Rockville, Md. — The line of wiggly little ones waiting to be photographed spills out the front door of the tiny store. On Santa's red knee Hannah licks her lips and warily eyes the camera. Finally it flashes; the jolly fellow helps her down and produces a seven-year-old's ultimate reward - a rawhide lollipop. Hannah is an English springer spaniel, one of scores of dogs padding through the gift shop of the Rockville Pet Motel to have their pictures taken with the Bearded One. After Hannah come a fan-tailed Irish Setter, two wavy white Maltese that visually disappear against Santa's wavy white beard, and an earth-toned Yorkie with a droopy mustache like that of a medieval Chinese warlord.
While the dogs parade, the cash register jingles: food, toys, dog clothing. Here, as nationwide, it's the start of the animal world's annual high-sales season: Christmas presents aren't just for children anymore. Or parties, either.
By some estimates Americans each year purchase $8.5 billion worth of food, toys, clothing, and other products for their pets. Precise statistics are hard to come by. There's ``not a lot of statistic gathering in the retail pet industry,'' says Steve King of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. But for ``pet product sales, as any retail sales, this is a very good time of year. ... A lot of people treat pets as part of the family.''
``My doggy has his own Christmas stocking,'' confides a librarian, as if to back up Mr. King's comments.
``Christmas is the only time I buy my dog presents,'' admits a teacher. She buys toys and relatively expensive treats - she's the kind of upscale consumer the pet industry seeks now.
Judging from the industry trade shows he has attended, King says, ``there seems to be a real increase in the number of upscale'' items for sale - things like ``fancy feeding bowls, crystal or other fine quality. ... Little booties for dogs. ... Some of the bird cages are real works of art'' - handmade.
In Rockville there's no shortage of interest in upscale clothing. Customers paw through acrylic dog sweaters ($7) in burgundy, the color of Washington's beloved football Redskins. All bear the number 81, of star pass catcher Art Monk.
On a shelf below are $23 jogging suits that make a pooch look as much as possible like Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder.
At Bonejour Caf'e Boutique in Washington's Georgetown section, owner Becky Pugh offers mink coats, gold lam'e dresses, and Santa suits - all for dogs.
Presents, of course, should be wrapped in paper with the appropriate motif. In Rockville they carry wrapping paper with pictures of dogs, for people who own dogs. Paper with cats for those who own cats. And paper with penguins for those who. ... Anyway, they have paper with penguins.
``The industry,'' King says, ``seems to be looking for the more upscale purchaser, the Yuppy purchaser.''
For canines this is the party season, too. Bonejour's Ms. Pugh stages birthday parties for dogs. She feeds them corned-beef birthday cake or muffins, and homemade dog bones shaped at this time of year like Christmas trees or stars. The dogs wear hats, have party favors, and ``all sit around the table and eat their cake.''
Sitting there in Santa suits and gold lam'e outfits, how could they not have a howling good time?