Building Client Networks and Maximising Your Resources

Written by Catherine Griffin CDBC

Welcome to “The Alumni”: Ireland’s Reactivity Cult

Community matters. Since the pandemic, the need for belonging, purpose, and community has never been more evident, and we now know that being a part of a community can have a powerful effect on your sense of wellbeing. We might define community as a collective of individuals sharing an identity that forms a narrative.

Communities provide emotional and practical support through enhancing social connections and enriching the lives of those involved. We humans have a real biological need for interpersonal connections, and thanks to the work of Dr. Daniel J. Siegel (professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine) we now understand just how powerful these connections can be.1 “Siegel Theory” is a mindsight approach that applies the emerging principles of interpersonal neurobiology to promote compassion, kindness, resilience, and well-being in our personal lives, our relationships, and our communities.2 He is well known for his work in relation to understanding the effect of social relationships on brain development/functioning

Challenges in life come and go for all of us.  We’re not meant to tackle life alone. When we’re working through challenging and isolating behaviours such as dog reactivity, surrounding ourselves with those who can offer empathetic understanding based on their own experiences can be a game changer.

How many times do we hear clients say, “I feel frustrated, alone, upset, anxious” because of their dog’s behaviour, or “Do other people actually have dogs like this?” Owning a dog who struggles in social situations can be hugely impactful on owners’ mental health. As dog professionals, we strive to empower our clients for success, but at the same time, we must also create emotional boundaries to protect ourselves.

How can we provide a support structure to empower people and make them feel connected not only to others, but to their dog and to their training program?

Welcome to The Alumni

The Alumni is a community of dog guardians and owners in Ireland working through various reactivity training programs with their dogs. Behaviours may include dog-dog reactivity, stranger-directed reactivity, or sensory reactionary behaviours in external environments and attachment behaviours. Essentially, if a client feels isolated due to their dog’s behavioural challenges, then we welcome them into a community of ever-growing support.

The concept was born from my personal experience as a reactive dog owner. Despite having worked with dogs for over 15 years, living with a dog who reacted to both people and other dogs gave me a first-hand experience into the frustration and isolation felt by dog owners.

How could I help modify his behaviour without access to other dogs in controlled setups? Furthermore, friends and family didn’t understand the situation and I was advised on more than several occasions to rehome him. This created a sense of further isolation, and I craved having someone in my corner as our cheerleader, supporting, listening, and celebrating those small wins with my dog and me.

The idea was to create a community that shares their experiences whilst encouraging, empowering, and supporting one another through their behaviour modification and training journeys. According to Dr. Siegel, what we experience in our minds is highly influenced by connections to others. In his book “Aware,” Siegel discusses how opening awareness and cultivating kind intention can literally help you grow a healthier brain and reduce stress in your life. He states, “Relationships are not icing on the cake; they are the cake. In fact, they are the main course as well as the dessert.”

The application is simple. Three years ago, we started a private Facebook group where members would post a picture of their dog and a brief description of their journey and their needs. We encouraged them to talk openly about their experiences to date and emphasised it as a safe space to be open, vulnerable, and unjudged. Since then, we have moved primarily to using a WhatsApp group (a free messaging phone service popular in Ireland). We’re now looking to switch to Telegram and create subsections of conversation to include training links, videos, support guides, and chat groups for training specifics. There’s even a potential app in development!

When a member is looking to set up a session, they simply drop a time, date, and location into the group chat and their reactivity setup is created!

The relationships between the group members have had a powerful impact not only on the individuals but also on their dogs’ progression through behaviour modification. This sense of wellbeing doesn’t stop at the client side of things. As their dog professional, seeing their success as they progress through their journey provides me with a great boost of self-esteem, kicking imposter syndrome to the curb and also helping me to feel less isolated in the industry.

The concept grew from the enormous demand for service in dog reactivity since the pandemic. Following a number of private one-on-one consultations, it became evident that progressing this type of training presented with a number of obstacles:

  • Finding other dogs to practice with. No one wants to be that person stalking unknown dogs in the park, not to mention the risk aspect of an uncontrolled environment. Furthermore, we don’t want to use the same stooge dog over and over, and risk impacting their welfare too.
  • Finding the time to allocate to this number of training sessions on a one-on-one basis. Essentially, with such high demand and so few accredited trainers in the area, it would negatively impact my livelihood if I were to focus solely on training sessions in groups of just two at a time.
  • Being able to keep so many clients motivated without burning out. It’s hard to find the emotional space to support multiple people at the same time. It’s also a challenge to facilitate this viably from a time perspective. If the same message of support and encouragement can be said once by addressing the group rather than to each individual, we can deliver the same impact with less risk of emotional burnout. Furthermore, the psychology of “the group” means we’re also generating very real motivation.3
  • Allocating enough working time to other cases and new clients. The time required to work through individual reactivity programs limits opportunity to grow my client base. There is only one certified CDBC in Cork and huge demand for behaviour services. There isn’t an option to pass behaviour consultancy cases to anyone else in the county and it was imperative I would be available to support new cases. In addition, such cases create financial viability for my business.
  • Establishing controlled locations to practice the training in (it’s an Irish issue for sure)! Ireland has a big problem with dog ownership. A recent article from Suzi Walsh, CDBC, stated, “Ireland is experiencing a welfare epidemic.”4 Legislation around dog welfare that does exist is insufficient and lacks enforcement. Education around responsible dog ownership practically does not exist, and we have a culture of agriculture, farm dogs, and dogs allowed to roam freely. Many recreational spaces are on- lead only  , but we have a disproportionately small number of dog wardens per capita (  one in four homes owns a dog in Ireland with only 55 full  -time wardens in the whole country). It is not possible for “on  -lead” legislation to be enforced. This limits where we can walk and where we can train when working with reactivity. Although there is a lot of farmland in Ireland, it is privately owned and not open for public access.

We contacted eight of our existing reactivity clients who had already received a number of consultations with us and invited them to take part in group training classes to help progress their programs. These were conducted in two separate groups of four, with two trainers and a training mentee. At a substantial distance from one another and spread over six weeks, we progressed the team’s technical skills to a sufficient level where we were happy for them to go it alone.

At this point, The Alumni was born. The Alumni provided the opportunity for the team to continue working together in their own time, arranging their own reactivity setups to continue on the rest of their journey together. The group stayed connected through a Facebook and WhatsApp group and from here, the community grew.

As more clients requested consultation for reactive   behaviour, The Alumni grew. Once the client had received sufficient support to get them started, they were invited to join in and the community did the rest. Some of the group (where appropriate) also support one another with home visits, following our “stranger danger protocol.” This protocol is rehearsed with the family and a step-by-step guide is provided for them and for their visitors. Each member taking part in this program has received training during their consultation on how to control and carry out these setups. These sessions are also recorded and sent on to me for review.

The Alumni has almost 60 members at present with a core team of “deans.” Our deans are amongst the most experienced owners who buddy up with new starters to help show them the ropes. Not only is this a great opportunity for new starters but an enormous boost to our collective and established members also. The role of the dean isn’t to train or offer training advice, but to simply introduce new starters to the process of arranging meet-ups and bringing their own dogs along to their first session. Essentially this is a brief “buddy -up” system to help new starters settle in and get used to the process.

The team arranges to meet at times that work for them in locations only known to and shared by one another. Every once in a while, we host virtual introductions for new members where we also discuss hot topics and share our stories to keep the support piece alive.
Sharing stories opens up vulnerability, and it is this vulnerability that forges the closest of relationships and strongest of communities.

Hearing others’ successes harbours motivation and determination, particularly when we hear of how it started versus how it’s going, and this just hits home harder coming from another dog owner, rather than from a professional behaviour consultant. Hearing the journeys of other members is so empowering for our new members and we’ve seen a huge rise in commitment to training programs as a result.

How does this benefit me and my business?

Because of The Alumni, as a trainer, I am never short of a stooge dog and for my new clients. First-time follow up sessions include an introduction to other members, which creates an immediate sense of support and inclusion. In addition, it’s free.   There’s no membership charge and this helps make this type of training accessible to all by breaking down financial barriers to expert advice.

The benefits to my clients are endless, and The Alumni has been truly life-changing for so many people and their dogs.

For me personally, I get a great sense of satisfaction from seeing this community grow from strength to strength. They’re never shy in sharing their gratitude for this group, and that sort of praise makes all the difference to us professionals in this industry.

For my business, The Alumni has created a wave of interest from others, which means more clients and more turnover as a result. Without having to commit to so many one-on-one follow-up coaching sessions, I have more time to focus on growing my client base, growing my business, and most importantly, growing my “time off from work.”

The group has grown quite organically, and this can be attributed to the fact that the group belongs to its members, not to me. This has created a space where the community is safe to feel vulnerable, safe to share, and safe to ask for help. It is their space, and from this space, a wealth of knowledge and new ideas has been born. We have members looking to develop training apps, introducing new technologies for community communications.   They are essentially my marketing team, creating excellent content for me to use, and they have grown my business reputation exponentially.

Most importantly, their dogs have grown from “three football fields away from a trigger” to what the group have lovingly termed “boring walks” where they meet up for on lead, enjoying relaxing walks in small groups and at safe distances. Some of the group have even gone on dog holidays together, and some very firm friendships have been made.

Building client networks will change everything for you, your clients, and most importantly, their dogs. But don’t just take my word for it, here are a few testimonials from some of the community:

 “Coming across the Snout and About Alumni is without doubt the best thing that has happened to me and my dog Rex. Having a reactive dog can be such a stressful, frustrating, disheartening, and isolating experience. This is a fantastic facility to have to meet others who have similar experiences, to reach out for support and reassurance and to organise meetups where we can practice our reactivity training together (mostly dog reactivity, partly human!). I have learned so much as a dog owner from this group of fantastic people and I am so happy and grateful that this wonderfully supportive community exists.”

“The assistance to the mental health of the group is astronomical. A chance to talk with people with whom you don’t have to explain yourself or your feelings – who understand that you do love your dog but dread walking them, can get so exasperated with them, or be close to tears when it seems like it’s all going wrong. And you know they aren’t judging you, they are or have been in exactly the same place and can empathise and encourage genuinely. And who understand when you message ‘we walked past a dog that was only 25 metres away  ’ it really is the biggest success in the world and celebrate it with you.”

“The practical side; arranging meetups with people who know exactly what you are doing, are doing the same thing, and will do what you need just as you do what they need. With the Alumni, you can meet someone with a similar dog, and you can walk a huge distance from each other, and the dogs can see each other and learnt that it’s ok, and you can start to get closer, and the other Alumni member sees your dog start to get too excited… and they turn and move away.”

“Best support I could have ever found. Couldn’t have made it without this amazing support!”.

“Best cult in the world”

“Bonnie is a rescue and really struggles with big emotions in her tiny body. She would lunge and scream at people and dogs when out and about. She has completely changed, thanks to Catherine Snout and About and to the Alumni free sessions. She has become much happier and settled in public places now, still a way to go still but with the support of the Alumni I have no doubt she can only improve.”

“It is my utter and humble privilege to be a part of this amazingly kind, supportive, understanding, skilled, clever, accommodating, generous, welcoming, warm, empathetic, open, hopeful, enthusiastic, kind, engaged and motivated group who support their bestie doggo friends underpinned with the superb and unequivocal behavioural knowledge understanding and planning of Snout and About you’re all just the absolute bomb.”

“Honestly blown away by these sessions! This is exactly what I was looking for when I adopted my reactive rescue! River has come so far on her journey from an anxious wreck seeing dogs two football pitches away to a more self-assured lady who is only improving day by day.”

References

  1. Siegel, D. [n.d.] Dr Daniel Siegel: Biography [online]. Last accessed 2/8/2024
  2. Siegel, D.J., Drulis, C. An interpersonal neurobiology perspective on the mind and mental health: personal, public, and planetary well-being. Ann Gen Psychiatry 22, 5 (2023).
  3. Turner, J. & Oakes, P. (2011). The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence. British Journal of Social Psychology 25, 237-252.
  4. Walsh, S. (2023) We have a dog welfare crisis in Ireland that we can no longer ignore. The Journal [online] Last accessed 2/8/2024

Further reading


Catherine Griffin, CDBC, is the founder of Snout and About Canine Behavior Consultancy in Cork, Ireland. Studying with the renowned Dr Emily Blackwell at Bristol University and former training and behaviour advisor for Dogs Trust, Catherine has over 15 years experience in the industry. Promoting networks within the industry & between clients, her work has received acclaim in International Journals & provides educational case study material for the prestigious ATN Animal Behaviour Academy in Europe.

TO CITE: Griffin, C. (2024). Building client networks and maximising your resources. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.8

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