Rescue Dog Games festival tries a pandemic twist

Jill Waddell placing signs for the Great Dog Challenge at Piedmont Park in 2020 as an alternative to her Rescue Dog Games festival, canceled due to the pandemic. CR: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com
Jill Waddell placing signs for the Great Dog Challenge at Piedmont Park in 2020 as an alternative to her Rescue Dog Games festival, canceled due to the pandemic. CR: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Dogs and owners can participate at Piedmont Park or at home throughout September

Rescue Dog Games was set to hold its fifth annual festival on March 15 this year, its second year at Piedmont Park. It had drawn 5,000 people and thousands of dogs in 2019. Organizer Jill Waddell was psyched to take her creation to a new level with more games, more attendees and more money raised for local animal rescue groups.

But her timing could not have been worse. In the days leading up to her event, concerts, festivals and sporting events all over town were canceling or postponing as the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic was shuttering the country. After consulting with hospitals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Waddell said she had no choice but to delay Rescue Dog Games as well.

09/02/2020 - Decatur, Georgia - Kira catches a frisbee from her owner, Garrett Korn, at his residence in Decatur, Wednesday, September 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/02/2020 - Decatur, Georgia - Kira catches a frisbee from her owner, Garrett Korn, at his residence in Decatur, Wednesday, September 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

At first she hoped to revive the festival in October. But by July, as COVID-19 case loads started edging up again in Georgia, Waddell realized October was not realistic. In fact, 2020 was a non-starter for any festival at Piedmont Park or pretty much anywhere else. So Waddell scrambled to come up with something to keep her organization’s name out there and enable dog owners to do something fun.

Her pandemic-driven solution? The Great Dog Challenge. For the entire month of September, anyone with a dog can follow a map and partake in any or all of 18 challenges scattered around Piedmont Park. At each stop, she placed a sign with a QR code. A participant can use that code to find out what each challenge is. It could be as simple as taking a selfie with your dog in front of Park Tavern — the restaurant adjoining the park — or more challenging, like a video of your dog catching a frisbee. Participants then post them publicly on their Facebook page with specific instructions to gain points.

There is also a comparable set of challenges folks can do just from their homes.

“We want to encourage people to go out and play with their dogs and absorb their unconditional love,” said Waddell, 56.

Weekly and overall prizes include free boarding at Dog Days Boarding, Amazon gift cards and dog treats from Hollywood Feed. A leaderboard is updated regularly on the rescuedoggames.com website. Creative posts are judged by a small committee, Waddell said, while other winners are picked randomly.

09/02/2020 - Decatur, Georgia - Garrett Korn uses a frisbee to play catch with his dog Kira at his residence in Decatur, Wednesday, September 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/02/2020 - Decatur, Georgia - Garrett Korn uses a frisbee to play catch with his dog Kira at his residence in Decatur, Wednesday, September 2, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Some challenges are similar to what they would have done during Rescue Dog Games. Waddell said her favorite one was a “kissing booth” competition to see how long your dog could kiss your face on command without treats, even if this, she admitted, might gross some non-dog people out. The virtual one merely asks for a photo or video of you being kissed by your dog.

Waddell’s full-time job is running her own company, Blue Twigs Consulting, that works with non-profit organizations to run and market special-needs summer camps and organizes fundraising events. (She’s had to pivot to virtual camps on that front because of the virus.)

Rescue Dog Games was a brainstorm she and her husband Jay had five years ago as a way to promote pet adoptions and do it in a more interactive way than the typical passive festival with just booths and demonstrations. They debuted the festival in 2016 at Brook Run Park in Dunwoody.

A scene from the Rescue Dog Games at Piedmont Park in March, 2019. CR: Rescue Dog Games
A scene from the Rescue Dog Games at Piedmont Park in March, 2019. CR: Rescue Dog Games

Credit: NIKI MURPHY

Credit: NIKI MURPHY

They created games for people and their dogs with prizes. They could race. They could search for treats. They could play a version of “Simon Says” they dubbed “Scooby Says.” Waddell invited about 20 pet rescue groups to put up tables for free while drawing sponsors such as Hollywood Feed, Kroger and Starbucks to fund the festival. She also sold VIP tickets as a way to provide some money for the rescue groups.

With three years at Brook Run Park under her belt, Waddell in 2018 decided to pitch the City of Atlanta to move to Piedmont Park, a much larger venue where dogs are as prevalent as joggers. She was able to get the proper permits and held her first event there in March 2019.

The Piedmont Park Conservancy, a member- and donor-funded nonprofit organization which works with the city to ensure the viability of the park, welcomed Waddell’s festival. The group already held an annual 5K Doggie Dash that month and offered to tie the two events together. Anyone who took part in the dash became an immediate VIP to the festival.

The Atlanta Humane Society, which sets up about 10,000 pet adoptions annually, also began working with Rescue Dog Games last year.

“Everybody loves a good competition,” said Amanda Harris, the group’s marketing coordinator. She said there were plenty of dog-centric festivals around town but she considered Rescue Dog Games unique: “We love that the focus is on celebrating rescue pets and uplifting organizations that connect those pets with their loving families.”

Waddell plans to revive the festival in 2021 but said it’s too early to lock anything in yet given the vagaries of the pandemic.

The Great Dog Challenge map at Piedmont Park. CR: Great Dog Challenge
The Great Dog Challenge map at Piedmont Park. CR: Great Dog Challenge

Credit: Rescue Dog g

Credit: Rescue Dog g

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