On a sunny June day in 2004, Danny Branson and Kathy Buetow were playing fetch with their Australian Cattle Dogs when Branson pulled out his pocketknife and began slicing into one of the balls. “I looked over at him, wondering what the heck he was doing,” says Kathy Buetow (now Buetow Branson). He held the ball up to her ear and said there was something rattling inside and he had to find out what it was.
“What, are you kidding? You’re ruining a good tennis ball for something silly like that?” she said. Her surprise turned to annoyance when she saw that the ball was filled with stuffing. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t want the kids ingesting that fluff!’ Of course, it took me only a few minutes and the blinding flash of diamonds to realize— finally!—what he was up to.” (The dogs were unimpressed by the elaborate proposal and looked up as if to say, “Throw the ball again, already!”)
A few months later, one of the impatient bystanders, Colby, was a tuxedo-wearing ring bearer in the couple’s lakeside wedding. Even better, the dogs joined the newlyweds on a honeymoon road trip from their Sidney, Ill., home to the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America National Specialty competition in Del Mar, Calif.
Dogs in the wedding? It hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. Eighteen percent of dog owners have or would include dogs in their wedding, according to an American Kennel Club survey. The reality is that dogs have become members of the family, and as such, many people want them to be a part of this important ritual as well. They participate as attendants and guests. They pose for wedding photos. They dance and socialize at receptions. And even if they aren’t up to crowds or are prohibited by a venue, they are often included in photos, on invitations and in keepsakes.
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Given all this dog love, we figured it was time for Bark to venture into wedding planning, collecting wisdom from the trenches on ways to be sure—or as sure as you can be—that your dog-friendly nuptials are a howling success.
1. Treat pups as more than accessories. As cute as they are, especially in flowers and bow ties, dogs are members of the family and deserve the same attention and consideration.
Claire and Meg DeMarco’s Boston Terrier, Lexi (aka Lexington Rosebud DeMarco), was much more than their flower girl. “We wrote our own ceremony with the help of our celebrant, and it included many references to our becoming a family—Lexi is the evidence of that, and there were several times when we looked over at her during the ceremony,” the DeMarcos say about their 2008 wedding in Boston. “It may sound cheesy, but she definitely knew something special and important was happening.”
Adopted from a foster family only months before, the two-year-old pup in a pink carnation lei rose to the occasion. Well-behaved throughout, she calmed the DeMarcos’ jitters before, during and after the ceremony.
2. Find the right job for your pup. Not all dogs will blossom as flower pups or carry on as ring bearers. Your wedding —that day of days—is not the time to have expectations that might not be met. You’re stressed, distracted and (from your dog’s point of view) dressed funny— all that could affect the way he behaves.
During Sandy Portella Nelson’s outdoor wedding at her home in Fort Myers, Fla., last year, her four Italian Greyhounds stayed out of sight throughout the ceremony and much of the reception. But after everyone had dined, and before the cake-cutting, the DJ turned up the volume on “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Dillon, Hopi, Romeo and Basille came blasting down the stairs.
“The guests loved it!” Nelson says. “A lot of them had heard many stories of the gang, so this just filled out the picture, so to speak. In fact, when it was time to put the dogs back in the house, guests asked if I would let them stay out for just a while longer.”
3. Recruit dog-loving pros for your team —especially the photographer (see tip 7), officiant and planner.
“A lot of wedding planners don’t have any experience with pets,” says Colleen Paige, which means they can’t really address your dog’s needs. A behaviorist, trainer and lifestyle consultant in Portland, Ore., Paige got interested in weddings when her dog-behavior clients started saying things like “We really want to have Jonesy in our wedding, but he’s still a little bit too hyper. What can we do to make sure he’ll walk down the aisle without a hitch?”
In her two-year-old company, The Wedding Dog, she combines her training expertise with full-on, dog-themed event planning. She’ll spend months preparing a dog for a trouble-free performance, find a baker to recreate the groom’s favorite pooch in cake and set up dog play zones for four-legged guests. Plus, she has a line of canine wedding couture.
Ironically, Paige’s first multi-species wedding featured a pet pot-bellied pig as ring bearer. “No one expected her to stop at every aisle and start eating the flowers,” she says. “It was crazy hysterical.”
4. If a dog is in the ceremony, include him in a rehearsal. “My original plan was to have Draven, my German Shepherd Dog, hold the basket in his mouth and have the flower girl walk alongside tossing the flowers,” says Marisa Capozzo-Schmidt, who was married at Annunciation Church in Crestwood, N.Y., in September 2007. “But Draven just wouldn’t hold it the whole way down the aisle, so we had them walk together, and she held a wreath of flowers. You need to be very flexible when working with dogs and kids!”
A director of product development at Fetch … for Cool Pets, Capozzo- Schmidt had a very special bond with Draven, whom she had rescued 10 years before. “He was tied to a tree and left for dead. I nursed him back and he’s been with me ever since,” she says. During the vows, Draven looked on from a special brown blanket with his name and the date stitched on a corner in pink.
5. Recognize that when a dog is involved, preparations, rehearsals and planning don’t guarantee perfection. The night before Shirley Newby tied the knot with Doug Tate in Waubaushene, Ontario, they did a dry run in the nearly empty United Church. Her granddaughter/flower girl walked down the aisle with Newby’s Briard, Amanda, without a hitch.
But on the big day, Amanda’s people-friendly nature took over. She not only stopped at every pew to greet the people, she also stepped on the flower girl’s dress, nearly tipping her over. “I’m so glad I didn’t see it,” Newby-Tate says. “I would have had a heart attack.”
6. Exercise restraint and compassion in accessorizing your dog. When Carrie Underwood married hockey pro Mike Fisher last summer, her Rat Terrier, Ace, wore a Swarovski crystal– encrusted pink tuxedo. If you’re a bling-loving country diva, this is understandable. But sometimes, overdressed dogs strike a campy or comic chord that may not fit the tone of this important day. Other considerations are your dog’s comfort (so she’s not obsessed with wriggling free) and safety (beware of accessories that could choke or poison a mouthy pup).
Eighteen years ago, when Debi Lampert-Rudman was planning her wedding, she brought her tricolor Cocker Spaniel, BonBon, with her on visits to her veil maker. BonBon was a gift from Debi’s fiancé, and meant a great deal to her. Seeing this, the veil maker suggested she include the dog in the wedding. This was well before the proliferation of formal wear for dogs.
The woman created a tulle collar with pink ribbons from some of the bride’s veil material, as well as a satin lead that matched her wedding dress. It was a meaningful gesture, and “BonBon was still herself,” Lampert-Rudman says; BonBon’s collar is among the mementoes of the event.
7. Select a dog-loving wedding photographer. For many of the brides we talked to, wedding photos featuring their dogs were hands-down favorites. And, because we tend to outlive our dogs, these images go on to be significant mementoes. You want a photographer who will bring the same spirit of joy and professionalism to capturing the dogs in the wedding as he or she does to the rest of the wedding party.
“What I carry around in my camera bag when I have a dog wedding is a squeaky,” says Pamela Duffy, who’s based in Sedona, Ariz. “I don’t tell anyone I have it, and when I start doing the portrait with the bride and groom and the dog or dogs, I usually revert to that because the dogs seem to lose interest.” She knows that weddings offer dogs a lot of distractions, so she holds the squeaker in her shutter finger, which usually means that the dog will be looking straight into the camera when she takes the shot.
A former photojournalist in New York City, Duffy fell into wedding photography when she moved to Sedona. Her style attracted those who were planning intimate, creative weddings, and it wasn’t long before a couple asked if their dogs could come. Once she put images from a wedding with dogs on her website, more couples sought her out.
Her first reaction to including a dog was based on how her own dog might behave. “My dog won’t always do exactly what I want. When people would say, ‘Do you mind if our dog brings the rings up?’ I’d say, ‘Will your dog really come on command?’” she remembers, laughing.
8. Appoint a designated dog wrangler. Unless the event is very small and informal, wedding couples have a lot on their minds, and it’s not smart to add keeping track of a dog to the list. Take the pressure off everyone by hiring a dog sitter, who can take the dogs out for a brisk, energy-consuming walk before the ceremony, keep them out of the canapés, and whisk them home or to a quiet retreat after the photos but before the band gets rowdy.
When Ally Zenor married Travis Nichol in Woodinville, Wash., in October 2009, she asked her friend Lindsey to be the official “Bearer of the Ring Bearer”—the ring bearer being the couple’s adorable West Highland Terrier, Allisdair.
“Lindsey put in extra time because she was not a big dog person,” Zenor says. “That was her stepping out of her comfort zone. It was important to her to get to know him. What made it successful is that Lindsey was invested in making him her date.”
Allisdair behaved himself, including refraining from barking at a bagpiper, which could have set off a howling chorus; he was, in fact, so calm that he fell asleep during the ceremony.
9. Have a backup plan. When Leesa Storfer married Scott Sidman on the beach in Provincetown, Mass., in July 2009, her Briard, Dolce, was her ring bearer, transporting the rings in a pouch attached to a pearl necklace around her neck. Storfer’s sister-in-law was escorting Dolce, but once the dog “saw the beach and me nowhere in sight, she pulled my sister-in-law so fast and furiously that she fell face-forward into the sand,” Storfer says. “Needless to say, she was not happy.” Storfer’s big, strong brotherin- law took charge of Dolce, who pranced down the aisle and then patiently awaited the bride.
A good back-up plan should include a place for your dog to escape the hustle and bustle, such as a room, a pen or even a crate, and/or someone to take him home, if needed.
10. Understand your dog’s temperament. Some dogs do better attending in spirit. Whether your dog’s personality isn’t a good match for the ceremony or reception, or you just can’t bring her, there are other ways to be sure she’s included. For example, she can be featured in a customized cake topper or a dog-themed lapel pin. (See “The Details.”) Another option: engagement photos with dogs make for eyecatching announcements and save-the-date cards.
Juliana and Justin Caton of Redmond, Wash., weren’t confident that their dogs, Jake and Alli, were up to a wedding. They were particularly worried that Jake— one of a litter of puppies they fostered and then adopted from the Seattle Humane Society—might be too excitable. So, they initially opted to include the pups in an engagement photo shoot with dog/wedding photographer Amelia Soper. They chose the Marymoor off-leash area as the setting because “we love going there; it’s our dogs’ version of Disneyland.”
In the end, the Catons overcame their concerns and included both Alli and Jake in the wedding in nearby Bothell. A friend escorted them. “He was giving them a little pep talk down the aisle,” Juliana remembers. “Everyone really liked it—they were laughing.” The dogs stuck around for photos, then were whisked home by a professional walker immediately après ceremony.
11. Consider eloping— with the dogs. Small, informal, outdoor weddings are a great fit for even the shyest dogs. When Lisa and Louis Ferrugiaro eloped to a dog-friendly bed and breakfast in West Cape May, N.J., in September 2008, they imagined that their dogs —Lola, a 13-year old Chinese Crested, and Gus, a 7-year-old Italian Greyhound—plus the mayor, who performed the ceremony, would comprise the entire wedding party. In the end, they were required to have two additional human witnesses, so the B&B owner’s 87-year-old mother and another guest joined the party. The newlyweds and their pups celebrated by taking a long walk through town and down to the beach.
There are as many ways to include dogs in your big day as there are mirrors on a disco ball. Take the time to find the best way to celebrate their special role.