Santa goes to the dogs

The Baltimore Sun

Five-month-old Mischka and 2-year-old Romeo squirmed on Santa's lap.

A few feet away, Santa's helpers Amanda Austin and Ashley Holland squeaked plastic toys and called them by name using silly voices. Holland snapped a few shots, hoping to get both subjects looking at the camera at the same time.

But when Mischka and Romeo hopped down off Santa's lap and scampered back to mom and dad, they did so with their tails wagging wildly.

"These are our children for now," said Kyle Leavitt, holding the Pomeranians in his arms at Harford Mall. "We bring them here to have their picture taken with Santa, just like people do with their kids."

Leavitt and his wife, Emily, joined the crush of people this year having their pets photographed with Santa Claus at malls, pet stores and humane societies.

"When the weather is good, we have people lined up out the door," said Bernie Spicer, marketing director for the Bel Air mall. "Pets are an integral part of a family, and people treat them just like they would children."

The mall's final photo session of the season is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 3. Packages include photos ranging in size from wallet to 5x7s, and in price from $15.99 to $34.99.

At PetSmart in Bel Air, "Santa Claws" photo sessions will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 3, 9, 10, 16 and 17. Two framed Polaroid photos cost $9.95. Fifty percent of the proceeds will be donated to a nonprofit animal adoption group, said store manager Gail Moxley.

Both locations see an array of pets being brought in for photos.

"We have people come in with rabbits, ducks, goats, birds, dogs and cats," Moxley said. "And some of the animals come dressed to the nines in deer costumes, Christmas collars with bells and red bows."

Emily Leavitt considers her pets members of the family.

"I get the dogs' pictures taken so I can take the photos to work and show them off," she said. "We also buy our dogs stockings, bones, toys and other presents they get to open on Christmas morning."

Angela Fleming of Perryville brings her shelties - Haylee, 4, and Kip, 2 - to the mall for photos.

While approaching Santa, Kip tried to pull Fleming away. Finally the owner gave up, scooping up Kip and joining both dogs for the photo.

"Haylee and Kip are definitely a part of our family," Fleming said after the photos had been taken. "We like to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus, and we include them in our family pictures. They are definitely like having kids."

There is one distinct behavioral difference: Pets are easier to control, said Don Roberts, who is in his first year as the mall's Santa.

PetSmart's Moxley agrees, attributing the good behavior to the animals' familiarity with their surroundings.

"The pets people bring in for photos we know by name," Moxley said. "They come in to the store often, so they know the place. It helps them to behave."

And it doesn't hurt that the employees have worked with the animals, she said.

Familiarity helps, but some pets - like some youngsters - just can't sit still. So Santa's helpers must find creative ways to get the animals' attention.

"It can be tough at times, but it's always cute," Austin said.

Sometimes, watching the photographers work to get the dogs' attention can be entertaining, said Roberts, who is the chaplain at Franklin Square Hospital Center.

"The photographers squeak the toys, call out to the animals and wave their arms to get the animal's attention," he said. "What's really interesting is when the animal refuses to pay attention."

Roberts recalled the time when a family brought in several dogs, including a Great Dane, a Doberman and Jack Russell terriers.

"Those dogs were a handful," Roberts said. "Some of them were loud and barking, and the Doberman got up in my face. That made me a little nervous. It's not a picture you can get on the first attempt."

But youngsters are often more difficult than the dogs, Roberts said.

"I get children that are crying and scared of me," he said. "People will want a picture with several people in it, and they have to have everyone looking just right. And, just like the dogs, it's hard to get the little ones to look at the camera."

Cats are the biggest challenge, said Roberts, who has about a dozen at his home.

"Cats don't like to sit still, and they don't usually warm up to strangers too quickly," Roberts said. "And cats are harder to control when there are big distractions in the mall or a lot of people."

Though he has posed with many types of animals, there are many that haven't sat on his lap.

"I haven't seen a snake yet," he said.

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