Halloween Pups on Parade

Send in the clowns, the flowers, the Pug spiders, the Nacho Libres...
By Lee Harrington, October 2009, Updated February 2015

Looking for ways to raise money for your local dog run or animal shelter? Why not sponsor a Halloween parade? To find out how to do it, we spoke to two pros: Garrett Rosso, volunteer manager at Tompkins Square Dog Run (also known as “First Run” because it was the city’s first) in New York City’s East Village, and Justin Rudd, coordinator of the annual Haute Dog Howl’oween Parade in Long Beach, Calif.

The Haute (pronounced hot) Dog bills itself as the largest dog parade in the world, with 600 dog participants and about 4,500 human spectators; a pet adoption fair is run in conjunction with the parade. All the money raised from the event’s $10 registration fee goes to Rudd’s nonprofit Community Action Team (C.A.T.). Now in its 10th year, the Halloween event raised a whopping $13,000 in 2008.

The annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade also bills itself as the largest dog Halloween parade in the world, with up to 500 dogs and 2,000 spectators. When it debuted, it was a relatively low-key event. “It was popular in an underground sort of way,” says Garrett Rosso, lead coordinator. After all, any time you hold an event that involves costumes in New York, people come in droves—they need to do something with all that creative energy. “But back in 2003,” Rosso says, “we needed to raise money to renovate the dog run, and knew that [our Halloween event] was the way to do it. It was our 13th parade and we wanted to make it lucky. We decided to go all out.”

And go all out they did. They sold raffle tickets and charged a $10 entry fee (which included a raffle ticket). They also hunted for sponsors and prize donors and brought in volunteers with such valuable talents as graphic design, marketing, fundraising and publicity. Now, the Tompkins parade is incredibly well-known, incredibly successful and—with prizes such as iPods being handed out—extremely competitive.


Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know.

Email Address:

People come from all over the tri-state area now,” Rosso says. “I’d say 70 percent are not even from the East Village. And they’re playing to win. People have come to expect that folks are going to go over the top with our parade. They start thinking about their costumes by the 4th of July. One dog-park regular says that if you haven’t figured out a costume by Labor Day, then you’re behind the eight ball.Plus we get a lot of celebrities—the press always eats up this event because they’ll get pictures. We’ve had rock stars such as Moby and Pink. Broadway stars such as Alan Cummings and Spencer Kayden. And movie and television stars such as Edie Falco, Lauren Graham, Molly Ringwald, Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Parker Posey, Vincent D’Onofrio, Josh Hartnett and Mo Rocca.”

We don’t want to get into an East Coast/West Coast thing, so let’s just say that both events are spectacular, and both serve as model examples of what a dog parade can be.

How can you make your Halloween fundraiser as successful as Haute Dog’s or First Run’s? To start at the beginning, if you plan to hold your event in a public space, get permission. Your local town hall or parks administrator will be able to tell you what kind of permits you might need. Once your permissions are set, get creative.

Garrett Rosso’s first bit of advice is to sell raffle tickets. “Sell them in advance and make sure you have a great non-dog-related prize to attract non-dog owners.” He also recommends selling sponsorships to the parade. “There’s often a new pet store or corporation eager to help out and promote the event.” These new entrepreneurs recognize the value of sponsoring such a well-attended event. Rudd, who coordinates the Haute Dog parade by himself, also works with local retailers to solicit prizes and sponsorships.

Bring vendors to the site (dog run, fairground or wherever you’re holding your event), Rosso says. Designate an area where vendors can set up tables—the best place is along the registration line—and charge them a fee. “These [paying vendors] often bring in as much money as the parade itself,” Rosso says. “But start planning early. Many of these sponsors will need four to five weeks’ advance notice (or more) in order to coordinate.” Scores of vendors set up booths at the Haute Dog event; among 2008’s most popular was the “Bulldog Kissing Booth,” which raised several hundred dollars for Operation Santa Paws, one of the C.A.T. charities.

Another excellent idea put into practice at First Run is to print up playbill brochures to thank to all those who have donated. It’s likely you won’t even have to spend a dime on them, especially if you can find vendors and suppliers who are dog lovers. Everyone loves Halloween, and everyone wants to be part of the fun.

Take advantage of your group’s unique talents, and don’t limit your vision to those who can design posters, t-shirts and promotional materials, Rosso says. “Each year, we're amazed at how the most ‘certifiable’ folks who drive us nuts at the run all year turn out to be the best at selling raffle tickets!”

Yet more advice from Rosso (this man could run the city, I swear): If you find over time that your event is growing and more and more dogs are entering the contests, plan for the greater amount of time it’s going to take to register the dogs, parade them, judge them, offer prizes and so forth. “Not everyone is going to hang around until the very end to see if they won,” Rosso says. “So at First Run, the organizers started to award prizes every half hour or so.” Their system is to break up the contestants into groups and offer first, second and third prizes to that group. In 2008, there were about 400 dogs and they had four rounds. “This not only builds excitement, but it will save you the headache of having to register all the participants with their contact information in order to contact them later to [send them] their prize.”

Speaking of prizes, Rosso recommends giving lots of prizes and lots of runners-up. “We have categories such as Best Large Breed, Best Small Breed, Best Dog with Child, Best Dog Team, Best Owner/Dog Combo. And it’s also fun to invent categories on the fly. At election year, we invented a category ‘Best Dog for a Democratic Regime’ because so many made political statements with their costumes.” (After Katrina, the best Owner/Dog prize went to a woman dressed in a FEMA uniform, accompanied by a group of dogs with life preservers and flotation vests.) Haute Dog also offers multiple prizes, including Best Float—which is something tiny Tompkins Square cannot accommodate.

The First Run judges also award separate prizes for “Best Store-bought” as well as “Best Original” costume. At any doggie Halloween parade across the country, you’re always going to find little dogs dressed as flowers and herds of black-and-white dogs dressed as cows. You’ll see the Superman costumes, the cowboy, the bride-and-groom—and the dogs always look irresistibly cute in them. Since store-bought costumes are so readily available, however, the hip and jaded New York City judges lean more toward the homemade costumes. Try to picture a Harlequin Great Dane dressed up as a giant sunflower. Or a matted grey Shih Tzu dressed as a mop and accompanied by a short guy dressed as a frumpy housewife. At Tompkins, you’ll see a Shepherd mix in a curly black wig, Gene Simmons makeup and a leather jacket embossed with the Kiss logo. Or a couple dressed like farmers and carrying a basket of produce with a tiny Chihuahua in a pea-pod costume tucked amidst the vegetables. Or six Dachshunds transformed into a bunch of yellow bananas, accompanied by a large man in a gorilla suit.

All of the contestants at Tompkins are vying for the top prize (an iPod), while at Haute Dog, the first-place winner receives a year’s supply of dog food. No matter what the prize (the simplest prize offered last year was a Kong), they are rapturously received.

Both Rosso and Rudd strongly recommend inviting “important people” to judge. Rosso has invited politicians, local council members, Parks Department employees, best-selling authors of dog memoirs and members of the community board. Plus, bringing on VIPs is a great way to gain attention for and local support of your cause, whether that be a new dog run or a new animal shelter. “And of course, invite the press to be judges,” Rosso says. “We’ve had editors from both Vogue and Time.”

Rudd agrees that is it wise to invite celebrity judges (such as beauty queens, of which California has no shortage). But if you can’t find celebrities in your town, don’t worry, he says. People come for the dogs. Rudd agrees that journalists make great judges. “The more press you can get, the better.” Rudd advises getting the local paper involved from the get-go. Let them know as early as you can that you are planning this event, and then, as plans solidify, keep them up to date. “Photographs are key,” Rudd says. “Print photos from the previous year if you have them.” People who have never seen a dog dressed up as Lucille Ball are going to want to see such a spectacle, once they see a picture. “YouTube,” he says, “is an excellent advertising tool.”

As a former contest judge, and as a rabid spectator at dog parades, I’d have to say that a good Master of Ceremonies is also key. At Tompkins, they hire drag queens and resident performance artists. “They’ll do a better job than any celebrity host you can find,” Rosso says, “and can be counted on to plow through the day if it turns cold or rainy.”

Speaking of rain, Rosso strongly recommends planning a rain date. The Tompkins event is always scheduled on the Saturday before Halloween, with a rain date of Sunday. (Inevitably it rains.) Rudd didn’t mention rain dates – he lives in SoCal, after all—but he does recommend having some sort of “safety plan.” At Haute Dog, Rudd keeps a vet on call for any pet-related emergencies (heat stroke or a costumed dog fight).

The final words of advice from both coordinators were to have fun. And how could you not? Everyone loves a parade, and everyone really loves a dog parade. These events make thousands of people smile. And that’s priceless.

If you find you don’t have time to organize an event for this Halloween, there’s always an Easter Parade. Or a Dog Prom. Rosso organized one of those too, but that’s another story. 

Lee Harrington, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rex and the City: The Rescue Dog Who Rescued a Relationship, is a long-time The Bark contributor; her serial columns, “Rex in the City” and “The Chloe Chronicles,” were reader favorites.