Pets help break the ice at a singles gathering at the Wharf Rat.

July 14, 2004|By Lester J. Davis | Lester J. Davis,SUN STAFF

After walking into a doggy happy hour at a festival in Washington and hearing friends say they'd used pets - not even their own, in some cases - as a way of meeting women, Dan Cohen, a marketing executive, naturally started thinking about how he might package and sell such a concept to the masses.

Thus was born, an online gathering place for singles looking for companionship beyond their own furry and feathered friends. The idea was a hit, and 18 months later, thousands of pet owners from all 50 states now log on to trade funny animal stories and flirt, virtually.

But in the way of many best-laid online plans, things tend to go awry in real life. At a recent Animal Attraction party in Baltimore, designed to help move online friendships into the real world, it indeed seemed to be the animals rather than humans attracting one another, and not always in loving ways.

"Stop it, Max! Don't use that kind of language," cried George Faber, scolding his Tibetan spaniel, who was busy barking at a frisky female chihuahua. Meanwhile, Jake, a collie that previously had been among the few calm canines, developed a growl fierce enough to turn heads, and lunged, with nearly all his pearly whites revealed, at a nearby dog. "Jake, NO!" owner Christine Hubbard screamed, as she struggled to pull her dog back.

Perhaps they were taking the theme of a recent event at the Wharf Rat pub downtown a little too literally: "Party Like a Dog." Attracting some 120 humans and about 50 dogs, it was the poodles and spaniels, Great Danes and collies that took over. Not willing to simply serve as conduits for their owners to meet one another, they took the party into their own paws.

Buddy, a 75-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever, sat by owner Todd Taylor's side and didn't utter a peep. Once Taylor went to refill a cup of beer he'd tipped over, his dog chose to unwind by licking the spilled alcohol off a patio table. Taylor quickly returned and pulled Buddy's head away from the puddle.

"He usually chases squirrels and birds," Taylor said as he wiped beer foam from Buddy's lips.

The scene, although at times chaotic, was planned from the start, said Cohen, who lives in Washington and has held several marketing jobs, including vice president of sales for the Washington Redskins and owner of a sports marketing consulting firm.

"People who own pets are taking care of something and are generally responsible," Cohen said. "They tend to be very warm people, and those are traits that are universally thought of as good qualities. It's a great starting point for the development of a relationship."

Once on the Web site, visitors can browse through pictures and profiles of single men and women, connect to chat rooms or post funny pet stories on the message board.

Users may encounter someone like AtlBoilermaker, a woman from Atlanta who enjoys gardening and being chased by her pets, according to her profile.

The service will remain free for at least three more months, Cohen said.

Cohen started the meet-and-greets back in February as a promotional tool. The first gathering took place in Washington and drew nearly 200 people and their dogs. Cohen said he's not sure which city he'll take the next party to.

In Baltimore last week, the event began at 6 p.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., with drink specials including $2 beers. Midway through the night, however, the disparities in the male to female ratio became overwhelming. Human females outnumbered human males by a ratio of about 4-to-1. On the canine front, however, males outnumbered canine females by a 3- to-1 ratio.

And the sparse number of men in attendance wasn't lost on Hubbard, a middle school teacher in the city who brought her collie, Jake. When asked whether she'd met Mr. Right, she said with a chuckle, "I've met other women with dogs.

"But I've been having fun anyway," she said. "It's more of a hangout type of vibe than a dating one."

For the few men in attendance, however, the number of women was just right.

About 9:30 p.m. Larry Levine, a pet store owner, sat at a table with dog IO - pronounced Eye-oh - and the crisp moonlight bouncing off his salt-and-pepper hair. Levine, surrounded by three women and a table full of empty beer bottles, flashed a long, bright grin as he entertained the women. When asked what he thought of the crowd, Levine just flashed that smile and professed, "I'm golden." A woman to his left, however, signaled with a quick smirk and a roll of her eyes that a love connection was far from a reality.

As the night drew to a close, there were still no signs of phone numbers being exchanged. Most people said they were happy just to be able to go out and get a drink ... with their dog.

But Ted Hooban, a software developer from Alexandria, Va., said the "Party Like a Dog," events will always make him feel warm and fuzzy inside. That's because Hooban met his current girlfriend, who did not want her name used, at the previous party in Washington.

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