At the photo perch at the PetSmart in Towson, the little dogs didn't scratch at Santa's lush beard. The big dogs controlled their bladders - for the most part. The blind pit bull was a sweetie, really. And the cockatiel, Gizmo was his name, was on good behavior. That scene could have gone wrong in a hurry.
Sure, some of the terriers were jumpy. One minute they were nosing around the pet store, then they were hauled onto a strange lap with hovering humans beseeching them to 1) look up and 2) look cute. But all the dogs came around eventually.
"We had one deaf dog in here. That was kind of tough. We used hand signals," said Jean Hessenauer. She volunteered to help pets pose with Santa. She used a squeaky pink elephant toy to get their attention. She made no apologies.
In the age of dogs having their own hotels, yoga instructors, DNA background checks and Facebook pages, having their pictures taken with Santa seems old-fashioned and routine. PetSmart, after all, has been offering Santa photo sessions for 20 years.
But you always remember the first time.
A photo session at PetSmart one recent weekend lacked the novelty and drama of, say, a YouTube clip of a zoo mauling. Far tamer moments were had by all - and blessedly so. There were no pet-owner brawls. No dog brawls - just meeting of the noses. No psycho cats. And everyone - volunteers, pet owners, innocent bystanders, cats, cockatiels and canines - survived the drill with some dignity intact.
In her gender-disguised Santa suit, Katherine Jeschke, rosy-cheeked ("It's the heat"), worked the 11 a.m.-to-4 p.m. shift. Along with Hessenauer, Jeschke volunteers at the Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue nonprofit in Laurel. Animal rescue groups rotate weekend days at PetSmart stores during its Santa program. Mid-Atlantic raised about $350 for its work last Sunday.
Throughout the day, Jeschke learned a thing or two about handling dogs.
"Be absolutely calm. Don't talk baby talk. Get a good grip. Watch for mouths coming at your face," she said. "And watch out for leg lifts."
Pam Lynch of Baltimore was in line with her golden retrievers, Penny and Buffy - or was it Buffy and Penny? Anyway, Lynch brings the pair every year to see Santa. "It's like with kids," she says, "you hope it's a good day." It was. The retrievers responded photogenically to the sounds of the squeaky elephant. Another volunteer made turkey-gobbling sounds for reasons not immediately explained.
Meanwhile at the sign-up counter, pet owners eyed two bowls of cookies put out by the folks from the rescue group. One bowl was dog cookies; the other, people cookies. But the dog cookies looked like the people cookies. The volunteers were secretly amused over the cookie confusion and consumption. Both cookies, for the record, were tasty.
"Look up! London, look up? London. Look up!"
London was a York poodle passing from the arms of owner Titi Cannon to the calm hands of Santa. In the wings, way in the wings, was Patrick Pearson, the boyfriend.
So, was London their dog?
"No, hers!" he said quickly. But wasn't it nice of him to buy her a Santa picture with London? What a good boyfriend. What a smart move.
"Uh-huh," he said.
The procession of pets continued: Bella the Yorkie Peekapoo (actual dog name) with her hair in her eyes; a rescued German shepherd named Dakota whose social skills are a work-in-progress; and a West Highland terrier (by way of Parkville) named Zoe, who was a nervous pup. Zoe's owner, Lauren Stonesifer, brought her old Westie here until he died. This was her new dog's first trip to see Santa.
"She wasn't happy, but she didn't freak out either," said Jeschke. "I put my hand behind her head like her mom does."
Lindsay McDermott, who works at the store, was just happy to physically get her two dogs to Santa's stage with its snowflake backdrop. Duncan, the dachshund, was squirmy. And Sue Jovie, the Boston terrier, attempted to scale Santa and possibly rappel up into the rafters of the pet store. The squeaky pink elephant failed to calm. Gobbling was also unsuccessful.
"That's OK. Sue Jovie is out of her mind," McDermott said. The rescue folks finally took several digital pictures of both dogs. McDermott was not picky. "Oh, any photos with those two - I don't care."
The most seasonally attired pet was Brock, a Hungarian shorthaired pointing dog called a Vizsla. Brock was decked in spangles around his neck and some sort of candy cane ears.
"I can't believe I'm standing in line doing this. This is surreal," said Kathy Fidati. "I'm not even Brock's owner." But she was kind enough to give a helping hand to the dog's owner, Bernie Gross of Towson. A team of people assembled Brock on Santa's lap.
"Brock, sit! Sit!" (Squeak, squeak.)
As the digital camera shot-shot-shot, Brock's expression, although certainly not registering fear or nausea, did suggest that Brock longed to be elsewhere doing whatever Hungarian short-haired pointing dogs do. In the humbling process, his fake ears had fallen off.
"He was good, wasn't he? He sat down," Gross said. "But I didn't like that his ears fell off."
Nearing the end of the photo shift, Jeschke could be proud of her Santa performance. She never lost her cool. Working through heat and beard-in-mouth disease, she had becalmed 68 pets for the day. No photos with fish like last year - just cats and lots of little and big dogs.
"No biters this year," Santa said.
And only a few leg lifts.
Submit photos of your pet with Santa Claus at baltimoresun.com/petswithsanta