May 29, 2009
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The wedding march begins, the doors open, the guests rise and here comes ... Fido, Bowser and Snowball wagging down the aisle.
For better or worse, dogs are becoming the new nontraditional members of wedding parties. Many couples wouldn''t dream of leaving their favorite dog out of that special day. Although not as common, some couples have their cats and birds take part in wedding celebrations.
Dogs can serve a number of roles in weddings, such as being ring bearers, bridesmaids or groomsmen. Some people just want their dogs present to witness the nuptials or to be in wedding photographs.
But is having the family dog in a wedding a good idea?
Jennifer Burgess, a clinical instructor of animal behavior and welfare and the human-animal bond at Mississippi State University''s College of Veterinary Medicine, said couples must do some serious thinking before signing Fido up to be the ring bearer.
"Dogs, depending on their personality, can do fine at weddings. But there is more than just personality affecting how a dog will behave at this type of event," Burgess said. "A friendly, good-natured dog can disrupt a wedding as easily as a fearful aggressive one. Picture a 70-pound, 11-month-old Labrador retriever jumping on the cake table or racing around the guests."
Burgess recommended couples carefully consider the following questions before including dogs in wedding celebrations:
· Does the venue allow dogs?
· Is the dog comfortable around large groups of people, children and loud noise?
· Will the dog wear a costume?
· Will the dog have access to water, food and a place to relieve itself?
· Who will be responsible for caring for the dog before, during and after the ceremony?
"Some dogs get scared or aggressive in the midst of a lot of people and activity," Burgess said. "A dog may be able to handle a crowd, but then add loud noises, strangers, children and a costume, and it may be pushed over the edge."
The key is to have a plan for the dog and make sure its needs are attended to before, during and after the festivities.
"Brides and grooms should designate someone to supervise their dogs," Burgess said. "This should be someone they trust and someone the dog already knows."
Close supervision is not only good for the pets, but also for the guests. Some animals can easily damage property or sneak food set out for the reception.
"During the festivities, dogs need to be supervised 100 percent of the time," Burgess said.
Randall McMillen, a graduate student at MSU, played the role of dog handler in a recent Starkville wedding.
"My friends really wanted their dogs there as part of the wedding," McMillen said. "After the groom walked down the aisle with the dogs, my job was to accompany them to my seat and make sure they behaved during the ceremony."
McMillen brought treats to reward the dogs'' good behavior and to use in case he had difficulty getting them to respond to his commands.
"If dogs are expected to do something, such as walk down the aisle or perform a trick, practice it with them several times beforehand, and reward their positive behavior," Burgess said.
This technique worked for McMillen. He attended the rehearsal to practice with the dogs, so they were ready to follow him on the big day.
"Things went smoothly because my friends'' dogs are well-behaved and familiar with me," McMillen said.
After the ceremony, McMillen took the dogs back to their home and fed them. Once the dogs were settled, McMillen left them to relax while he attended their owners'' reception.
"Being around so many new people can be tiring for pets. Making sure they get rest and breaks from the excitement helps them cope," Burgess said.