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Real party animals

COVER STORY

Dogs are people too, especially when they can frolic day and night at parks, cafes and clubs. And they make great matchmakers.

June 29, 2006|Cindy Chang | Special to The Times

FOR the dachshunds, French bulldogs and miniature pinschers of the Silver Lake Dog Park's small-breed section, friendships are sparked by the wag of a tail, just so, or a whiff of scent from an especially fragrant rear end.

The owners of these feisty little dogs bring them there to socialize, and socialize they do, chasing each other from end to end of the small dirt patch, wrestling one-on-one or warding off unwanted advances with a growl.

As the humans watch their dogs at play, they test the social waters with their own species. The standard greeting is not the tail wag but a pooch query: "How old is he? What kind of dog is he?" Thus have friendships, business relationships and even romances been born.

"Ted!" Lindsay Stewart cried one recent afternoon as she plucked her cocker spaniel-Shih Tzu mix off a Yorkshire terrier and resumed a conversation with Joey Franks, a new acquaintance, about how to upholster a sofa. A few minutes earlier, the two women had discussed a potential business deal: Franks makes chalkboards, and Stewart thought she might need one for the flower shop where she works.

"I come here every day, and I've met some really great friends," Stewart says. "People say they come because of their dogs, but there's a dual purpose."

Our canine friends, invaluable as givers of unconditional love, also function as a social lubricant, not just at dog parks but on city sidewalks, the patio at Starbucks and everywhere else they go. That chocolate Labrador puppy, bouncing jauntily at her owner's heel, is playing a key, if unwitting, role in strengthening the loose social fabric of a car-dependent city where self-absorption is the unfortunate norm.

Much has been made of the aromatherapy massages and Gucci sweaters bestowed on dogs, who in this age of delayed childbearing and high disposable incomes are regarded as surrogate children.

But even pooches who are not materially pampered are more likely than in times past to emerge regularly from the backyard for a trip to the beach, Sunday brunch at a cafe, organized activities such as agility and sheepherding or even shopping on Rodeo Drive. Nightlife venues are emerging that cater to people who want to have their dogs with them when they party.

"Los Angeles is such a difficult place to meet people. When you have a dog, it forces you to get out, get up to the dog park, Runyon Canyon, it opens up a whole new world to you," says Zack Grey, a Hollywood dog trainer. "Having a dog makes it easy to be approached. You can approach people you're interested in dating or having a drink with and talk about the dog. When you compliment the dog, you're complimenting the owner."

Making the scene

The number of American households with at least one dog has increased by almost 3 million since 2002 and now exceeds 43 million, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn. More single apartment-dwellers in their 20s and 30s are getting dogs, even as they continue to frequent hipster bars and hot new restaurants.

Small wonder, then, that dogs and nightlife are starting to mix. No longer are a night on the town and a night with the pooch mutually exclusive. And wherever dogs are, people come out of their shells. If still not quite as unabashedly friendly as their canine companions, they are much less reserved, much more likely to initiate a conversation with a stranger.

At SKYBARk, a new downtown warehouse party that bills itself as "a place for both humans and canines to live it up late at night," dogs are everywhere, frolicking in a play area laid with squares of real sod or lolling about as their owners drink and chat.

There are big dogs, little dogs, white dogs, black dogs, brown dogs, spotted dogs and dogs in tuxedos and pink satin party dresses. The humans parade in filmy tank tops and 3-inch stilettos to match the attention-grabbing outfits they have chosen for their canine companions.

But despite all the glitzy trappings, SKYBARk has more in common with the dog park than not. Think of it as a dog park with cocktails and live music.

"If they have a dachshund, they're a cool person," says Sharon Olan, 36, surveying the May 20 SKYBARk with her husband, David, their dachshund, Stanley, and their chow mix, Kona. The Olans relax on a sofa with three other dachshunds and their owners, some of whom are old friends and some of whom instantly bonded because of their mutual affection for the floppy-eared, long-spined dogs.

Brandon Hochman, a 33-year-old former professional snowboarder, conceived of SKYBARk both as a promotion for his PETaPOTTY product (a sod contraption that gives apartment-bound dogs a place to relieve themselves) and as a rare chance for people to go out on the town with their dogs. A silent auction at every event benefits a rotating roster of animal rescue groups.

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