The Canine Conversationalist: Meet Cathy Brooks

The owner of Downtown’s Hydrant Club speaks on trading tech work for wagging tails, finding answers on mountaintops and keeping your hot dog cool

How did you become such an expert in dog care and training—a “dog whisperer,” if you will?

I prefer to say “canine conversationalist.” My mother would say that even as an infant I had a connection with the family dog. For hours, I just stared eye to eye and only cried if I needed my diaper changed or needed to be fed—the two things that the dog was incapable of doing for me. We’d just stare at each other, and I’d calm right down.

[I was a] middle-class suburban kid from Philadelphia. I got a journalism degree and ended up in the Bay Area doing technology public relations in the early ’90s. But I never abandoned my love of dogs. In the late 1990s I got one, a trainer educated me and I found that I had a knack for handling dogs.

About a year later, I started training them as a hobby. I was bored of working in tech. People started asking me if I could help them with their dogs because they saw how well behaved mine was. I didn’t have any certified training at that point—just the training from that private instruction, my own education and my own hands-on skill.

You heard the call of the wild, didn’t you?

Yeah. At that time I was also working with young entrepreneurs, telling them every day, “If you don’t wake up and spend your entire day thinking about what it is you’re doing, then you’re in the wrong line of work.” Training dogs gave me something to look forward to on weekends. It never occurred to me that it would be something that I would pursue as a career.

What changed your mind?

I knew I was on the wrong path, but I didn’t really have a clue how to change it. At the end of 2011, I took a trip to Peru with 11 other friends. We were all going to do some sort of cleansing: Slough off the old year, look to the new. I got on my knees in the mud at the top of Machu Picchu and said, “OK, universe, I know that I’m on the wrong path. Show me the right one.”

What did the universe have to say?

Shortly after, I went to a technology conference and bumped into Tony Hsieh, whom I’d known for a number of years through my work in tech. I said, “I’m done. Put a fork in me.” And he just smiled and said, “Why don’t you come visit us in Vegas this summer?” This was May 2012, and the Downtown Project had just really gotten started. I’m thinking, “When you’re a billionaire, being serendipitous is just fine and dandy, but I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. What’s my retirement plan going to look like?” And he said, “Just come, and bring your dog.” When someone tells me that my dog is invited, it’s a place that I want to be.

What was your first impression of Downtown?

I checked in at the Ogden at 7 p.m. on August 1, and it was 106 degrees. It was still hot and punishing even at 6:30 in the morning when I went to walk my dog, Truman. Worse still, there was no place to take him. I walked for 15 blocks through Downtown. My dog’s doing a little dance with his paws on the sidewalk, and his tongue was hanging down to his knees.

In addition to the obvious—providing plenty of water and avoiding the outdoors in the afternoon—what’s the best way to keep our dogs safe in the summer?

Watch for excessive panting. Dogs regulate their body temperature through the pads of their feet and through panting. When a dog gets super hot, the tongue gets longer and wider, so that there’s more surface area.

If you do have to take them out in the middle of the day, keep to shaded areas and test any surface with your hand before you walk your dog across it. A dog’s paws can get scalded quickly on hot asphalt. If their pads are so scalded they get scar tissue, its ability to use them to stabilize body temperature decreases.

Hydrant Club doesn’t feel the least bit like a kennel. How did you go about making something this relaxed in the middle of something so boisterous as Fremont Street?

In other cities, dogs are woven into the fabric. You walk through pretty much any neighborhood in New York, and almost every store has a big water bowl in front and treats behind the counter. Every outdoor café has at least one dog sitting under a table.

This is a town of contradictions. Everything else that’s approached here is different, so why not reimagine what canine care could look like? We have real grass, and the shade trees help to keep it cool. Why not have a water feature that the dogs can play in and nice big rocks for the humans to sit on? And an adjacent indoor space we can use when it’s much too hot?

What we created is a space that isn’t just for the dogs. When somebody walks by, what he or she sees is a dog park first. Then they realize it’s a dog facility: Day care, boarding, training. Hydrant Club helps people understand how to be the best dog parents they can be. Anyone who has a pet, that’s all we want. You want your dog to be happy. It means giving them an environment where they’re relaxed.

And cool.

Hopefully I made some level of sense  just now! I’m blaming the heat.

Vegas Seven