Hugh Goes to School
In 1999, Geauga Humane Society was a small, worthy, but underfunded organization working from an uninviting, substandard shelter that made good husbandry almost impossible and attracting adopters a major challenge. Within just two years, the organization raised over $2 million and opened Rescue Village, a new state-of-the-art facility where people of all ages now come together to care for and celebrate animals. This is the story of Hugh, the plain brown street dog who became the centerpiece of the campaign to build Rescue Village.
Hugh may not have been the brightest penny in the jar, but he taught me a lesson that toy makers and sugary cereal companies have known for years – there’s no better way to get to parents than through their kids.
Actually, that was the farthest thing from our minds when we signed Hugh up for training with Therapy Dogs International. We had recently created the GHS Ambassadors Therapy Dog Program to train a group of reliable dogs and owners who would represent the organization, and shelter dogs in general, at community events. It just seemed logical to include our new spokesdog in the mix.
Once he earned his yellow tag, Hugh became the mainstay of our fledgling humane education program. Even then, we didn’t think of humane ed as having anything directly to do with the campaign to build a new a shelter. It was simply part of our mission. Staff members and volunteers went into classrooms and presented the usual lessons on dog bite prevention, choosing an appropriate pet, proper animal care, and the importance of spay/neuter. Hugh’s role was simply to get the kids’ attention and make the sessions more memorable by allowing the children to run their hands through his soft brown coat on the way out the door. As a souvenir, each child received a personally autographed Hugh bookmark to take home.
The school visits had been going on for about a year when Hugh and I were invited to march in the local Blossom Time Parade. Now this parade is a big, big deal with fire trucks and floats and bands and lots of little girls in sequins dancing their way from the high school down a long grade to the center of town. People come from miles around to line the parade route.
As Hugh and I stepped out, I saw a little girl pull on her mother’s sleeve saying, “Look mom, there’s Hugh.” Cool, I thought, she recognizes him from school.
Then the crescendo started to build. “Hugh.” “There’s Hugh.” “It’s Hugh, Daddy, it’s Hugh.” By the time we made it halfway down the hill, the Hugh chorus was deafening. Children began running into the street just to touch him. Cameras were flashing everywhere. It was all I could do to keep moving.Behind us, volunteers walking shelter dogs handed out fliers with information about our plans to build Rescue Village. Thanks to Hugh, and the enthusiastic response from his young fans, those fliers didn’t just end up in the gutter.
That was the day I realized the power of Hugh – or really, the power of one dog to engage a community of children – and through them, a community of adults, in caring for its animals.
Next: Turning Hugh’s Celebrity into Financial Support