definitely not experts, and we are always learning as we go along, we decided to ask some successful dog walking groups from other cities share their experiences.
I had become email buddies with Sandra and I was so excited to hear about the success of her Seattle WalkABulls group.  Here she shares the inspiration for the group, finding members, and some advice she learned along the way!
Seattle WalkABulls was founded in January of 2012, shortly after I (Sandra) adopted a pit bull dog named Shiloh from the Seattle Animal Shelter.  I sometimes had a difficult time while walking Shiloh for a few reason.  The main reason was that Shiloh was reactive towards other dogs.  Although his reactivity was friendly, people who witnessed Shiloh’s antics (lunging, screaming) AND already had misconceptions about boxy-headed dogs, would see his behavior as negative and perhaps a negative representation of other dogs that looked like him.

I began to wonder if there were others out there like me – dealing with a reactive pit bull dog, and with a desire to create more positive perceptions for other block-heads.  This questioning led to researching and somewhere along the way I learned about Chicago SociaBulls.  I read one "Two Pitties" blog on the SociaBull’s group structure and how they helped and supported one another.  This was exactly what I was looking for!  With Shiloh as my inspiration, and Chicago SociaBulls as my guide and mentor, Seattle was well on its way to having a community, social dog-walking group of our own! 

Our group initially took form by way of my own friends, acquaintances, and clients who had dogs.  We also kicked off with several staff and volunteers from the Seattle Animal Shelter that were there with their own dogs or adoptable shelter dogs.  The group continued to grow - social media and word of mouth played a huge role in spreading the word about WalkABulls.  We also had (and still have) "business" cards – in the beginning our initial members would hand out cards to local vets, dog walkers, daycares, or anyone we may have noticed that looked to be in need of a supportive dog-walking group.  By March of 2012 we already had 75 dog-members in the group!  Then in April of 2012, the Seattle Times newspaper heard about us and printed a short, yet sweet article about WalkABulls - things really took off after that!  Now one newspaper article, a couple magazine articles, and several dog-related newsletter and blog write-ups later, we are at just under 320 dog-members!    
Now, get out there and walk (some advice)!   
1.  I (Sandra) ran the group on my own for the first ten months, and am SO thankful to now have help with organizing walks and managing the group in general.  We are now six organizers strong - thank you so much to Jenny, Kate, Kristen, Tanya and Chris for sharing the responsibility and the fun!  If I were to do it all over again, I would have not waited ten months to ask for help!  Also, each of our organizers live in very different parts of Seattle, offering us more opportunities to host walks in about a dozen, varying locations from week to week.

2.  Once you have a strong team, even more community involvement is possible!  In addition to walking every weekend, we also do outreach with the Seattle Humane Society.  Each year our kid-loving pit bull type dogs visit the humane society’s kids’ camps - we help change perceptions about pit bulls and educate about dog safety.  Once you have a successful group going, the possibilities of what you can do with your group are pretty unlimited.  We also attend various dog and pit bull related events in our city to both spread the word and to educate the public.

3.  We do have people "apply" for our group, but this is just to ensure that they've read the guidelines and understand our group structure.  We have a strict, no-contact rule and people must commit to always be out there representing a responsible human-and-dog relationship.  The "application" also allows us to learn more about the dogs and their humans - having information like this on file allows us to put together the best possible combination of dogs. We also close the group to new applications now and then, especially after sudden growth-spurts, to ensure that our current members are getting the very best experience. 

4.  Dog-less walkers are KEY to our group's success!  Depending on our walk location, we require one dog-less walker for every 3-4 dogs (and for manageability, we usually limit each walk to ~20 dogs total).  Our dog-less walkers are there primarily to allow those of us walking with dogs to focus on our dogs.  They help to keep the group safe, as well as to keep us well represented by answering the public's questions during walks.  It can be difficult to deal with off leash dogs, wandering children, and to answer questions while also managing a dog.  We depend on our dog-less walkers for group support.

5.  Take the time to determine a successful "pack" order for each walk!  Within our group, determining which dogs attend each walk is based on both RSVP order, in combination with knowledge of each dog's individual needs.  We have at least a couple stable/neutral dogs on each walk as they make great role-models for some of our more reactive or fearful dogs.  Also, we have a few dogs that can only handle the very first position within the "pack."  In this case we take turns and rotate through to give each dog with this need an equal opportunity.  Always set each dog up for success!

6.  Don't be afraid to stand up for the group and the dogs within the group.  If someone does not have the group's, or a dog’s, best interest in mind, they should be reminded to be positive, non-judgmental, professional, respectful, and to be patient.  Some members do need to be reminded of the group guidelines and structure that they signed up for - that is okay.  You are out there setting an example for boxy-headed dogs and their humans all over the country and around the world - always keep that in mind. 

7.  Bring extra equipment!  Our walk leaders, as well as some of our dog-less walkers, bring extra leashes, harnesses, carabineers, poo bags, etc.  My personal “must have” item on all walks is Spray Shield™  – this is a non-harmful, citronella based animal determinant spray.  Although I have yet to really need to use it, it is a safe way to stop an off leash dog, for example, from making contact with any of our dogs. 

8.  We believe that the best way to show the public that pit bulls are just dogs is by including dogs with any look, size, shape, personality and sociability.  Our dogs range from a nine-pound chihuahua to a 180 pound mastiff, and everything in between.

9.  A very important focus of our group is to help those dogs in shelters, rescues and/or foster homes to get more exposure through our group, as well as to help those dogs become even more adoptable by working on leash manners.  Contact your local animal organizations, dog rescues and shelters - create partnerships.  You may find that we all have similar goals – by working together we can accomplish even more. 

10.  Get feedback now and then from your members!  Every so often we reach out and ask for advice from those who walk with us and have received some great, new ideas.  For example, we now include not only maps on how to get to a walk location, but also a map of the walk itself, to include duration, elevation gain, and trail substrate.  Also, we now do shorter, slower walks that are geared towards our older, smaller dogs, and/or their humans that may not be able to do the usual, fast-paced walk.  If you ask your members for constructive feedback, you are sure to get some helpful hints as to how to make walks more enjoyable for everyone

In conclusion, don't forget to have fun out there!  If things become more difficult than rewarding and fun, take a step back and you may find that you need to tighten up some rules, add to your organizational team, or reevaluate your mission.  Never quit - if you are already thinking about starting a social dog walking group, then you are already on your way to doing great things for our dogs

We moved from a website format to organizing walks through meetup - as we grew, we found that meetup was an easy way to keep track of walks, member profiles, and a great place to share pictures.  You can find Seattle WalkABulls on Facebook or on meetup at www.seattlewalkabulls.com.  Our structure, liability info, and guidelines are public information - feel free to read through and utilize any information that may be helpful in starting your own group. 

A BIG thank you to A and E of "Two Pitties in the City" and Chicago Socialbulls for the tremendous guidance and support in our endeavor to do great things for pit bulls, and friends of pit bulls, in Seattle!  
Thank you to Seattle WalkABulls for sharing!
Please let them know what you think and feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below.

You can read more starting a dog-walking group from the Twin Cities Pack Walk in Minnesota here,  Positive Pittie Pack Walk in New Jersey here,   Hikabulls in the Bay Area 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. 
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.

10 comments:

Regina Hart said...

Very nice! It's great to hear about successful walking groups for "block heads." :D The dogs and their people benefit, and the groups promote a positive bully image. Everyone wins!

devineopine said...

Does anyone know of a similar group in New York City (preferably Brooklyn but could be any borough)? Maybe this is dumb of me but I never realized these walking groups may have no contact policies. I think something like this could be really good for my leash reactive blockheaded doggie.

Mahogany BoingyDog Gamble said...

Great post and really great tips!

Kim Johnston said...

Last Sept Seattle WalkaBulls came across my Facebook page -- I've been an active member ever since. I am an inexperienced dog person who was on the verge of giving up on my pup, Arlo, a 25 lb terrier mix who was afraid of everything outside of his crate. Seattle WalkaBulls has been a critical link to the progress I have made with Arlo. The dogless walkers within our group allowed me to concentrate on Arlo, with each walk Arlos confidence grows as does mine. I am forever grateful for Seattle WalkaBulls and know first hand the value this group structure brings to the canine community and their owners. Arlo and I are now forever bonded, our relationship is a million times better than it was a year ago. Thank you Seattle WalkaBulls for being inclusive of all dogs and for all the support the members have given us.

Two Pitties in the City said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I love hearing about how successful your groups is, all of your outreach opportunities...and how cool is that logo?!?!

@devineopine: I'm not familiar with the geography of your area, but the Positive Pittie Pack group walks in Hoboken. They wrote a guest post here: http://pittiesincity.blogspot.com/2013/07/how-to-start-dog-walking-group-in-your.html
We also like how all the groups shared and can give people ideas for starting walks in their own areas.

Two French Bulldogs said...

We enjoy seeing how successful these clubs are. Awesome
Benny & Lily

c.creativity said...

So glad to see this feature from WalkABulls! I've been meaning to sign up with them for a while. It's great to hear that this group offers shorter walks, too, since I'm limited in my ability to walk distances. My reactive gal would really benefit from the structure and exposure.

Vicki said...

I'm so glad to see Walkabulls featured here! Sandra and all the other organizers are the best!

Wendy said...

Love seeing the various guest bully walking group posts! A recurring theme seems to be the importance of having dog free walkers, which I absolutely agree. I volunteer for dog adoption events regularly and I understand how stressful it can be sometimes when handling a dog who is working on their manners and can be reactive in certain situations. I hope dog rescue groups and organizers of various dog events will take note of this as well! Great job Two Pitties and Seattle WalkABulls:)

kiran upadhyay said...
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