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November 23, 2014

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Joe Downtown: New business is going to the dogs

Hydrant Club will focus on canine safety — and will be marked by a gigantic fire hydrant

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Cathy Brooks

Bridger, named after the street he was found on a few months ago, and Truman, right, stand in front of the future home of the Hydrant Club, a social club for dogs that should be open on Fremont Street by the end of the year. Cathy Brooks is the proprietor of the club and the dogs’ owner.

The appropriately named Hydrant Club, a membership-based “canine clubhouse,” is a few weeks from breaking ground downtown.

When opened, the facility won’t be easy to miss, thanks to a nearly 14-foot-tall fire hydrant on the corner. Billed as the world’s largest “functioning” fire hydrant, it also will provide several sprinkler features for passers-by.

Founder Cathy Brooks, a former communications consultant who moved here to be a part of the Downtown Project’s economic rehabbing of a large section of the city’s urban core, expects groundbreaking within a few weeks, which will put the business on track to open by the end of this year.

Brooks describes the club as "a membership-access social club giving dogs and dog owners a place to play, socialize and expand their education about responsible dog citizenship — specifically in a city setting."

A range of fees for different access levels are being worked out. Brooks has named the levels after indigenous plants, from prickly pear on the low end to agave on the other end.

“My goal is to provide price points and packages to accommodate as many people’s needs as possible,” Brooks said, adding that she expects one fee level to be roughly as little as $2 per day. Some packages “may be limited to certain days, some may be weekends only. … During the heat of the day (in summer months), we will open pre-dawn and post-sunset and stay open later at night.”

Future plans for the facility include expanding to an indoor facility that also will provide full service daycare, boarding, additional training and off-leash play areas.

A prerequisite for membership is a “placement evaluation” that assesses both the dogs’ level of social skills and behavior as well owners’ handling skills.

“Every dog is a little different,” Brooks said. “The idea is to assess where the dog is on the spectrum to help them towards safe transition into an off-leash play space.”

In most cases, she anticipates a relatively short training period of three hours, where she works with the dog and owner on communicating more effectively, allowing them to join the club and enjoy the facility. For those who wish to expand their dogs’ training, additional classes and services will be offered.

Brooks has worked and trained with numerous trainers over the years, including “America’s Dog Whisperer” Mark German.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, there is no single method of training, and to say there is only one technique that works is a bit limited,” she said. “It’s not so much because of the dogs; their language is simple. It’s that people are all different. … Different people absorb information in different ways. So I prefer to modify training to accommodate the people. Once someone understands the fundamentals of how canines communicate, we can then engage a wide selection of different tools to use from there.”

With emphasis, she adds that she is only making suggestions; she is not forcing anyone to be any different with their dog.

“At the end of the day, if someone is happy with the dog’s behavior, great. Who am I to say?” Brooks said. “It’s none of my business unless they proactively engage me to help train or until they bring the dog to the Hydrant Club; then there are basic parameters that have to come into play for everybody’s safety.”

For instance, dogs can’t lunge at other dogs while on a leash, she said.

“If your dog isn’t aggressive and truly just wants to say hello, I can help you teach your dog how to do that without lunging. I had to do that with this guy,” she said while petting Bridger, her scruffy terrier-mix found by 9th Bridge School’s Connie Yeh at Ninth Street and Bridger Avenue a few months ago.

“Every time he saw another dog, he went crazy. He was a little bit dominant and starved for social contact,” she said. “So I had to teach him that he gets to approach only when he’s in a calm state.”

Brooks expects customers from around the valley but mostly anticipates serving the downtown community, especially the 1,500 Zappos employees moving into City Hall.

Easing the transition into a safe off leash play space in an area like downtown Las Vegas has its challenges. People who can think and reason often find changes startling when moving from one area to the next, so imagine what it’s like for a dog.

“We’re cognitive creatures who understand language and can comprehend new environments. So imagine how difficult it will be for these animals. They don’t speak the language, everything is different, and it’s sensory overload. The smells alone will be overwhelming,” Brooks said. “Then you have the sounds and people in wheelchairs and costumes, and painted people, and the cars weaving and honking, and sirens and asphalt. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for them.

“So we want to help them feel safe because dogs can act out when they don’t feel safe or don’t have a stable ‘pack’ structure.”

Brooks moved to Las Vegas just seven months ago after being wooed from the San Francisco area by Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project. She’s settled in for the long haul and is ready to get her new business off the ground.

“I feel very welcome here and excited to be part of such a great community, especially having the opportunity to work with everyone to create new kind of place for people to connect,” she said.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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