Fidofest: It's all for the dogs

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STRATTON — When Bobby Montuoro's two dogs — a 160-pound rottweiler named Justice and a 20-pound Lhasa apso named Lexi — died a couple years ago, it hit him a lot harder than he expected.

"I was heartbroken," he said. The Georgia native retold the story of losing his first-ever pets while sitting at a polished wooden table in the window of Bar 802, one of Montuoro's six restaurants that line the village street at Stratton Mountain Resort.

"I didn't realize this until they passed, unfortunately, but a dog can teach you a lot, about happiness, forgiveness, love," he said. "When you reflect on how much that animal loved you it changed my life."

To honor Justice and Lexi and the general greatness of dogs, Montuoro organized Paws For A Cause, a fundraiser for local animal shelters. He held it at the dog-friendly Stratton Mountain Resort first in 2016 and then again in 2017. On Saturday, the event continued under the new name "Fidofest" for its third year running.

Montuoro wasn't directly involved in the planning this year — Stratton Mountain Resort took it on — but he was still on scene to pat the dogs grabbing shade under his restaurants' outdoor tables, to provide ice cream for the "Lick-A-Thon" competition, and to see all the fun dogs could get up to. Just outside Bar 802, for instance, Matilda the dog splashed up a storm in a small, blue and plastic kiddie pool. Nine-year-old Morgan Dennes of Winhall held onto Matilda's leash at arm's length as the large, furry black dog soaked in and then shook out half the pool's contents onto the cobblestone street.

Other dogs gloried in the sunny, temperate day during the Doggie Village Parade. New Jersey resident Linda Kabis and Carina, a 6-month-old Seeing Eye dog in training, wore multi-colored, flowered leis for the procession.

Kabis' daughter Lauren lives in South Londonderry and explained that her mother trains guide dogs. Pointing to the golden-haired Carina, Lauren said, "She's our family's 29th Seeing Eye puppy."

Training — whether for human assistance or for tricks — varied widely for the Fidofest attendees. All were invited regardless to perform in the talent show, and if dogs lacked in skills, they could make up for it in appeal.

"I think she's had too many treats today," Dara Lamb said as she looked down at the tan, curly-haired Sophie, who "didn't behave" during the talent show. Just a moment later, however, Sophie was announced as the "cutest trick" winner. Her move? Lamb held Sophie aloft in an elevated pose, aka "the ballerina."

If the dogs needed some rest from the day's activities, they could take a gondola ride to the top of Stratton Mountain and nose through wildflowers, sniff the breeze and take in the panoramic views from the top. That's what the Eschmann family did with their 2-year-old bluetick coonhound mix, Keegan. The Connecticut residents said they adopted their dog as a puppy.

"That's the right thing to do," Stephen Eschmann said.

That appears to be an increasingly popular opinion.

"Our adoptions are definitely way up," said Annie Guion, the executive director of Windham County Humane Society. Since she started working there 10 years ago, she said adoptions have skyrocketed from several hundred a year to over 900 in 2017.

"The trend is to actually make it easier to adopt," Guion said. Windham County Humane Society has a community outreach program, for example, to help owners keep pets in their home. Part of Saturday's event proceeds went to the Brattleboro organization. Second Chance Animal Center in Shaftsbury was another beneficiary of Fidofest. Executive Director Cathi Colmar said it is expanding to accommodate more adoptable animals. The shelter plans to move to a new, bigger building in October or November. Second Chance Animal Center is the reason western Massachusetts resident Heather Babcock found her dog Shelby, whom Babcock carried in her arms for most of the day Saturday. The 18-year-old dachshund-pinscher mix was one of three surviving puppies up for adoption after Shelby's pregnant mother was deposited at the shelter's "drop-box." Nowadays, Babcock takes her dog out for "Shelby Adventure Sundays" to try out some new activity: kayaking, ice cream sundaes, star photography.

"I took her out to shoot the Milky Way," Babcock said. "She had my headlamp wrapped around her neck —that was fun."

Similar to Bobby Montuoro and his original Paws For A Cause-turned-Fidofest fundraiser, Babcock does the dog things she does in memory of Lakota, a Chihuahua who died two years ago.

"It's just our way of honoring her spirit," she said.

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