It is a Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, music is playing, cocktails are flowing, and the smell of street food in the air. Crowds have gathered in the grounds of Loseley Park manor house in Surrey.
It could be one of the many summer music festivals returning to the UK this year post-pandemic, but there’s one major difference. Alongside the human guests are thousands of dogs.
This is one of the growing number of dog festivals taking place around the country. According to the PDSA, in 2021, 26 per cent of UK adults owned a pet dog – an estimated 9.6 million dogs. The surge in dog ownership during Covid lockdowns has been well documented and now as these owners return to the world, many are swapping Reading festival for barking and Glastonbury for a weekend at a dog-focused social event.
One such occasion is DogFest, which began in 2014 and is now expecting 150,000 guests across its seven UK dates this summer.
From village shows awarding prizes for ‘best dressed pooch’ to more competitive prestige events exhibiting different breeds, dog shows are not entirely new. But the dog festivals of today are somewhat different.
Take the New Forest’s Jubilee-focused ‘Dogstival’, which promises a giant ‘Barkingham Palace’, a ‘Jubilee Tea Pawty’ and ‘Stand-up Canine Comedy’, as well as a fair and dog-friendly accommodation. Or ‘Goodwoof’ – a dog festival at the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex, a day that includes a display of ‘Barkitectural masterpieces’.
At these dog festivals, the fun and activities are specifically tailored to four-legged friends, rather than only considering them as an after-thought. “I think of it as where you would choose to go if you were a dog,” says Tess Drew, DogFest event director. “It comes from wanting a dog to have the best day they can, so we do lots of fun things for them and back that up with things that people will find useful in their journey of being a dog owner.”
The organisers intentionally pick beautiful locations that might not be open to the public normally to make dog walks more interesting, says Drew. “You can go off and do one of our ‘Big Dog Walks’ around the grounds of stately homes that you wouldn’t normally get access to and then come back, sit and have a drink at the bar and watch the fun dog show.”
Melissa Bishop, 28 and partner Tom Driscoll, 27, visited Loseley Park DogFest from their home in Epsom, with their eight-year-old Rottweiler-Staffordshire bull terrier cross twins Keith and Brendan, and some friends. “We did Reading [festival] a few times but would do this now,” says Melissa. “We can all come and there’s loads for us and them [the dogs] to do.”
For Kate Blight, 55, husband Chris, and their daughter, plus their dogs, Lyla the Labradoodle and Jack Russell Benny, the festival feel adds to the experience of the day out. “We thought it would be a fun thing to do with family and friends,” she said. “We’ve been to family-friendly festivals before but it was the dog factor that drew us to this.”
Drew says that for many families, the importance of being able to involve your dog – rather than leave them at home – is crucial (owners are increasingly taking their dogs on holiday too). “Your dog is a part of your life, so actually being able to go to something that’s all about them is kind of like spoiling your other child. If you’re a parent you have to go to places like CBeebies Land and Legoland – this is basically that for dogs.”
As well as a fun itinerary, the event includes education and advice for pet owners, whether on nutrition or keeping your dog’s teeth clean. It even caters to would-be dog owners who want to learn more about rescuing or dog ownership.
But for Drew the “standout factor” during the organising stage is creating the festival feeling. “It has really lovely festival food and drink, there’s a bandstand and a DJ. It feels like somewhere you would love to go that just happens to be centred around dogs.”
She warns that people should not come expecting competitions like Crufts. “None of the shows are competitive,” she says. This is about dogs and owners of all ages and backgrounds being able to have a go.
This drive to create a new dog-first environment isn’t exclusive to DogFest. On the Goodwoof website, it says: “Dogs bring such joy to so many people that we wanted to create a totally different kind of event and one that really celebrates all that our canine friends bring to our lives; a real experience for everyone but most importantly for our dogs.”
The crowd at Loseley Park brought together young and old dog owners, those keen to show off their pooch in the ring and splash out on the latest canine equipment, alongside those who just wanted to enjoy a cocktail in a deckchair with their dog nearby.
For Drew, the birth of dog festivals provide an opportunity for people to choose something different for their post-pandemic social calendar, spending time alongside man’s best friend rather than shutting the front door on them: “I’m turning 40 this year and I know so many of my friends who are more excited that they can go to DogFest than to a music festival these days.”