Couples want their pets in their weddings, and doggone it, vendors will abide

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At Jackie Baik's and Frank Kemp's planned Sept. 11 wedding, Luca, a 2-year-old pit bull/corgi mix, will carry the rings. He was even included in the couple's engagement photo.

At Emily Sabalbaro's December nuptials at the Loews Hotel, two adorable ring bearers took part in the procession:

Her 9-year-old nephew - and her 80-pound Great Pyrenees/border collie in a bow tie.

Although Dempsey rejected the tux with tails Sabalbaro bought him, everything else went as planned. Their dog walker brought Dempsey to the ceremony, and Sabalbaro's brother-in-law took the dog down the aisle on a sleek black leather leash.

"It was really important to us because we got Dempsey together as a couple and that was a big step for us," Sabalbaro said. "It was also a training goal to get him to behave on a leash in order to have him in the ceremony."

Many people over the years have given their dogs roles in their wedding ceremonies, but as more couples want ceremonies tailor-made just for their relationships, the inclusion of a best pooch is becoming something vendors must accommodate.

Gina Sole, owner of the Wedding Planner in Rittenhouse Square, first included an animal in a ceremony in 2000, but for the last five years, she has planned seven to 10 pet-inclusive weddings annually. That's about 30 percent of her business.

These couples, she says, are "truly passionate about their animals. Their pets are their children." They plan their hotel room blocks in a pet-friendly hotel "so the pet can be there for the whole weekend."

Though she's included a couple of cats, most are dogs that serve as ring bearers with wedding bands in a Tiffany box on their backs. Others are just part of the processional. Despite bringing the pet into a new situation with lots of people and noise, "I've never had a wedding where the pet lost his mind at the last minute," Sole said, though it's best if the animal is calm and well-trained. Most important is having someone available who isn't part of the wedding who can keep the dog walked and fed before the ceremony.

At Jackie Baik's forthcoming Sept. 11 wedding at the Water Works, Luca, a 2-year-old pit bull/corgi mix, will carry the rings.

She and fiancé Frank Kemp adopted Luca soon after Baik was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.

"During the recovery process, we became especially bonded, and he helped me get through a lot of the harder times of treatment," said Baik, who is now cancer-free. The dog is "like our child."

Baik's plan is for Luca to wear a bow tie, floral collar, and leash, and to be accompanied by her 8-year-old nieces, who will serve as flower girls.

"He definitely has a lot of energy, but if he does go off script, I think it will just add to the fun," she said.

Photographer Paul Roebuck sees pets as a way to help the bride relax as she gets ready, followed by a walk down the aisle and a photo. As owner of Unique Concepts Studio in Wynnewood, he's shot about eight weddings where dogs played prominent roles.

Venues are taking notice, marketing their pet-friendly status. Several years ago, the Loews Hotel hosted a dog wedding - that's where two dogs marry each other, obviously - to promote its dog-friendliness, said Amanda Congar, director of catering. Though it helped promote hotel bookings, weddings with pets have been sporadic.

"People think it's a good idea, but once we get to the actual logistics of it, they decide not to go in that direction," she said.

The pet-friendly Rittenhouse Hotel, known for the homemade gourmet dog treats it offers, has hosted about one pet-inclusive wedding in each of the last eight to 10 years, said Lanay Zarallo, director of catering. "It's nice to be able to offer that option to people who are really passionate about their pets."

Staffers serve food and water on a silver tray and checks pets' bow ties and veils before the ceremony.

Of course, pet wardrobes run the gamut: from a snazzy leash to true wedding wear.

At Susanne Naso and John Johnson's June 2015 wedding, their 5-year-old Chiweenie, Lola, wore a peach tutu with a white bow and a necklace of roses.

Lola walked down the aisle at Appleford Estate in Villanova, saw the minister - a friend who lives in their neighborhood - and made a mad dash.

"It's embarrassing how much she had a crush on him, so when she saw him, she ran yelping and jumping," said Naso, who moved from Wayne to Omaha, Neb., last year. Her sister-in-law took the leash, and Lola sat calmly through the remainder of the ceremony.

"My day would not have been complete without her," Naso said. Lola was listed as flower girl in the wedding program. "She's just the sweetest, most snuggly little dog. She's my baby."

Ashley Suozzi's golden retriever, Shadow, accompanies her at the family's jewelry store daily and greets customers, so including him at her and Matt Owens 2014 wedding was a given. The venue, Lucien's Manor in Berlin, N.J., doesn't allow pets inside, so the Newtown residents included the dog as ring bearer - decked out in a custom-made suit and tie - in the outdoor ceremony.

"The guests were all cracking up," Suozzi said, "and they still talk about how dapper he looked."