Seeing families facing the heartache of giving up their pets inspired Justine Williams to set up Our Family Dog – Mumsnet for pets.
Justine spent many years working in the communications department on campaigns for the RSPCA, regularly hearing stories about dogs being handed in to shelters for many reasons.
She recognised the dream of being a puppy parent often didn’t match the reality – late nights, puddles and poo on the carpet and challenging behaviour.
As a mum, when she’d felt overwhelmed, she’d turned to Mumsnet to connect with people who were feeling the same.
So she returned to the classroom and studied Human Behaviour Change at Derby University and during a chat to a lecturer, the idea for ‘Mumsnet for pet owners’ was born.
Justine was able to leave her role at the RSPCA and focused solely on her ‘lightbulb moment idea’ and in 2019, her Community Interest Company Our Family Dog was born.
Fast forward two years as we come out of lockdown, with many owners of pandemic pups feeling anxious about how they might cope, there’s never been a greater need for support.
I spoke to Justine, who lives in Sussex with her family, about how Our Family Dog came to be and her plans to create a ‘Pawmap’ out of lockdown.
How the idea for Our Family Dog came about
One of the key areas Justine focused on at the RSPCA was looking into how to reduce the number of dogs ending up in rescue centres.
Justine explained: “We looked at the relationship between impulse purchases and the relinquishment of dogs to rescue centres.
“We looked at how we could address the mismatch between expectations versus reality.”
Creating Mumsnet for dog owners
Justine spent a lot of time listening to people speaking about the issues they faced as new dog owners that they hadn’t been expecting.
As a parent, it took her back to those early days as a new mum, and she recalled how much forums like Mumsnet had helped her.
That source of advice and support to understand that a lot of it was normal really helped her to ride out the storm.
Justine recalled: “It normalised what I was going through. And so I set out to create the same for dog owners.”
Justine realised that in order to help, she not only needed the understanding and knowledge of dogs but of the humans they share their lives with too.
She became interested in human behaviour, and studied at the University of Derby to obtain the knowledge she needed to effectively support and help owners AND their dogs.
Who Our Family Dog helps
A lot of information out there is targeted to what your dog needs. Our Family Dog approaches it from the owner’s point of view.
Justine says there has never been a greater need, particularly in lockdown when owners have been isolated from friends and family who they might normally turn to for help.
She said: “There are many puppy and dog owners who are finding things hard. There is a mismatch between what they expected life with their dog to look like versus the reality.
“New dog owners are often tying themselves up in knots, trying to find the answers to make life with their dog easier and more enjoyable. Like they had imagined it would be.
“Our Family Dog provides an empathetic space where dog owners can access support and advice to help them through.
“The most important thing about Our Family Dog is that it’s a non-judgemental space where people can feel safe and supported while riding the waves of puppy parenthood.”
Resources available at Our Family Dog
The primary focus for Justine is helping new owners get the support they need and with a background in animal welfare, she urges people to use force free methods.
Via her website, she aims to support users in two ways.
To first is about helping people to prepare for getting a dog, helping people choose a breed to match their lifestyle with advice on how to find a responsible breeder.
The site tries to present a realistic picture of what life with a new puppy will look like with the aim of making the new puppy journey a happier experience for everyone.
The second is providing a lifeline. Many people get a puppy, and then they get to a point when they hit a panic button.
Justine says: “We’re there for owners when they hit that point. Puppy blues is normal, your baby shark is peeing and pooing everywhere, and you’re losing your mind.
“It’s all quite normal! You will get through it.”
The problem with Pandemic Puppies
It’s no secret that there are new puppies and dogs everywhere. Pretty much everyone knows someone who bought a dog in lockdown.
Our Family Dog has seen traffic to their website increase significantly throughout the pandemic, with so many people looking for advice and help.
It’s been almost a perfect opportunity to settle a puppy in, but there is a difficulty in that life isn’t normal.
Justine says: “I worry that the problems will only really start to emerge when we come out of lockdown. Dogs will be in a position where they have to get used to being home alone.
“We’ve been looking at ways to help puppy and dog parents with how to prepare for coming out of lockdown. As humans, we have a roadmap out of lockdown, and we need the same for our pets.”
Justine’s ‘Pawmap out of lockdown’ for dogs
While it’s hard to know what the ’new normal’ will be like, Justine thinks the best thing we can do is help people prepare for the upcoming changes in their dog’s lives.
If we don’t, then we may see an increase in dogs in rescue centres, or worse, being sold on so people can recoup the money they’ve paid for their puppy.
Justine said: “Right now, it’s hard for some people to see what problems might be on the horizon. So we have to start finding ways to best help people to prepare their dogs for life post lockdown.
“Hopefully, many people will have had their puppies long enough that they’ve got a strong bond, and they’re through the hardest of it.
“But for those who have welcomed a puppy into their lives more recently they’re still in the difficult stages of puppy parenthood and may be going back to work.
“They will be in real need of support.”
How to learn more about Our Family Dog
Dog ownership can be hard at times, but if you’re prepared and have a source of support for those challenging periods, then the road ahead is bright.
If you’d like some help with your puppy or dog or fancy being a part of a supportive community, then you can find out more at www.ourfamilydog.org.uk
Or you can connect on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram on the links below:
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