Moments before the wedding, as he hurried through his checklist, James Willett was uptight.
“I was running around like Groomzilla, making sure everything was all right,” he said. "Then I saw Leia coming toward me, and my heart just melted. I thought, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ "
Leia is the Pasadena couple’s dog, a 65-pound pooch who took part in the ceremony with James and his bride, Caitlyn, last June at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater. During the processional, Leia ― wearing a bandana that declared her “Dog of Honor” ― trotted down the aisle with a groomsman, sniffed several guests en route and then sat patiently beside James on the outdoor stage as the bride entered to music from — what else? — “Beauty and the Beast.”
Before exchanging vows Caitlyn, 24, a pediatric nurse, paused in her white gown, reached down and petted Leia, whose tail thumped with joy.
Their dog’s participation made the wedding “100 percent more memorable,” said James, 26, a catering sales executive. “She didn’t upstage the bride, but it was close. Leia is such a big part of us, such an integral part of our lives that she had to be present on the day we moved forward as a singular family.”
How trendy are pet-centric weddings? There’s no hard data, though Americans spend more and more on pets each year (2019′s total $75 billion). Businesses have cropped up to cater to such events. And the idea has caught on with celebrities. Adam Sandler, Ricki Lake and Jennifer Aniston have included their dogs in their ceremonies, as have Carrie Underwood and Ellen DeGeneres.
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To mind Leia during their nuptials, the Willetts engaged Furever & Fur Always, a wedding-day dog care in Baltimore. Established in 2017, the firm has chaperoned canines (and an occasional cat) at more than 150 weddings in Maryland, including those named here, for couples who want their pets at hand without saddling family members with their care.
For $345 — a typical 3-hour gig — Furever & Fur Always will transport a dog to the venue and back; dress, exercise and entertain them; and lead them down the aisle, if asked. (Ten percent of each sale goes to an animal rescue of the couple’s choice.)
“While the bridge and groom are off getting pampered, we take care of the dogs and make sure they have a perfect day too,” said Tehya Mockapetris, 30, of Locust Point. She and Tiffany Arana, 32, of Joppa have tended 10-pound Yorkshire terriers and 200-pound mastiffs; three-legged dogs and some that were blind; and multiple pets, as many as four at a time.
The caregivers come armed with treats and toys, leashes and lint rollers, water bowls and drool cloths. Plus doggie bathroom bags, of course, though none of their subjects have as yet gone potty in the aisle. Come picture time, the handlers stand behind the photographer, squeezing a squeaky toy to get the pooch’s attention.
“Weddings can be high stress, and when their dogs come, it takes the weight off everyone’s shoulders,” Mockapetris said. “They bring a bit of home and familiarity with them.”
Having their dog, Louis, take part in their wedding last September was “a no-brainer,” said Libby Allen, 30, of Annapolis. “I see him more than I see these other people, so why shouldn’t he be there? He’s family," Libby said. "If I’m going to have Grandma’s lipstick on me, I can certainly have some of Louis’ hair.”
On the big day, the 3-year-old pit bull mix arrived at the Governor Calvert House in Annapolis wearing a bow tie, a boutonniere and a custom-made maroon tux matching that of the groom, Ryan, 37.
"Louis was so happy that he kept busting his buttons," Libby said. "Poor Tehya had to keep fastening them every few minutes."
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Both paramedics, Libby and Ryan adopted Louis from a shelter in 2018 after the then-scrawny pup was rescued from a hoarder in Queen Anne's County, where he had never seen the outdoors.
"I'd wanted a dog for years," said Libby. She and Ryan, who were then just starting to date, fell for him at once.
"Louis really brought us together. He cemented the direction in which we were already going," said Libby. "I couldn't imagine not having him at the wedding."
As the couple stood at the altar, their officiant announced, “Louis, you may bring the rings.” To the guests’ surprise, in strode the dog, on a leash, accompanied by Mockapetris who, truth be told, had the rings in her pocket.
“If we’d have tied [the bands] to Louis, we’d have had to wrestle him to get them off,” Libby said. Up front, he licked the faces of the happy couple, then padded off with Mockapetris to the patio to await the photographer and to play with his gift of the day, a squeaky toy shaped like a champagne bottle.
“He entertained everyone during happy hour,” Libby said. “We had a guy who played the violin and Louis cheering everyone up.”
Afterward, a number of married guests confessed that they wished they'd followed suit, she said:
"Weddings are very special, but they're never so fancy that your dog can't be there."
From the moment he proposed marriage, Brandon Sanders knew his fiancee’s wish: a four-legged ring bearer.
“I don’t think Katy would have married me if Rocket [their dog] wasn’t in the wedding,” Brandon said. “When he walks in the room, Katy is immediately less stressed — and there’s no one you want to make happier than the bride.”
So, on a bright, sun-splashed day at the Gramercy Mansion in Stevenson last September, Rocket, a 9-month-old corgi, toddled down the aisle wearing a three-piece silver suit (with cuffs) custom-tailored in Spain. On his back were both rings, tied snugly to a satin pillow. Cue the crowd of 100, who uttered a collective “Awwww.”
Vows were said, guests applauded and Rocket barked his approval before leaving to spend the night with Mockapetris.
“He was strikingly well behaved,” said Brandon, 36, an analyst for the federal government who lives near Fort Meade. Katy, 34, is a marketing director. Both trusted Rocket not to spoil the ceremony.
"I'd read stories about what could go wrong," Brandon said. "But most people are smart enough to know their pets; they won't take a dog who's highly flatulent, pees every 10 seconds or bites people to the ceremony. We knew Rocket's temperament. Besides, weddings are less conventional now; they're more shoot-from-the-hip."
While an evening wedding often has a more formal and romantic vibe, that didn’t stop Stephanie and Jeremy Dixon from including 8-year-old Bella in their nuptials at Historic Savage Mill Manor in October. The barrel-chested rescue dog — part pit bull, part cane corso — padded in beside a bridesmaid (“We were short a groomsman, so it worked out fine,” Stephanie said) and sporting a necklace of white artificial flowers. Afterward, she posed for pictures with a somewhat lofty air.
“Bella stood tall and proud,” said Stephanie, 30, a union administrator from Glen Burnie. Husband Jeremy, 27, a carpenter, adopted Bella as a pup, before he and his wife met. But Stephanie embraced the other woman in his life. And when the big day came, Bella never gave her cause to pause.
“People have to understand the relationship between dogs and humans,” Stephanie said. “Your pets become your family.”
FIVE WAYS TO INCLUDE YOUR DOG IN YOUR WEDDING
1. Make them a ring bearer, honorary or otherwise
2. Designate them as flower girl (or boy)
3. Press them into service as “Dog of Honor”
4. Include them as a Yappy Hour guest
5. Incorporate them into the family photos