It was supposed to be Pepper’s big entrance.
Amy Fiala had been tending to the 2-year-old black Lab as they waited for the wedding to start. Now it was time for the handoff. The bridesmaid, in her forest green gown, would escort Pepper to the altar to stand with the rest of the wedding party while her owners said “I do.”
Fiala knew just how this was supposed to go. Pepper would prance down the aisle.
“Awwwwww,” everyone would coo. They always do.
Then Pepper started sniffing the ground. Sniff. Sniff.
This could mean only one thing, and Fiala knew it would be a disaster. A big one. One of the worst.
Pepper had to poop.
Fiala practically panicked. This could not happen. Not here. After all, while you’re pledging your love to The One, you don’t want to watch your dog go Number Two.
But that was why the bride had hired Fiala. Pepper’s business was her business.
Let’s take a quick walk, she thought.
The 42-year-old Austin woman runs A Happy Tail by Game Time Dog Services in Austin, Texas. She and her 10 employees work the wedding circuit, handling dogs during a couple’s big day.
Years ago, including a pet in an otherwise-traditional wedding might have been pretty close to verboten. (What if it lunges for the cake?)
As pets became a part of couples’ everyday lives, they started showing up in more biggest-days-of-their-lives.
But whether the pet belongs to one half of the happy couple or both, the people at the altar have their hands full. So the task of handling the Dog of Honor might have fallen to a distant cousin or a nephew with a pocketful of jerky treats.
Now, paid wedding pet coordinators offer to take the reins – well, usually the leash – with the promise that the pets will hit their marks, whether they’re coming into the ceremony on a wagon or barreling down the aisle toward Mom or Dad on cue.
Their job is to make sure everything is orchestrated. That the Best Dog is cute, quiet and freshly groomed (yes, you caught that).
And of course, that no bride or groom (or, gasp, in-law) will ever have to worry about whipping out a doggie bag of that variety.
Dogs are the most common non-homosapiens in the wedding party, says Gabriella Rello Duffy, editorial director of Brides. But Rello Duffy, whose site ran a piece on 50 ways to include pets in weddings, said she has seen cats, horses, even birds make an appearance. The spread included at least one alpaca.
“It’s all about personalization,” she said. (A tuxedo cat? A pair of lovebirds? The possibilities seem endless.)
Some say COVID is playing a role in the number of gigs wedding pet attendants are getting. Many people got pets during the height of the pandemic, said Clare Sheehan, the wedding pet coordinator for The Pet Gal, which operates in Texas, Colorado and Hawaii. Now that they’re getting married, they want their dogs to be part of the festivities, much to the delight of most guests.
Getting those pets to play their parts seamlessly is not as easy as it looks. Making it work takes a mix of dog psychology, experience, patience, problem-solving and quick thinking.
Especially when nature calls.
Every second counted when Pepper made her intentions clear that wedding day at a ranch outside Austin.
Classical music played as Fiala commandeered the leash from the bridesmaid, jogged 10 feet away and silently implored Pepper to do her business quickly.
Potty, potty, potty, she thought.
Pepper did. Fiala dashed back to the bridesmaid just in time. Moments later, Fiala’s favorite part of every wedding happened, just the way it always did.
Just what does a wedding pet attendant do?
When Jordi Booher decided to get married in 2021, there was never any question that her two golden retrievers would be in the wedding.
The 31-year teacher from Lakeway, Texas, was devoted to Ellie and Butters. She and her then-fiance, Nick, had adopted the two during the pandemic.
The dogs did everything with the betrothed couple. Booher even knows their birthdays (Feb. 21 and March 21, in case you were planning to send a card).
“We put on little party hats and give them treats and take them to Petco to pick out their own toys,” Booher said.
But … take a couple of exuberant retrievers – whose lives revolve around running, swimming and chasing balls – and turn them into docile members of the wedding party? It seemed an unlikely proposal.
The business is certainly not new. Wedding pet attendants have been around for at least a decade, if not longer, Rello Duffy said. But while specific figures about the pet attendant industry are hard to come by, overall wedding spending has rebounded since the easing of the pandemic, and pets have become ever-more rooted in wedding ceremonies.
Pet attendants aren’t cheap. Some charge $200 an hour or more. But it’s money well-spent, she said, because handling a pet on the big day is a big responsibility.
“A pet attendant will really go a long way,” Rello Duffy said.
Don’t think they just show up at the ceremony and hope for the best. Many attendants interview couples beforehand, asking about their doting dog’s personality, quirks, breed, age, fears, activity level – anything that might affect the ceremony or the dog itself.
Attendants may also show up to walk the soon-to-be star in the days leading up to the wedding. Is he a puller? A speed demon? A gentle old soul just waiting to be hugged?
Meanwhile, somebody has to get the dogs to the venue, burn off their energy with long walks, make sure their bladders are on empty with frequent potty breaks. They need to be fed and watered.
And then the dog has to be staged and pampered while awaiting their big moment. If they’re wearing a tux, flower collar, bow tie or other costume, they need to be dressed.
“Dogs in outfits are always a hit,” Sheehan said.
When it came to Booher’s wedding, Fiala had both Ellie and Butters in fine form, with white bow-ties on.
Of course, dogs will be dogs.
Butters, the pretty but dumb one, practically dragged the maid of honor down the aisle. Ellie, the smart and stoic one, maintained her dignity.
The crowd loved it.
“I heard a lot of laughing in the audience,” Booher said.
How to get ready for the big day
That’s the kind of joy Fiala has always gotten from animals.
As a child, she spent every summer at her parents’ farm in Missouri. There were goats and chickens and horses and, of course, dogs. Great Danes played outside while the Great Pyrenees watched over the goats.
“My dad always knew to find me in the stable with the horses or in the yard with our dogs,” Fiala said. “That is just where I was.”
Her stepmother taught her about dog body language. Stressed dogs might pant, pin back their ears or tuck their tails. Playful ones wag their tails quickly, shake their butts or jump up.
All that plays a big role in handling dogs at a wedding, she said. “My job is to make sure the dog is happy and healthy and in a good mental spot.”
Fiala started her pet walking business in 2009 after spending three years as an accounts manager for Belo Media. But it wasn’t until after her own wedding in 2013 (where groom Rick, Great Dane Kya and Pomeranian Mr. Big were all in attendance) that she realized she might be onto something.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be other crazy dog ladies out there too!’” she said.
Since then, she’s seen all kinds of canines. The ones who plop on the ground for belly rubs. The ones begging for food at the cocktail hour. The ones who pose like divas for the wedding photos and the ones who’d rather be home taking a nap.
And then there was the one who almost took her out. When a couple trekked to downtown Austin to have their wedding pictures taken, Fiala tagged along with their young, 60-pound Lab-shepherd. Everything was fine until the group was separated by a red light, with the happy couple on one side of the street and their dog on the other.
“He went bonkers,” Fiala said.
Fiala is a former fitness trainer and college soccer player, and she was wearing a waist least. Even so, it was everything she could do to stay on her feet and keep the dog out of traffic.
But pup and parents were soon reunited and all was well again. Just as it should be on a wedding day.
“I needed an epsom salt bath after that,” Fiala said. “It was fine. It’s all part of the territory.”
More from USA TODAY
- At 46, she was ready for her next triathlon. Then she caught COVID. Would she ever run again?
- Ukraine’s national surf team dreams of the Olympics, and the end of war
- An electric bike rode into the backcountry. Now there’s a nationwide turf war.