Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Born To Run Photography
On July 20th and 21st, 2019, every dog will have his day. This summer, the seventh annual Woofa~Roo Pet Fest reaches the Libro Complex in Amherstburg. The “funtastic” event focuses on the bond between people and their pets and features events such as Dock Diving, Dog Agility, Lure Coursing and Dog Races.
Woofa~Roo was created by Lorene Clayton, a retired commercial photographer. As Clayton states, the event was born out of a combination of passion and experience.
“I love animals of all sorts,” Clayton reports. “There’s something so pure about the affection of an animal. There’s nothing really expected of you except to love them. They’re very forgiving animals. Very forgiving beings, I should say. And I was always involved in working with big productions, as far as photography was concerned. I would have to hire crews or hire models. There were a lot of moving pieces and a lot of moving parts that needed to be pulled together to create the work that we did. And I was always good at being able to bring those pieces together. It’s much the same as the festival. There’s a lot of moving parts. It’s a breathing entity. It evolves every year.”
According to Clayton, the festival came about out of an untapped need for pet-related inclusivity in the Windsor-Essex community.
“Other cities have a pet festival,” Clayton stresses. “I feel that we’re kind of behind with that. If you go to the west coast or even the Toronto region, they’ll have pet-friendly cafes. They’ll have more things that people can do with their pets. I believe that’s important, because now more and more people are opting out of children and having pets. Pets have become so important in people’s lives that it’s affecting everything. It’s affecting the choice of house that you purchase. Is there a dog walk? Is there a place a dog can come in and out of? A breezeway where we can wash their feet? When people are going out looking for a new vehicle, it’s like, where do we put the dog? These are all considerations that people have that are becoming more and more important now. I think as a society we’re recognizing the importance that pets are playing in our lives.”
Recognizing this need, Clayton set about laying the groundwork required to bring Woofa~Roo to Amherstburg in 2012.
“The first year was naturally the hardest, because we had to build an infrastructure and that meant drafting a comprehensive pet policy, vendor policy, sponsorship policies and volunteer policies,” Clayton explains. “We had to write up the legal formats for everything. So, that was difficult. And then finding the venue. But, in the very beginning, the biggest challenge was not knowing if it was going to fly.”
However, despite Clayton’s concerns, Woofa~Roo did not fly. It soared. Woofa~Roo’s first year, Clayton was anticipating 1,500 to 2,000 people. They ended up attracting 7,000 guests.
“That first year, we had people lining up out the gate before we even opened,” Clayton recalls. “And I’m going, ‘Oh my god, send them back. We’re not ready for them.’ But this was a good thing, I realized. But it didn’t connect, because I wanted everything to be so perfect for that opening. And I had a huge lineup of cars waiting to get in. But I went, okay, we found a formula here. To me, it was like, wow—I get emotional just thinking about it! There’s so much of an unknown when you first start something that’s never been tried before in the region. It’s just a relief when you see it all come together and just knock it out of the park. And we did that year. And it’s been growing ever since. It’s been fun!”
Woofa~Roo is quite the spectacle. Events range from Weiner Dog Racing to the Woofa~Roo Challenge—an event that pits dogs against a laneway of toys, hot dogs, cans of salmon and other distractions. This year, Woofa~Roo will feature a couple new vistas: Dog Dancing and Dog Parkour, which incorporates dog stunts with heel to music.
“This is a social event mixed in with a lot of these other Olympic-style sporting events,” Clayton explains. “It is a lot of fun. It’s just a mixed bag. You just never know what you’re going to see and do there.”
Despite the fun-filled events, to Clayton, the most significant part of Woofa~Roo is the social aspect of the festival.
“Dogs break all kinds of social barriers,” Clayton stresses. “I have witnessed extremely shy people that wouldn’t normally be in public events but they have this perfectly-groomed, well-behaved exquisite dog by their side and they just blossom. People pay attention to their dog. They have an instant bond with a total stranger because of the affection that they share for the animal. I’ve seen people just break out of their shell and become this very friendly, socially comfortable person when they have a pet by their side. And animal lovers are easy people to please. Everyone’s there to have a good time. That’s why I think having pets in our life is important.”
Despite the fun and games, Woofa~Roo also includes a charitable component. Danes in Distress will be hosting an obstacle course. Proceeds from the Woofa~Roo Challenge go to St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs. In addition, an Adoption Circle will be located at the entrance of the event. Woofa~Roo also hosts a Silent Auction, which will help raise money for local charities.
However, despite all the fun and games, the wellbeing of guests and their pets is always first and foremost on Clayton and her volunteer’s minds. Clayton urges all guests to read the festival’s pet policy.
“We have a pet policy that has enabled us to be relatively incident-free,” Clayton states. “A lot of people may not like it, they may complain about it but it’s a policy that works and enables everyone to be there in a safe environment. One of the biggest items is the one adult or person per dog rule. We also encourage guests to be very cognitive of their dog’s behavior. You have to pay attention to what your dog is feeling. That environment is not good for every dog. Just make sure they’re comfortable with the crowds of people and the different noises and activity that’s going on.”
The festival, Clayton stresses, is also weather-proof. Woofa~Roo is an indoor-outdoor event.
More information can be found about the event at woofaroo.com.