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Master of Scaremonies
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US cocktail parties for dogs target human wallets

By Jim FinkleSat Sep 9, 9:47 PM ET

At Mickey's first evening at a nightclub he listened to loud music, scoffed appetisers and lapped up cocktails of chicken soup and beet juice instead of gin or vodka.

A 13-year-old Boston terrier, Mickey was among 50 dogs -- and 250 humans -- at a party in Boston by SkyBark, which began in Los Angeles. The gathering was aimed at marketing canine products while raising money for charity and is part of a new trend towards nightlife where humans are encouraged to bring their dogs.

Such parties are sponsored by companies marketing extravagant dog products, including all-natural, wheat-free dog treats at $11 (6 pounds) a pound, synthetic-grass covered indoor porta-potties for $280 and leather jackets for $540.

Such goods are helping fuel growth in U.S. sales of pet products, which the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates will rise 6 percent to a record $38.4 billion in 2006, including about $7 billion on dogs.

Canine cocktail parties give entrepreneurs a chance to push their high-priced wares to consumers who are drawn in by the chance to socialise with other dog lovers.

"Dogs provide a way for people to get to know each other a little deeper than they ordinarily would. They serve as social facilitators," says Leslie Irvine, a University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist who studies human-animal behaviour.

This isn't the only way that man's best friends are helping owners make connections.

There are "yappie hours" in Boulder where people get together to have drinks and socialise while their pets play. In big cities, some singles get spruced up to walk their dogs, hoping to meet a romantic prospect.

The Nordstrom department store in Hollywood lets customers bring dogs of all sizes shopping with them.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says parties for dogs have become so popular that she decided to write a guide to throwing healthy ones.

There's nothing wrong with spoiling your pet, she says, though it's important to keep the dog's welfare in mind. That means staying away from novelties like pooch-sized party hats, which are held on with rubber bands that can give dogs headaches, or uncomfortable outfits that might trip them up.

"People have good intentions but they don't pay enough attention to what the animal is experiencing," says Newkirk.


Italian designer Gucci sells a leather pet carrier for $2,655 and markets bone-shaped brass dog pendants embossed with its logo for $90. Les Pooch sells a doggie perfume made in France at $3,000 for a 4-ounce bottle.

But not everyone sees the trend favourably. University of Connecticut sociologist Clinton Sanders says that dogs don't get any pleasure from extravagances.

"I don't have too much sympathy for turning dogs into furry, retarded people. They aren't people. They are dogs," says Sanders, author of the book "Understanding Dogs."

The SkyBark party in Boston seemed to appeal more to the sensibilities of cash-carrying humans than the dogs. A canine caterer offered "muttini" cocktails, but bowls of water were scarce. Pet-a-Potty litter boxes were available for purchase, but dogs were directed to relieve themselves outdoors.

And sometimes the humans took over too much.

Murphy, a 3-year-old rescue dog, got roped into wearing a white wedding gown with a heavy train that dragged behind him. He squirmed out of the outfit as photographers rushed the stage to record the spectacle.

That dress was from House of Chienelle, a maker of wedding gowns, bridesmaids dresses and tuxedos for canine weddings.

Such excesses have been around since at least the 19th century, when pet stores popped up in France selling extravagant items like diamond dog collars, says Sanders.

Mainstream retailers, including The Gap and Target Corp, have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years as marketers saw the growing number of dog owners willing to spoil their pets in the same way they indulge children. Some 44 million American households include dogs, compared to about 38 million with cats.

Alison Boston, a Boston real-estate agent with two Chinese cresteds, says that clothing is a necessity for her dogs, Gizmo and Dixie, because the exotic-looking breed doesn't have fur on most of its body and needs protection when they venture out.

Each has about 150 outfits and they get excited when she puts on their clothing, she says, because they know it means that they're going on an outing, sometimes to join her while she shows homes.

"They're a great marketing tool," she says. "At the end of a day when somebody has looked at a lot of houses, they remember my listing; they remember the house with the dogs."
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