Teaching good ol' dogs new tricks or treats

The Baltimore Sun

Wearing a miniature yarmulke and prayer shawl, Avi - a grayish-black standard poodle - was more prepared for Halloween than most people as he strutted his stuff to the sounds of the Hora on Sunday.

While his "Bark Mitzvah" getup may have been one of the more original at this year's Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter's BARCStoberfest, he was hardly out of place amid the throngs of costumed canines at the Patterson Park fundraiser.

"He's bar mitzvah age," owner Joanne Dolgow said, explaining the elaborate costume. "He's becoming a man."

BARCStoberfest may have baffled pet owners of 30 years ago - when the dog was on the porch and not in the bedroom - but it hardly raises an eyebrow today. Pets are becoming more and more like children for many dedicated owners, and Halloween is giving their human parents a chance to go all out.

Retailers, meanwhile, have caught on in big way, churning out outfits (even ones for ferrets and birds) as they try to get a stake in the more than $40 billion Americans will spend on pets this year, a projection based on statistics gathered by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Mandi Kurek - whose three Brussels Griffon terriers took home the Most Original prize as Dorothy, the scarecrow and the lion from The Wizard of Oz (Kurek dressed as Toto) - acknowledged her dogs are somewhat disinterested in the ritual of getting decked out for Halloween.

"They're very patient for me," she said. "It's more for me than for them, definitely."

Dogs are the most often dressed - 7 percent of dog owners have bought a costume for their pet this year, up from 4 percent in 2004 - APPMA research shows. But is the rapidly expanding pet costume business, and all the primping and dressing up it involves, actually good for man's best friend?

Charm City Dogs trainer Lauren Bond takes a cautious stance on the issue of dandifying Fido.

"As far as the psychology goes, every dog is different, and there are dogs who truly enjoy strutting around in costumes, and there are others who hate it," she said.

Bond warned that putting a dog into costume causes "an intense sensory experience" for the animal.

"You and I are conditioned to ignore the feeling of clothes on our body and dogs are not," she said. "It can be a stressful experience."

Kathy Santo, a dog trainer who writes "Ask the Dog Shrink," a column for House Beautiful magazine, said that as long as the animal is conditioned properly, a dog in an outfit can be a good thing.

Clothes, she said, can be a tool in changing the stereotypes of typically "scary" dogs (a pit bull in a pink beaded collar and sweater, for instance, might make people not cross the street quite so quickly).

Pat Machate, a social worker and children's therapist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, also uses clothing as a way to make her dog more inviting to intimidated children.

"Having those human attributes is a great way to make analogies with children in therapy," said Machate, who routinely takes Phoebe to work to comfort the children she counsels.

Machate said, though, that her penchant for dressing Phoebe up has "gotten out of hand."

"She has more clothes than I do," Machate said of her Pomeranian's 100-plus outfits, which include a bikini, cowboy boots and a fur coat, as well as past Halloween costumes - last year she was dressed as Wonder Woman. "I think it comes down to, basically, I don't have children."

Regardless of how owners feel about dressing up their pets, Bond warned that any decision to do so must be considered and well planned.

Also key is making sure the costume is safe and comfortable, she added, warning against costumes that are too tight or too loose - these can cause the animal to trip or get tangled in extra fabric. She also recommended staying away from accessories such as wings made of wire. Dogs might chew through the wings and cut themselves on the wire. She also warned about anything that obstructs the dog's vision.

"Any costume that allows your dog to still be a dog is the way to go," she said.

So does she dress up her own dog for Halloween?

"My dog doesn't do costumes," she said. "He's too dignified."


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