At first glance, it's hard to tell which pocket-sized dog is the birthday pup: Is it the yappy Yorkie, dyed fuchsia pink, with matching bow? Is it the half-dazed fluffball, pure white save for his tiny Converse sneakers? No – it's the scruffy dog in the ruffled, fluorescent green party dress, of course.
Christal - pronounced like the champagne (obviously) - poses for pictures on her first birthday, her owner clutching her paws from behind, "waving" to the camera, in front of her custom-ordered peanut-butter cake. Her owner tries to get her to lick her icing covered fingers but the birthday girl isn't interested.
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The rare Chinese crested "powder puff" pup circles picnic tables, licks the cement and sniffs the air as her "godmother," decked out with green and pink nails (Christal's "favourite colours") blows bubbles in the corner of the backyard in east Toronto.
"Oh, she knows it's her birthday – of course. She's very intuitive," says Christal's owner Joanne Brook, with a straight face. Christal has apparently known it was the big day, "ever since her mommy started baking cookies for the loot bags early this morning."
Those loot bags cost about $5 each to assemble, for the 10 dog friends that were invited. The cake? $25. Plus, she picked up a smaller, $10 one for Meadow, the little guy in the sneakers, "so he doesn't feel left out." The grand total is well over $100, for under an hour of pooch party.
Ms. Brook knows that many people don't understand the lengths she'll go to for her dog. When her adult son pleads, "It's just a dog, mom!," she just shrugs. And the delivery man who brought the party balloons? "He nearly passed out when I told him it was my dog baby's big day."
Meadow's owner pipes up: "People who don't approve have never had a birthday party like this, and they're just acting out in jealousy."
That must be it.
Christal isn't the only canine getting spoiled: The American Pet Product Association estimates owners will spend more than $52-billion (U.S.) on their pets this year, with less than half of that amount going toward food.
While there aren't numbers on dog parties specifically in Canada, the national Pet Industry Council says Canadians are spending more on luxury purchases for their pets than ever before – and more dog stores are tapping into the party scene.
In Vancouver, pet store Bow Wow Haus offers celebrations starting at $200 for a couple of hours – and that's not including the dog photographer or sketch artist, "the doggy equivalent of a magician at a kids' party," says store owner Suji Moon.
They host an average of 15 parties a year in the store, and cater about five off-site parties a month. Ms. Moon says the market is still niche – but growing. "People are going more high end. … It's empty nesters, a lot of women – the kids move out, and the women buy a small dog. Just as some people dote on children, others dote on their dogs."
In Toronto's Big Dog Bakery, owner Jackie Krovblit says the popularity of doggie celebrations has allowed her to expand her business from a catering outfit in 2005 to a busy flagship bakery, offering custom cakes, cookies and "ruffin muffins."
"People will come in and spend $150 to $200," she says. "This dog has become their child. It's not just birthdays – some people want a cake for their dog at the wedding, or maybe the dog has been through a traumatic experience at the vet.… It never ceases to amaze me."
For self-declared "crazy dog lady" Jenna Wilson in Mississauga, an ordinary birthday party wasn't enough for Tika, her golden retriever who turned 2 earlier this year.
In order to "out-do" her first celebration, Ms. Wilson planned a full-on surprise party for her dog. "My fiancé took her for a walk, and we all hid in different rooms," she says with a giggle. The highlight? When Marley, a Weimaraner, sang happy birthday.
"We don't get our dogs in our lives for as long as we like. They celebrate us every minute – they live to make us happy," Ms. Wilson says. "The least we could is celebrate them for one day."