Episode 101 – Jessica Hiltner

Jessica Hiltner is the founder of Real Dog Moms of Chicago and they have been doing amazing work in their local community. Partnering with animal rescues and shelters to raise money and help animals in need – raising a total of over $100,000 in just 18 months! They are focused on building community relationships with local businesses who have similar missions. Their hope one day is to open a senior dog sanctuary – tune in to see how you can help support their efforts today!

“Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue.  This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now, on with our show! 

Jessica Heltner is the mastermind behind Real Dog Moms of Chicago. They strive to be an inclusive community of crazed dog lovers. This group loves getting together monthly, to do good for their community, while having fun. Their goal is to drive a tighter network between dog-friendly businesses, dog rescues and dog lovers. Since September of 2017, they’ve raised more than $100,000 for Chicago animal rescues and shelters.

 Hey, Jessica, thanks for coming on today. Thanks for having me. So tell us a little bit about you and how you got to be the Real Dog Mama of Chicago. Um, well, I was born dog crazy. My family had one too many animals, always from salamanders, to dogs, to turtles, that we made minivans for, um. Made minivans for turtles? Yeah, my brother had a, I don’t know if it was the A-team van. It was a toy, but he painted it and it was, I forget the name of his turtle, but he painted the name on the side. And he used to, like, scoot it around the driveway. Turtles moved too slow for him, I guess.

 But yeah, I’m not even sure how I got involved in rescue. I just one day kind of said, I’m gonna foster some dogs. And my first time fostering, I fostered three puppies, which is one puppy too many, because you only have two hands. And I was, I was addicted. I fostered for a local rescue for almost nine years and, um, actually stopped shortly after my one foster failed, surprisingly, only one. After she passed away, she, her death was very unexpected and broke me so deeply, that I took a long time off of rescue. And then about three years ago, my husband and I found a puppy on Facebook that was being re-homed, and I fell madly in love and got into an hour-long argument with him over whether or not we should get him. And I won. Apparently you won. Yes, I won. And are not going to have one dog turn into now, three years later, we managed. We kept in touch with the woman we took the dog from and last summer sent her some pictures of him and found out, randomly, that day that one of his littermates, the family contacted her and wanted to give up that dog. So we now have two brothers that we rescued almost three years apart, which is like, the coolest thing in the world to me.

 Um, but when we got Radner, who is our first dog, took him to the local dog park and because of the joy of Instagram, he, after one too many people asked me if my dog had an Instagram account, I finally made one and randomly came across a girl, who our dogs had played together, um, at the dog park. Long story turning longer. Um, but she found my dog on Instagram and we started talking and because the dog’s gone along, we’d meet at the parks to let the boys play. Because, you know, energy level wise, they were about the same age and played really well together. And then, coincidentally, while we were watching her dog, while she was on her honeymoon, found out that we bought a condo in the building that she lived in. Whoa! Right, like texting her while she’s on her honeymoon in Hawaii. And I’m like, Oh, my gosh, I just saw your address. We just bought a condo in your building. And no, I’m not crazy. Psycho stalker. Yeah, I was just going to say, Are you stalking me? No, no, no, But it’s just totally, it was totally random. Like, had people not literally, not stopped me on the street with my puppy, asking if he had an Instagram, I didn’t even know people did that. Like, I didn’t know Instagram for dogs was a thing, but after probably the seventh person stopped me saying, I need to follow your dog. He’s so cute. I came home one day and told my husband like,  I’m going to give the people what they want, I guess, right.

 But had that not happened, we would have never met Jake, who’s my dog’s best friend and then met Lindy and then lived in the same building. And the weekend that we moved in here, one of my girlfriends was hosting a blanket making party, talking about ways that you can help rescues. That doesn’t mean you’re actually directly involved. We made these no so fleece blankets and donated them to the local animal control. And while we were there, Lindy had made this very delicious porch punch, kind of Sunday morning breakfast cocktail. And I had had just enough, that when she said we were Bujji, like the real housewives, only the real dog moms. I thought that is a hilarious Instagram account. Nice, what an interesting way that this came about. I know, I know That’s what’s really funny to people because that actually kind of started while having a little bit too much to drink. It started just because I was like, people love sharing their dogs. Like, people love their five minutes of fame. We’ll open up this account. It’ll be really cute. We’ll only share pictures of moms with their dogs because we’re so obsessed with our dogs, I would have to imagine everybody is right? Like, if you’re, if you’re not obsessed with your dog, you’re not doing it right. So, um, we started out just sharing pictures and having fun with that, and it was nothing. And then, over the summer, one of the other dog moms at the dog park said, You guys should make a calendar and, like get local dogs in it and sell it and raise money for a rescue. And I’m like, Oh my gosh, you’re right And I had not been involved in rescue in so long, it was so exciting to me, because I haven’t done anything for rescues in almost six years.

 So we found a local photographer, who was willing to donate her time. We did a little contest online and had a series of dogs win, to be in the calendar, sold the calendar, raised a bunch of money. And it was just a really cool start, like it was something that I hadn’t even thought of doing with that account, cause we really I just thought it’d be cute to share pictures of dogs. I mean, I don’t go on the Internet to read about how you went to the gym and tanning and whatever, like, I want to look at pictures of cute puppies. So, um, it kind of started as a joke and um, over the summers, well, Lindy and I had gone to this event that we saw on Facebook, Help paint your pet. This local woman draws the dog for you. It’s like an outline. And then you go and you paint it and you have a couple of drinks. Well, yet again. A couple of drinks led us to thinking, I’m sensing a theme here. Yes, cocktails are good, when they’re not too many. But we went up to the hostess and said, Hey, we have this dog Mom group and I think this would be really fun to host for them. Are you interested in doing it? And she said, Sure. I said one thing, though, if we’re gonna promote you, you have to give back. And that is how this all started, because we thought, like, you know, we’re a target niche for you. You host these classes specifically for pet owners, you’re going to make the money off of it. We’re not making anything off with it, so you have to give back. And now, less than two years, we’ve raised $100,000 for local rescues, from our ridiculous events. You say that so calmly, $100,000 in 18 months is absolutely amazing. I’m really proud. It’s I mean, but we couldn’t do it without an amazing community of dog moms who really care about helping. It’s not just us. So it’s been really awesome.

 Yeah, and I love the fact that you are so understanding and supportive of the people that have contributed, because that’s like you said, it’s a community. It’s not something that one person does. You’re actually starting kind of a movement. I would like to think so because it’s definitely like the woman with the paint your pet classes. She originally, like most businesses do, kept all the income and then, after working with us and seeing how much people love that, every one of her classes now are donating to a rescue. She partners up with them and gives them a portion of the ticket sales. And then there is a local restaurant that we work with, that we do what we refer to as, Tacos to the Rescue and a percentage of your bill, should you mention that you’re there dining for the cause, goes to the local rescue. And so this woman has just been amazing and she lets us come in to do whatever we want. Like, we’ve hosted paint your pets there. We keep hosting our blanket making events there. We do the Tacos to the Rescue. And the business owner just texted me the other week and told me that she has been so inspired, she’s adding a margarita to the menu, named after her dog, and a percentage of those margaritas, every month, are going to local rescues. So it’s been really, really awesome to see how people realize, like the point of your podcast, that you can do anything to help, literally anything. So, um, it’s been really cool to watch what’s occurred from that, and I’ve seen lots of people start volunteering, and I think they’ve learned the local rescues and see what they’re up to and want to get involved. So now they’re getting directly involved, too. Yeah, that’s what I love about this is, it’s just kind of you started this movement this concept.

 So where does all of the money go? To the rescues. So depending on the event that we’re hosting, like this morning, I think at 11 AM, I say think, because I’ve been so fortunate to, um, onboard 24 women to help us host these events, so I’m not actually going to it today. But there is a DIY doormat event this morning, where we go to this local artist shop. She buys all the materials and makes all the stencils, and you go and you paint your customized doormat for your home. Mine says, “Dogs welcome, People questionable”. Something like that. Um, but yes. So, some facilities like that. She’s the one that takes the money from the events and then makes the donation. Since we’re not a nonprofit, we can’t write the receipts for people. So our workaround has been, depending on the facility even, they collect the money and do the donation. Or for a larger event, where we’re looking for sponsors, we have you donate directly to the rescue and forward us the receipt. Or if we take the money because we’re hosting the event and we have to pay out to all the vendors. If we’re unable to get everything donated, then we just take the money after the events are over with and calculate all and it goes right to the rescue. So we’ve worked with, I think 22 rescues in the last 18 months. Wow, that’s really cool. I like the model that you’re coming up with, too, is you’re getting everybody else to contribute. And like you said, you’re kind of running it like a business. But the business is just to send the money to the rescue.

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 We had no idea what we were doing to start, and we still don’t know what we’re doing. So everything. No, no, for real, we make everything up as we go. Like we just hosted our second annual Dog Mom’s Day brunch, because dog moms are people, too. And just because we don’t have human babies, does not mean that we don’t love the things that we’re raising. And so this is our second year doing it. We had a couple of people do financial sponsorship, so we had them donate the money directly to the rescue like I said, and then just forwarding us the receipt for proof. So then we add them to the website, etc, based on their donation. Or we’ve reached out, and one of the things that we like to do to entice people to come to the events is have swag bags. So we got, I think it was 18 items, really great value items, donated to the swag bags. So we look at it as we’ve got this 10,000 some followers and they’re all dog followers. And so why wouldn’t you want to advertise on our page? So we get a lot of places that want to give us things so that they get marketing out of it. So it’s been a really cool experience learning how to manipulate the system if you will. But all for good, you know, And so to me, it’s you’ve got this dog food company, who wants their name broadcasted. So give us something or donate something via us to a rescue. And we’ll talk about how amazing you were to give all that to the rescue. And so we like to use our platform for good, in any capacity that we can. Because if we have this following and we do nothing with it, we have failed epically. So it’s been a really cool experience to figure that out on some restaurants even like doing that because they want to look like they’re giving back. I mean, they are giving back, but they want to, you know, have that good marketing for them. So really so.

Well, yeah, you’re doing all this via Instagram then? The large majority of our followers are via Instagram, yes.  We have just breached 10,000 in the middle of last month, I want to say. And I think we have, like, 3500 on Facebook, and we don’t really do a lot on Facebook. But Facebook is really good for sharing. So in the event of something big happening, or, um, we had a kennel fire here in Chicago in January. And we were trying to help fundraise for the local rescues that had dogs in this kennel. I think, in a week, raised like $30,000 for them. So it’s good in the sense of being able to share because Facebook is shareable, and Instagram, kind of really isn’t. Our majority of followers are Instagram. That’s the majority of the time that we spend interacting with our community. But we also have a website, because we need someplace to host everything. So we kind of always try to draw it in. But social media is definitely our jam. 

So now what kind of events are you guys doing throughout the year? During inclement weather months, which here in Chicago is the majority of them, we host a lot of indoor events, like we refer to them as romps. They’re off-leash play for dogs. We have separate areas for small dogs and big dogs, so it’s a two-hour event. It’s 15 bucks. 100% of that goes to the rescue because the facilities that we work with have been generous enough to recognize that, letting us use their space means we’re constantly advertising them and they might get clients out of it, and they’re not using it at that time anyway. So they’ve been really generous to let us host there. We max out at about 70 for those events because we do 35 in each section. Once a month, we do dog pool parties. There is a facility here in Chicago that has two indoor pools, that are heated and an indoor park. So we do a party there every month. Um, we do the Paint Your Pet thing. We do blanket making. Today and tomorrow we’re in doggy fashion shows helping raise money for, Yeah. Chicago is notorious for their street festivals during the summer, and today is one called Do Division. And we hosted a contest online and raised about 400, excuse me, $545 for Live Like Rue, which is a new organization that helps people pay for cancer treatments for their dogs. And we did that because we charge people 10 bucks to sign up to try to win a slot in the dog fashion show. We could only have 10 winners. But it was a really fun little thing. We had the dogs make a profile about their name, their favorite toy and one thing they can’t live without. And we hosted it on the website. So that was really cute. Fundraisers, like I said, for the Dog Mom’s Mother’s Day brunch, we do dog yoga. Uh, we’re doing a bar crawl with a rescue, in July. We do the Tacos to the Rescue. I mean, anything.

What’s been really cool is, in the last couple of months, we’ve had a lot of places reach out to us. There’s a pretty cool restaurant here in Logan Square, called Park in Field, they’re dog friendly. And they asked us to host an event with them in August for National Dog Day. And another place asked us to help them with dog yoga. There in the loop, they have a patio that’s heated, so it’s year-round. They’re gonna do dog yoga on it. I always make everyone donate, so we just know them into donating a portion of the ticket sales to a rescue. So I mean, anything that gets thrown our way, I’ll figure it out. It’s actually kind of a problem, and I don’t know how to say no. So I was going to say, it’s almost become a full-time job with all the different events. It feels like it. But again, I’m really lucky that I, you know, we created this volunteer form earlier in the year, and some, almost 70 people have signed up on it, to help out with events in one capacity another. Whether it’s doing the graphic design or helping find donations, transporting things. I mean for the Dog Mom’s brunch, I had, like, 10 women here, for three hours, as we made 100 swag bags for the event because we sold 100 tickets to it. And so, you know, I’m really lucky that people love what we’re doing, and they really do want to get involved, and it makes it a lot easier. I mean, it was a lot of work to start doing on my own.

 And then last year we on-boarded two girls who are now, quote-unquote, full-time helpers with us. Um, Marcie is our donations manager, and that girl makes it an art form. And like a personal challenge to get things donated. The stuff that she gets, just amazes me. We had 70 items donated for our brunch, which, like, blows my mind. Yep. Yeah, Carrie came on as our special events manager. So she helps me find places. So we do photos as well. We do many sessions, which is how I think you actually came to find us through Second City Canine Rescue. We, in March, hosted our Mother’s Day sessions. We do them early enough that people can have them for the actual event. So, like our holiday photos are done in November, so that they’re processed and people have them for the holidays if they’re sending out Christmas cards or whatever. Um, but so we did a dog mom’s one. And, um, Carrie got this wedding venue, that’s dog friendly, to donate their space to us for the entire day. The photographer donated their time. A local florist donated this beautiful arrangement of flowers for the pictures, and we had I think 80 women come with their dogs and families. I mean, we had someone bring five dogs because they have five. We had a woman with her three dogs and her twin daughters. So we host those quarterly, as well. So we’re, next weekend is our patriotic Fourth of July photos. We’ll do a picnic theme and the money goes to Safe Humane Valor program, which pairs court case dogs with veterans that have PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. Wow, what an interesting group. That’s really cool. Yeah, so. And we’re doing Dog Dad Day brunch the very next day. And that goes to PAWWs, which is Pets Assisting Wounded Warriors. They also do the same thing o,f pairing dogs with veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. We chose to try to pick, normally, we only work with rescues or try to give our money directly just to rescues. And those two are not rescue based, but because they deal with veterans and it’s the season of, you know, the Fourth of July, being patriotic and wanting to give back to people of our community who gave to us and served for us. So, we like to pick, um, that type of theme for these fourth of July photos. Yeah, I think that’s really cool. 

So what’s the dream? What’s the vision for this? For this itself? I don’t know. In theory, I would actually love to turn it into a business. My goal would be, to get businesses that want to advertise, to pay us. And that’s how we would make the money because I don’t want to take money from events that rescues need. So I would love to have people pay to advertise to be on our website or in our newsletter, what have you. Or to be at our events or sponsors of things, what have you. And make money that way. Because I would love to have that money saved to someday open up a sanctuary. Most sanctuaries are very broke because they don’t adopt out dogs, right, like the points that you’re keeping them forever, giving them their place, their resting place. So, I don’t know how I would do that, but that’s my dream.

 Our seniors have a soft spot in my heart. That’s the one foster that I failed on when I was younger. She was a 10-year-old German Shepherd that had had breast cancer, and her hip dysplasia was so bad, they did two femoral head removals. And when it was time for me to give her up. I just couldn’t. Because all I could think is this dog is so broken, she can’t walk well, she can’t do stairs, doesn’t play fetch. Like, she doesn’t even jump on the couch. No ones gonna want this dog. People don’t go to shelters to find the senior dog. They go for young dogs, puppies. And this dog does not deserve to spend the rest of her life in a cage, for circumstances that are not her fault. She’s the one that really, like, wrecked me and drove me to have such a desire to help seniors. And so in my head, I would love it to be a sanctuary, where dogs aren’t waiting for their forever home. It’s, you know, a pond, in a warm climate, so they don’t have the deal with the ice or the cold weather, with their creaky bones and spend the rest of their days happy and loved. But I would need a lot of money to do that. So I need people to start paying to advertise on our website. Sure. And you would also need to move somewhere other than Chicago. I know, so hard. Somewhere south. Maybe you can start to convince your husband it’s time to look for a sanctuary in the south. This is true. I mean, he wouldn’t be opposed to it. I think I could get him to Colorado. But that, too, has winter, so I don’t know about that.

 So what is the typical week look like for you, Jessica? Well, I just quit my full-time job that I was at, and I was kind of blessed. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. It was a job that I wasn’t very busy at. It drove me insane, and that’s where this all got cooked up. So a typical week is 9000 emails, phone calls on my lunch break, meetings at night, events at night, events on the weekend. I spent my week transporting dogs around because I’m off between the jobs. I will be at my new job on Monday. It was a really fun week of, in the mornings I volunteered at a rescue, at their isolation center. Which are dogs that they pulled from shelters that they don’t know if they’ve been exposed to any illnesses, so they want to keep them away from the rest of the dogs for a time period. So I volunteered there in the mornings. And then I was transporting dogs from fosters to the vet. From the vet back to their fosters. Did a freedom ride from animal control up to a rescue on the North Side. But that’s not my typical week, even though I would love for that to be my typical week. It was really fun. Although, dogs are crazy in cars. I learned a couple of things like, I need a harness in my car that can be seatbelted because they’re crazy. When they get out of there, they’re so excited. Yeah. Kind of nuts in my car.

 But my typical week, when I was working, was, you know, I get up in the morning and I’ve got to check the, I always do. Okay, so you check the Internet like I gotta look at all the social media and reply to things and engage people and post some stuff. And then I would go to work and, you know, peppering in, replying to emails. Whether it’s talking to a restaurant or a vendor that wants to work with us and trying to figure out the event. Or replying to the people who have a question about, like, where can I donate this or how can I get involved? When I’m really bored at work, I diddle on our website, and I have spent time trying to make more information on there, like there’s a foster, like how to get involved. There’s a couple of rescues we put up on there, what you need to become a foster. What they require. What they give to you, you know? So there’s resources for that. And then, you know, other ways to get involved. I tried to look at it as let’s grow a thing first and then let’s refine it. So let’s grow the following and get people involved and then see where the needs are and try to figure out how we can help. So, in the beginning we had a lending pause page, where it was saying things like, So you can’t, you can’t commit to a couple of shifts a week, you know, give here. Here’s an Amazon wishlist. They need laundry done. Can you go to their place just to do laundry? Like, maybe you don’t necessarily want to handle the dogs, but you want to do something else or, you know, donating in this stuff or transporting or what have you. So I’ve been slowly trying to figure out how to better that.

We have a series of events coming up this summer called Foster Q and A, so that people can come and learn more without feeling like they have to commit at the event, but they can learn more about it. What does it look like? We’ll bring in a couple of the adoptable dogs that are in current fosters. We had a, randomly, the day that we were doing this, some wine company reached out to us and told us they wanted to donate wine to us and generously have given us 17 cases. It all comes full circle. Doesn’t it? It does! It’s so crazy to me how this stuff works out. I mean, it really has been cool and, like, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I literally don’t know what I’m doing. Most days I actually feel like I might drown, because I’m like, How do I manage this, or what do I do with this, right? Hate to pass up this opportunity. How do we get this involved? And I really, you know, it’s been interesting because as we work with rescues, we’re seeing how much, I mean rescues get so much donated to them, for every event that they do, it’s amazing. But there’s places that, like won’t donate to them, that do donate to us. And I think it’s because we’re kind of a brand or a community. And there’s perspective, you know, buyers in our market, that not saying that they are in the rescues. But it’s been interesting to see how much more willing places are or how they jump at us, to work with us. And so I want to use that like I want to use it for good. But like I’m so desperate to always figure out the way to use a place to get that, so we can do more because the more successful the event is on their end too, they see the value of it, so they’ll keep doing those things, whether or not they do it with us. Yeah and I do love the brand. It would be really cool if we could get Real Dog Mom’s of different cities, right? Make it kind of a franchise thing. Where we get them in different cities and everybody working together, because I think the model that you’ve come up with, and even though you say you’re still learning and stumbling your way through, it’s really amazing the success that you’ve had, in just such a short time.

 Thanks. We actually are expanding. We just opened up Real Dog Moms of Chattanooga. And their first goal is to actually grow, because again, like, you can’t host an event if nobody knows who you are, because no one’s gonna show up. And while I have no problem failing at things, the last thing you want, you know, to feel is like your first event, you know, was a flop. So they’re working on growing their community now after we opened up a local, sorry, she’s not local. She’s in St Louis. A woman from St Louis, who actually owns a company called Good Dog Treat Box. She had donated treats to us for a series of events. Well she loved what we were doing so much, she opened up St Louis Dog Moms. They’re doing the exact same thing. They, we work closely together. We help each other as much as we can. We share ideas. We talk stuff out. they’re killing it in St Louis. And there’s a woman in Seattle, who I’m trying to schedule a call with, to start her out there as well. So I, actually, that’s why when we created the business, we actually filed the business as Real Dog Moms Inc., so that the business was kind of an umbrella. And should we be able, down the road, to open up other cities to do it that way then, so every division is like a city. I would love to expand more. I just, I don’t know how to do it. I’m not a business person. I spent 10 years massaging people for a living. And in my degree, from colleges and social work and, like my brain doesn’t function this way. I’m just obsessed with dogs and trying to help, and so I see every opportunity as an opportunity to help dogs. Or how could I turn that into something? So, I just need someone who could figure out how to guide us to expand that way, like I just am not a business person.

 Well, I’ll tell you I really love the idea you had. I love your passion for this. I can definitely feel that coming through and you’ve had just amazing success. So I think it’s just, it’s awesome to see what you’ve been able to do, in the fact that you’re trying to keep building this out. And is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? If anybody who’s listening has something they want to donate or want to get involved, let us know. No, for real. I mean, I just, we look at every opportunity, so I don’t have any words of wisdom cause I am utterly clueless and generally really tired. My thought is that you can do anything. You just have to start moving. Absolutely. I love that, and I definitely agree with that. So, Jessica, it has been so great to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming on the program. Thanks for having me. It was really fun.

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