LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Dogs Rule the Catwalk: Pet clothing sales soar

LaReeca Rucker:
The Clarion-Ledger

Petey McLean knows he's the man, with an extensive wardrobe and confident swagger reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Yes, you can tell by the way he uses his walk, he's a woman's dog, no time to talk. And like Travolta, he's no stranger to disco. Confident in his manhood, he once donned a sequined gown to become song diva Petey LaBelle for a '70s-themed costume contest. 

"He even has a Sweet Potato Queen outfit that I made with a red wig and acrown," said owner Julie McLean of Jackson.

In February, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reported that pet spending had exceeded industry projections for 2007. Total spending topped $41 billion, more than double the $21 billion Americans spent in1996. 

An increase in pampering and gift-giving has fueled the industry, as more people treat pets like family members, purchasing clothing and using high-end grooming services, like pet hotels, pet spas and doggie daycares. 

McLean adopted Petey, an 8-year-old chihuahua-terrier mix, and his brother, Rascal, when they were 3 months old from a Gulf Shores couple who would have taken them to a shelter. Unaware that he weighs only six pounds, Petey frequently attends animal shelter charity events, and was twice named "littlest dog with the biggest attitude." 

Petey, a dog whose tongue sticks out most of the time through missing front teeth, loves Animal Planet, riding in cars and cats, McLean said. And, he enjoys wearing clothes.

"I can put his leash on him, and he won't do much," McLean said. "But when I put his clothes on, he knows we're going somewhere with people and kids, and he really struts and prances." 

Petey owns a pink hoodie from Old Navy and a Hawaiian shirt from Build-A-Bear Workshop. Many of the teddy bear clothes fit small dogs. He has a pair of John Lennon-style glasses from Chi-wa-wa Ga-ga, a New Orleans store for "dinky dogs." And some of his attire comes from Target and Wal-Mart, stores that now carry a large selection of pet apparel.

"It's funny how there is so much stuff," McLean said. "They have designer leashes, collars and beds. It makes it more fun." 

Joni South Hutchinson, owner of The Snooty Pooch at 120 Depot Drive in Madison, sells a variety of pet products, including T-shirts that read "Americanine Idol," "Desperate House Dogs," "Dog's Gone Wild," "Puparazzi" and "Brad Pitbull." The latest in dog couture is '60s-style sundresses with large floral prints and ruffle hemlines in vibrant colors.

They can wear them to the Chateau le Pooch, the Ritz Carlton of doggie hotels that opened in November next door to the boutique. Classical music plays as dogs "check in" to suites, and they are served chicken and beef broth ice cubes during Yappy Hour. They can mingle with other pets or watch a movie, like "The Fox & The Hound."

"It's very serene, very calm," said Hutchinson, who also bakes bone-shaped birthday cakes for dogs. "We have daycare dogs that come every day, and other dogs that stay a week at a time while their family is traveling."

Doggie daycare is $15 a day. Small dogs can spend the night for $25, and large dogs stay for $30. 

Workin' It

Gizmo McDaniel helps his owner teach pilates classes. You can find his picture on the Pilates Studio of Jackson Web site, where his bio is listed among other staff members. 

Always dressed for the occasion, Gizmo greets clients, and when classes are over, he stretches with them in the middle of the room. He's also been known to steal lipsticks from purses. 

"We have some clients who come every day with treats for him, so I really have to watch his weight," said owner Helen McDaniel. 

The tiny pomeranian gets his hair groomed every Thursday at Diva Dog in Ridgeland, where McDaniel buys some of his clothing. His ensembles include harness vests, camouflage shirts, bandannas, pilates outfits with the studio logo and a Burberry vest and matching leash. 

"He's very high-styling," laughed the Reno native, who recently moved to the area with her husband, a vascular surgeon. "Everywhere we go, he makes people happy."

Molly and Susie Raphael are givers. For the past two years, they have been visiting nursing homes and hospitals as therapy dogs, cheering residents and patients with wagging tails. 

"When they are out with me, they are always quiet when we go on elevators," said owner Susan Raphael. "When they see another dog that they are going to work with, they might give a little yelp like they are excited to see the other dog or handler." 

Obedience classes have made "the girls," as they are called, seem almost human. They respond to commands like they're fluent in English, hoping for a Three Dog Bakery Jump 'n Sit Bits peanut butter treat. And they don't mind wearing pink sweatshirts that read "2 Sweet to Bite," Hawaiian shirts with grass skirts and leis, and seasonal collars from Diva Dog.

Diva Dog

Owner Julie Stockton also carries high-end pet apparel in her Highland Colony Parkway store. She just received a shipment of dog T-shirts that read America's Next Top Dog Model. She said collegiate clothing also sells well. "Pet fashion is a reflection of human fashion," she said. "What the pet wears is really a personal extension of the owner." 

Stockton said it's obvious that pets are an important part of the family.

"I hear more about granddogs now than I do about grandchildren," she said. "People will say, 'Oh, I need to shop for my granddog. I don't have grandchildren, but I have a granddog.' That shows me that they are treated more and more like children."


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker