Sporting sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, a golden retriever mingles with two furry friends.
Lounging in a pink pet stroller, a cat named Coco curls up in a red dress and pearls — one of four costume changes she has come equipped with for the weekend.
Not to be outdone, Tasha Bella, a Yorkie mix garbed in a tiny Girl Scout uniform, poses for a snap from a passer-by's iPhone.
Welcome to BlogPaws, a three-day conference connecting animal bloggers from across the nation, which opened Thursday at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Chandler. About 500 pet fanatics, speakers, and sponsors have converged for the annual conference, now in its eighth year of catering to animal enthusiasts who share their passion for pets via blogs and social media.
"We're all a little kooky here," admits Andrea Arden, Animal Planet's pet expert and a BlogPaws committee member. "But everyone is just having so much fun! Here, you don't have to be embarrassed to call yourself a 'dog parent.'"
Born in the summer of 2009, BlogPaws, which was recently purchased by the Phoenix-based megachain PetSmart, has grown from from a group of 200 pet parents to nearly 6,000 members. Carol Bryant, BlogPaws' marketing and social-media manager, says pampering pets to the extreme is a growing trend for dog and cat owners.
"For today's modern pet parent, their pets are really like their kids," says Bryant, who hosts her own blog, Fidose of Reality. "Bark is the new black — that is the new norm."
While the majority of members are dog people, enthusiasts of all species and stripes have come out for the conference, which runs through Saturday.
"It's not just dogs," Bryant says. "We have everything from dogs to cats to ferrets and birds."
In addition to guest speakers and a Oscars-style awards banquet for bloggers, the conference has attracted a plethora of vendor booths that carry specialized products ranging from organic foods to harnesses, K9Grass, and pet insurance.
Vendor Silvie Bordeaux came to market Muffin's Halo, a contraption that that helps visually impaired dogs navigate without injuring themselves. Bordeaux invented the device after her elderly toy poodle lost its sight.
"Muffin was blind and depressed and walking into walls," says Bordeaux, who works as a publicist. "People were saying, 'You have to think about putting him down.' I was devastated."
Instead of giving up on her furry friend, she created the apparatus, which features a lightweight curved tube that allowed Muffin to sense what he was about to bump into without hitting his head. Muffin used the Halo for four years before he died. More recently, Bordeaux adopted a blind poodle mix named Prince Michael, whose human had terminal cancer.
"Angel Muffin is now our CEO in Heaven," Bordeaux says. "But he leaves a great legacy behind."
New York resident Susan Godwin is here to spread the word about PupScouts, a program modeled on the Girl and Boy Scouts organizations, only for dogs and their people. Participating in events and projects, dogs earn merit badges, with proceeds going to support local shelters.
"It helps the pets bond with their humans," says Godwin, holding Troop Leader Tasha Bella, a Yorkie mix. "And it helps to increase awareness for our cause, because we attract a lot of attention with their outfits."
While some of the bloggers write about their pets for fun, others have turned it into a business — including BlogPaws, which solicits submissions for its own blog and pays $75 a pop.
With more than 2 million Facebook fans, Larry Kay earns a living from PositivelyWoof.com, which promotes shelter-dog adoptions via videos and fundraising efforts.
"BlogPaws is about informed pet writers having a collective voice, each individually," says Kay, whose companion is a 3-year-old rescue Australian cattle dog named Spider.
In her spare time, vet tech Teri Thorsteinson blogs about her Cornish Rex on Coco the Couture Cat. She has traveled to the conference from her home in Virginia to learn how to cash in on her growing online following.
"Coming here helps me see what I can do with my blogging," Thorsteinson says. "I can write a book or learn to monetize my blog."
In addition to the annual conference, BlogPaws connects pet bloggers and influencers year round with pet brands that sponsor the blogs, including Merrick's, Hill's and Natural Balance.
As people continue to embrace their unabashed love for their pets, BlogPaws' Andrea Arden says she expects pet bloggers will continue to increase in popularity.
"Our pets brings us a lot of joy in our lives," says Arden. "And these days, there are more and more people who feel comfortable expressing their love of their animals."
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