Complexities of Adding a New Group Member

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D., LCP, CGP

I recently added a new member to my group. As any good therapist would do, I took my time.  I wanted to add a new member immediately after the last one departed in January; but I knew the time wasn’t right.  The current members were still processing the recent loss and I didn’t have either the time or energy to bring a new member up to speed, learn the rules of the group, and help them thrive in the way they wanted. However, with the start of summer, time commitments (and other work obligations) lessened a bit and it was clear both the leader and group members were ready for their next challenge. So, I travelled almost two hours to pick up the new member from a shelter; as recent circumstances had found him homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore.

              Oh, did I mention I’m talking about a dog? One of my dogs passed away in January and I finally felt ready to bring another dog into my life. I was mindful of the impact this new addition could have on my current dog and wanted the adjustment, for both animals, to be as smooth as possible. I found an adorable dog – a mutt that is mostly bulldog with likely a bit of pit bull mixed in – at an animal shelter outside of Baltimore, MD and knew I could provide him with a “corrective emotional experience.”

During the drive to pick him up, I kept thinking about how best to integrate him into my family.  How would he get along with my other dog?  How would he integrate into my life?  What will I need to do to give him both the home and life he deserves – especially after spending the first few years of his life living on the streets? As these questions rattled through my brain, I wondered if I was truly ready for this new addition. I realized that the process of adding a new pet really was similar to adding a new group member and as a (usually) competent and skilled group clinician, I already possessed all the tools necessary to make this transition successful.

              Admittedly, upon my arrival at the shelter, I broke one of my cardinal rules of group.  As part of my standard group agreements, members commit to always attend sober and not under the influence.  When I picked up my newest friend, family, and group member – Gimli – he was absolutely as high as a kite.  He had been neutered earlier in the day and was still feeling the effects of the anesthesia.  However, like any group facilitator worth their salt, I evaluated the extenuating circumstances and still took Gimli to begin the long drive back home.

              The parallels to group process only intensified during that drive.  Gimli was secured on the back of my car; but I was able to keep eyes on him from my rear-view mirror.  He spent much of the drive either staring at me or looking out the window.  It was clear he was both excited, but also a bit confused. Like anyone new to group, Gimli seemed to be wondering if he was safe in this new space. Would I be able to care for him and protect him? Was this new group going to be a better fit for him than the last one? He had just spent a month living in an animal shelter, and by all reports, struggled to navigate such a chaotic environment.  While I was confident he would find my house (and our newly formed group) to be warm, loving, and inviting; I could appreciate that he had no frame of reference in order for him to make an informed decision.  At one point on the return drive; he gently placed both of his paws on my shoulder. I knew he was expressing an anxiety he could not verbalize.  I held one of his paws and assured him that no matter what the future held; we would navigate those hurdles together.  I couldn’t promise that there wouldn’t be strife or struggle; but I could promise he would never have to navigate those things alone or without my care and kindness. This is the same tacit agreement with make with all group members.

              Once we arrived home, the next task of the group emerged – integrating the newest member to the group member who had been there the longest. Gozer, my other dog who I have raised for the past 10 years, knows how to be a good group member in my home.  She has acclimated to the official, stated rules of the house (ex. Dinner at 5:30, Potty before Tev has to leave for work, etc.); but she is also intimately familiar with the unwritten norms of this particular group (ex. Of course, you’re allowed on the couch and bed. Come up and snuggle when you’re feeling scared). While I was confident that Gozer would help Gimli adjust; I also needed to ensure that Gozer was not dropped by me as the leader. As the facilitator, it fell to me to make sure Gozer never felt “replaced” by the newest group member.  How will these two dogs now compete for time and attention?  How will each be able to get their needs met as best as possible? I also had to stay cognizant of how Gozer would react to now having to share resources that were once exclusively hers. Even if Gozer was able to do it well, that didn’t mean the task was easy. 

              These are complicated and nuanced dynamics.  I have never been more grateful for my experience as a group therapist spanning almost the past 20 years.  Integrating a new dog into a home is never easy; but it can be immensely rewarding. Just another thing this process has in common with group therapy!!

While there is even more I could say about the similarities between group and raising two dogs; instead, I am grabbing a tennis ball and plan to spend some quality time with my two favorite group members out in the backyard.


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