A man who said his name was Santa Claus was trying to reason with a boisterous black Labrador.
“If you don’t sit still, we can’t take your picture!” Santa told the dog, who lunged for Santa’s red velvet hat. Santa laughed.
Nearby, a group of people who’d brought their dogs to PetSmart to visit Saint Nicholas had gathered. “Calm down, Mommy,” one woman told a small yellow dog who squirmed in her arms. “Mommy, calm down. You have to wait your turn. Be cool, Mommy. It’s almost Mommy’s turn.”
This was his first year at PetSmart, Santa admitted. He said it was different visiting with Chihuahuas than with children. “Dogs get excited, and some of them get scared. Some of them get like this,” Santa said, then waved his fingers in the air and screamed. “But everyone is real happy, so that pleases me.”
Santa would be seeing mostly dogs today, explained Josh, one of Santa’s helpers. “Ninety-five percent canines,” Josh said. “The other five percent will be cats, birds, reptiles, ferrets.”
“I heard one store had a horse come in,” Santa said to Josh.
“Yeah,” Josh agreed. “We try to keep it to animals that we sell or that we sell stuff for. But you never know.”
Santa looked nervous.
“Don’t worry about the birds,” Josh told him. “Usually their wings are clipped so they will just stay wherever they’re put.”
Santa leaned down to pose with a large black dog wearing a tree skirt. “Who’s a good girl?” he asked the dog. “Is it you?”
“Maybe I’ll go buy a goldfish and have it pose with Santa,” a man said to a PetSmart employee named Kendyll. She laughed.
“I have a lizard named Stanley,” Kendyll admitted. “So I’m not judging what anyone does.”
“Today is mostly a photo op,” Santa offered. “But if you have the PetSmart app, you get 500 points for bringing in your pet, and there’s a special photo frame that says, ‘I was here with Santa.’”
Josh said if customers didn’t have a smartphone, he had an iPad and could email someone a photo of their pooch posing with Santa.
“We have little goodie bags with treats,” Santa said as he helped a bulldog find its most photogenic angle. “And while you’re here, you can shop. We have a — what do you call it?” he asked Josh.
“We have what we call a Christmas selection,” Josh prompted. “They’re pet toys that are gift-wrapped.”
Josh said his dog, Shiloh, had been photographed with Santa every year for more than a decade. “Some people come every year,” he said. “It’s a religious thing.”
Big dogs were welcome on his lap, Santa assured a woman with a sand-colored pit bull. “Or we have the little benches,” Santa said.
Santa knew he might get bitten today. “It’s happened twice before, but I’m not afraid. I love dogs. Sometimes they see the costume, they get a little scared, but it’s okay. We have potty stations.”
There was no backup Santa suit, he said.
He swore he was neither a dog person nor a cat person. “Santa loves all animals,” he insisted from behind a curly white rayon beard. “Ho ho ho!”
A schnauzer helped herself to a package of rawhide chews from an endcap marked “Dental Treats.”
“I guess I’ll be buying those,” the dog’s owner told the woman in line in front of her.
“This is my son’s puppy,” the woman replied. “A Jack Russell mix. He don’t seem happy about this Santa business, though. And my son was supposed to meet us here, but he ain’t here yet.”
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Santa smiled at a Rottweiler. “I’m bringing my cat here tomorrow,” a customer told Kendyll, who nodded. “Her name is Sarah, and she loves Christmas!”
Outside in the PetSmart parking lot, a tall man with a ponytail spoke quietly to a German shepherd. “We’re going inside to see Santa,” the man told the dog. “You need to be a good boy. A good boy. You hear me?”
The woman with the little yellow dog walked past them. “You did fine, Mommy,” she told the dog. “Good job with Santa, Mommy. You didn’t pee or nothing!”
From inside, Santa could be heard laughing and laughing.