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Pooch Playoffs: Madison photographer launches March Madness-style tournament fundraiser for dogs, dog lovers

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Many Americans love their pets so much that they consider their dogs to be part of their families. Yet most people don’t think of having professional photos commissioned for their dogs like they would the rest of the family.

Shalicia Johnson, a Madison photographer and lifelong pet lover, is giving people the opportunity to have their dog professionally photographed while directly raising funds for canine cancer research as she once again hosts a March Madness bracket-style competition to determine which dog will be the cutest canine in Wisconsin.

Arrow and Shalicia Johnson

It’s a win-win-win situation, says Johnson, owner of ArrowStar Photography, of her “Pooch Playoffs” competition that she launched last year with 16 dogs competing. This year she is gunning for 32 dogs.

“I absolutely love pets. I’ve grown up with my pets my whole life and my business was named after my dog, a.k.a. my son, Arrow. I’m one of those people if I could save all of the animals, I would,” Johnson tells Madison365. “I feel like I’m trying to save all of the animals one portrait at a time business-wise.” 

In her Pooch Playoffs, Johnson hopes to photograph 32 pups for a $99 donation (portraits are normally $200) to Czar’s Promise, which raises money for canine cancer research and families whose companion animals have been diagnosed with cancer. The photography sessions has already started and are being held at 3rd Eye Collective. Johnson plans to keep taking photos of dogs until early March. The $99 donation also includes an acrylic keychain and a sWag Bag filled with goodies from local businesses.

The bracket-style portrait competition will be unleashed in late March with (hopefully) 32 dogs competing for exciting gifts from sponsors like CocoVaa Chocolatier, Wisconsin Brewing Company, Bloom Bake Shop and Marigold Kitchen, and Voyager’s K9 Apparel. Every few days, two dogs will face off in an online vote. Each round’s winner advances with the goal to be voted the “Ulti-mutt Cutie” of their state. The Wisconsin winner will move on to a national competition.

Martha takes a break to give kisses to photographer Shalicia Johnson. (Photo by Joshua Mallett)

“I’m doing this with my coaching community – called Peak Performance Coaching – it’s for boutique photographers,” Johnson says. “My coach is Sarah Petty and part of her core beliefs are giving back to the community. She wants us to do well in our businesses so we can give more and part of the way we give back as photographers is by putting on events like this to raise funds and awareness for an issue and to support a cause that we are really, really passionate about.

“This is something that is really important to me. The mission of Czar’s Promise is to fund canine cancer research. I know how hard it is to lose a pet,” Johnson continues. “They are more than just a pet; they’re family. Straight-up family members. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen six people post about putting their dogs down or losing their dog suddenly.”

Johnson regrets not getting to take professional photographs of those dogs. It’s one of the things that is near and dear to her heart. 

“I didn’t get a chance to offer to photograph their pets before they passed. That’s one thing I’m doing in my business is offering dignity portraits for senior dogs who still have a lot of fight left in them before they get too sick,” Johnson says.

Shalicia Johnson (Photo by Gretchen A. Willis)

“I think that people just don’t think about photographing their pets even though they play such a huge role in our lives and they take up so much space in our hearts,” Johnson adds. “So, this is a way to raise funds for Czar’s promise and also a reminder to capture your animals while they are healthy … capture their spirit.”

The voting for Pooch Playoffs will be coordinated to take place at the same time of college basketball’s annual March Madness. “Last year, Sweet 16 was around March 24ish. So maybe the voting could start this year in the third week of March.,” Johnson says.

This year’s goal of having 32 dogs enter the tournament is looking like a possibility.  Johnson has 17 dogs registered right now and needs 15 more. “I’m looking to get a full 32 this year, if possible,” she says. “If not, a few dogs might have byes for that first round.”

Johnson’s goal is to be all done photographing dogs by March 6 or so.  The people won’t be able to see all of the photos that Johnson is taking right now until it’s getting close to voting time when she presents all of the dogs and the images. 

“This is a way to have fun. I did it with my coaching community last year and 25 photographers participated. Our coaching community is all across the country so we had a national championship. Every individual photographer brought their winner for their Pooch Playoffs and then they all went up against each other for a national championship. That was really, really fun.”

For more information on Pooch Playoffs, click here or e-mail shalicia@arrowstarphotography.com