The ASPCA's Annual Canine Talent Show is a friendly competition among canines in our New York City Adoption Center. The event is geared to emphasize the positive aspects of shelter dogs.
"This type of event does a wonderful job of showing the public how great shelter dogs are, and helps to overcome the perception that animals are in shelters because there is 'something wrong with them,'" says Lourdes Bravo, Assistant Director at the Adoption Center.
Could your shelter's canines benefit from good PR? Here's how to put on a show of your own, helping to get your dogs out - and donations in.
A lively, upbeat event such as a talent show can help you connect with various audiences. Your first step is to decide who you want to target, and how the talent show will help you connect with that audience. For example, your talent show could be:
A donor appreciation event
A media event with a selective guest list
A fundraiser for the general public with an admission fee
A component of an adoption event for the public
For the ASPCA, the talent show is strictly a media event that showcases the shelter's great dogs and the hard work of the Adoption Center's staff and volunteers. Some of the contestants were "HLE dogs" — dogs rescued from neglect or cruelty by our Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) agents. The talent show helps Adoption Center staff demonstrate that, with rehabilitation and training, these dogs can do great in a loving home.
Three Months Ahead—Identify the Judges
Give yourselves plenty of time to round up a panel of judges. The ASPCA was fortunate to bring in celebrity judges, but if you don't have access to a superstar, don't despair. How about bringing in
staff or board members,
prominent figures in your community
Don't think you know any local celebrities? "Reach out to your staff," Bravo suggests. "We spread the word to our employees to see if anyone had any contacts."
Two Months Ahead—Enlist the Handlers
Turn to your staff and volunteers to train and handle the dogs in the show. At the ASPCA, Bravo put up a sign-up sheet. "This project is completely voluntary, and we are always able to find enough participants willing to give up their free time," says Bravo, who adds that time is an important qualification for volunteers. "We asked that they attend a minimum of two training classes per week, and be available the day of the event."
Several ASPCA Animal Care Technicians (ACTs) volunteered to be handlers. “ACTs came in early, stayed late and often gave up their lunch hours to watch videos on teaching tricks,” says Maritza Mendez, Assistant Manager of Shelter Staff. ACTs work closely with the animals every day, and they were invested in “helping particular dogs they felt had been somewhat overlooked or had a long stay at the shelter,” says Mendez.
One Month Ahead—All Right, Canines, Here Are Your Assignments
You've got your guest list, your judges and your handlers. Now for the fun part—bring in the dogs!
Who's a good candidate for the show? Our behaviorists selected dogs who wouldn't have a negative reaction to strangers, cameras, different noises, and other dogs. "If a dog doesn't feel comfortable in those types of situations, the chances are they will not perform, even if they know the trick very well," advises Bravo. Dogs rescued by HLE and long-time shelter residents were given preference, too. "Many of these dogs just need an opportunity to strut their stuff," she says. Don't forget, this could be a good chance for you to show off your plain brown dog.
Select more dogs than you think you'll need. "We try to round up about 15+ dogs at the very beginning to participate in the training," says Bravo. "By the day of the show, we usually have several adopted. Ideally, we like to have about 10 dogs competing."
Hold group training classes. The ASPCA held classes five days a week for 45 minutes. The trainings were supervised by a member of the behavior department. Handlers were required to attend at least two classes a week.
Discover Fido's hidden talent. For example, Doug Becker, an ASPCA Animal Behavior Counselor, chose a baseball theme for his canine partner, Prince. "Prince loves playing with balls, and he is such a great catcher," boasts Becker about the three-legged pit bull. Your behaviorists and trainers should work with the handlers, offering techniques on how to effectively train their dogs. Bravo says, "Once the trainer has identified the trick that the dog is best suited for, we try to create a little story to make it more interesting."
Try these tricks on for size. Some of the themes in the ASPCA talent show were:
Fire safety: Tiger taught the audience how to drop and roll.
Carnival: Stormy wowed the crowd with her "juggling" skills-and was adopted after the event.
Forgot his Lines: Eugene wasn't sure he liked the excitement, but the crowd still loved him.
Who's in charge of wardrobe and props? Designate one person to compile costume pieces and props for the show.
No such thing as too much practice. The handlers were encouraged to work with the dogs on their free time to reinforce the tricks. This prepared the dogs for the show, and provided a nice change of pace. The dogs had the opportunity to get away from their kennel for a while and receive extra one-on-one attention. "They had a great time, regardless of how well they learned their trick," says Bravo.
Right Before the Event—Bring in the Media
You might be tempted to alert the media well in advance of your show. You will likely be told to contact them again on the day of the event. "The nature of news is not just day by day, but hour by hour and minute by minute," explains Anita Edson, ASPCA Senior Director, Media & Communications. "Reporters have different shifts and beats, so the info most likely needs to get in the hands of the assignment editor who is handling that day's events."
Small-town news. "If there's a smaller market where you live, you could send the advisory out earlier — but day-of follow-up is still key, no matter where you are," Edson says.
Pinging the public, part 1. If your event is open to the public, send the info to listings editors up to three weeks in advance — or more, depending on the news outlet's lead time (a monthly magazine may have a three-month lead time, for example).
Pinging the public, part 2. Don't forget your direct communication channels to reach your supporters: your website (and enewsletter, if you have one), Facebook page, and Twitter account. These are great venues for "save the date" messages and last-minute reminders for events open to the public.
Here's the play-by-play for the ASPCA's talent show.
A half-hour before the show, the handlers and dogs gathered in a designated "green room" near the performance space. The canine competitors were given water and light snacks, and plenty of hugs to keep them relaxed.
Once the audience was in place, emcee Victoria Wells, ASPCA Senior Manager of Shelter Behavior & Training, introduced the judges and explained the judging criteria-overall presentation, dog's attentiveness to the handler and creativity of the cues learned.
One by one, the dogs entered and gave it their all. Here are some nice touches that made the show especially engaging:
Celebrity judges offered prizes to anyone who adopted one of the dogs in the show. When Melanie LaPatin offered dancing lessons, Roberta Flack chimed in to give away singing lessons.
Wells entertained the audience with funny and heartstring-pulling introductions of each dog. She had written the script herself based on her intimate knowledge of the animals.
Before-and-after photos of each dog were displayed on a big screen. This was especially poignant for dogs who had arrived to the shelter emaciated.
A DJ played a different song for each contestant — for example, hoedown music for the country dancer, and Hawaiian music for the limbo king.
The handlers wore costumes corresponding with the dogs' outfits. The dog decked out in football gear was accompanied by a handler in full uniform.
Showing the crowd that safety is always first, the handlers held on to the dogs' leashes at all times.
While the judges deliberated, the audience saw short movie about the ASPCA's work. You could use this time to present a slideshow, or have a staffer speak to the crowd about your work.
Medals were awarded to dogs and handlers for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.
And the Award Goes to…
Prince! He may have just three legs, but no way was the batter gonna score off this catcher.
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