Bow Wow Film Festival Celebrates Dogs, Raises Money for Shelters

Susan Kelley is bringing communities together to celebrate dogs and raise money for local shelters.
By: Jen Reeder
Susan Kelley and her dog

A few years ago, Susan Kelley was volunteering at an animal shelter in Colorado and wishing she could do more to help. The staff was so busy saving animals that they had little time to fundraise.

Then inspiration struck: she’d create an independent film festival about dogs. It could travel around America as an easy fundraising event for local rescue organizations.

“I wanted the Bow Wow Film Festival to benefit any size organization and be something that people of different generations, activity levels and socioeconomic levels could all celebrate,” she says. “Because dogs cut through all of that.”

Since its launch 2015, the Bow Wow Film Festival has raised over $125,000 for animal welfare organizations across the country, from Alaska to Massachusetts and everywhere in between. The festival’s third tour is currently underway.

“It’s really been a very organic growth process,” Kelley said. “Somebody will come to a show and have a great time and then they’ll tell their buddy about it and they’ll get in touch with us.”

National sponsors cover the bulk of the costs required to host the event, and Kelley recently established a nonprofit foundation to help strapped nonprofits rent venues. Beneficiaries include animal shelters, service dog organizations and food pantries for pets of the homeless.

Some of the movies are funny, some are tearjerkers, but all of them highlight the human-canine bond.

Bow wow film fest star

“Dogs are really connected with humans. That look that they give you when they look right into your eyes – that’s not just chance,” she says. “We’re trying to celebrate that connection.”

Kelly Goodin, executive director of Second Chance Humane Society in Ridgway, Colorado, was the first person to book the Bow Wow Film Festival. Her nonprofit serves three counties with a 52-acre, cage-less animal shelter and spay/neuter services. Each year, Second Chance hosts the film festival in three different communities to reach as many supporters as possible.

“It was appealing to be able to replicate the same event without draining our time and resources,” Goodin says.” It’s super easy and people really get a lot out of the films.”

One of Goodin’s favorite Bow Wow movies was a cartoon with a dog who has accidents in the house and hogs the bed. But the film’s conclusion reminded her of why we share our homes with pets: the love, humor and depth they bring to our lives.

Lauren Mayhew was one of nearly 120 filmmakers who submitted a film for consideration for this year’s Bow Wow Film Festival. Her short, “Laika and Rover,” was inspired by the first dog sent into orbit by the Soviet space program – Laika didn’t survive the real mission, so Mayhew decided to give her the happy ending she deserves.

The film was Mayhew’s senior thesis for her computer animation degree at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida. She graduated in May, just before “Laika and Rover” started touring with Bow Wow.

“I think sharing your work is always really important for filmmakers,” Mayhew says. “It encourages me to continue to create when people go and see my work and respond so positively.”

California resident Barbara Nazari is looking forward to seeing all the new films. She and her husband adopted their beloved Chihuahua mix, Luigi, from The Kern Project, a rescue initiative that sponsors a local Bow Wow Film Festival event each year.

They screen the films in an outdoor, pet-friendly park. Beforehand, there’s a talent contest – which can include simple acts like “dogs sitting and being cute” or paw readings. Local merchants donate prizes for a silent auction and raffle.

Bow wow film event

That Bow Wow event raised $10,000 the first year it was held and $12,000 the next. But Nazari’s favorite memory is of the woman who wrote a letter saying she hated dogs before attending the festival. Afterward, she no longer feared them. “That was definitely worth the work right there,” she says. “We’re changing attitudes.”

Of course, most people who attend are already dog lovers. She said there’s typically a dog on almost every blanket at the festival.

“Everyone has some dog in their heart – there’s a dog that you’re thinking of the whole time you’re watching those films,” Nazari says. “It’s just really fun.”

It’s the camaraderie among dog lovers that Kelley finds particularly gratifying about the festival she created. While the fundraising is obviously an important component, she says she loves watching audiences react to the films and to one another.

“I’ve seen those movies a hundred times now and I still sit there through the whole thing and just watch people around me belly laughing and enjoying the experience. At intermission, people who don’t even know each other will pull out their phones and start sharing pictures of their dogs,” she says. “It’s really cool the way it brings people together. I feel very lucky.”

Images via: Susan Kelley, Barbara Nazari and Ace Kvale