The Ritz is going to the dogs. That’s the impression we get when we pull up at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Waiting in the valet line, we can’t help but notice that dogs are hanging out of nearly all the car windows.
But they’re ritzy dogs. A schnauzer adorned with tartan plaid bows. A fuchsia bouvier. Three Afghan hounds. A poodle clipped to look like a lion. They arrive in a Land Rover, a Mercedes, a Lincoln SUV.
“Welcome to Yappy Hour,” a resort staffer says as we enter for the monthly summer happy hour for dogs, now in its sixth year as a South County tradition.
A pony-sized, black standard poodle takes one step for every three of his leash mate, a minuscule white toy poodle. This is a scene David Hockney might paint, all these tails chopping the air in the porte-cochere of the luxury hotel.
Two bulldogs, one French, the other English, overtake us as we pass the lobby entrance. They belong to Nicole Tomasso, a 29-year-old from San Clemente who mentions a doggie bar with a bartender who serves free dog cocktails— water flavored with bacon, chicken, beef, or vegetables. “We’re going to watch the number of dog cocktails this time,” she warns. “Last time they tried them all, and (it) got them sick.”
We travel to the side of the hotel and arrive at the Dana Lawn, that unearthly green grass where some of the weddings take place. Classic white folding chairs are scattered about, and there are heat lamps. Grilled hamburgers and Portobellos scent the air. A bar offers cocktails for adults, martinis with fat olives, and steins of Sea Dog beer. There are a few small fires burning in pits.
There’s no skimping on style points, but mainly we notice the dogs. We were expecting a smallish affair, but there are at least 300 dogs, and twice that many owners. It’s a mind-blowing sight for anyone used to seeing dogs roaming freely at a park: These canines are all on their best behavior (likely because leashes are required). Even the barking seems muted.
The Ritz-Carlton’s general manager, Bruce Brainerd, stands on a small hill overlooking the scene. He came up with this idea and says by the end of summer, the
attendance will double. Brainerd, dressed immaculately in a tailored pinstripe suit, is accompanied by Brock, a golden retriever-lab that assists the disabled. Brock is a regular fixture around The Ritz-Carlton.
Brainerd, who loves dogs and has created a dog-friendly luxury hotel, was looking for a way to let the local community know The Ritz-Carlton is approachable. His staff told him he was crazy. “But I knew it would be a hit. It’s this whole Southern California idea of glamorous dogs. Southern Californians spend money on their animals.”
Since the first event, Brainerd has added others for Halloween and the holiday season, along with the Diamond Ball, which raises about $230,000 to support
assistance dogs. Those funds and the food and beverage proceeds of the regular yappy hours go to the Wounded Veterans Initiative of Canine Companions for
Independence, the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs for the disabled.
Forming a clot of saucy redheads at the entrance, about a dozen red golden retrievers gravitate toward each other, and so do their owners.
“They don’t want anything to do with the other dogs,” notes C.J. Williamson, an Irvine events manager, who says her two dogs have 11,000 Instagram followers,
while she only has 900. “Goldens like to be with goldens.”
The dogs are so wrapped up in each other they don’t even notice the big doggie birthday party a few feet away: Bosco, an American bulldog wearing a blue-fringed
party hat, holds court with at least a dozen other dogs and his owner, dog whisperer Betty Estremo of Betty’s Boot Camp for Dogs and Humans in Laguna Niguel.
Bosco has a pile of presents, and Estremo is handing out doggie gift bags.
Laguna Beach artist Sandra Jones Campbell, wearing a chic fedora, white button-down blouse, and black suit, strolls past with Lollipop, her rescue dog (a Wheaten-golden mix) exquisitely turned out in faux Mary Jane shoes and painted-on pink anklets.
“In Orange County, you’ll spend more on your dog than you do on yourself,” says Sharon Simensen of Orange, who shows off the hot pink vegan dye job on Bennie, her Chinese crested hairy hairless. Bennie also sports a red-white-and-blue dye job in July and an orange one in October.
Hotels in other parts of the country have tried these events, Brainerd says, but they often don’t catch on like they do here.
Maybe Orange County just has more money to spend on its dogs. Or maybe it’s the warm weather that allows us to keep them looking snappy. Perhaps we’re just
a family kind of place, and our dogs are extensions of our children. I know I’ve been dog-shamed by my neighbors when my rescue dog, Sparky, is looking scruffy.
I’m not sure if Sparky wi
ll take to Yappy Hour. He’s not at his happiest on a leash. But I’m returning, and I’m bringing him with me. After I groom him to the nines.
CHECK IT OUT
Yappy Hour is a free event from 5 to 8 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month, May through September. The next one is Aug. 18. The Ritz-Carlton also hosts Yappy Howl‑O‑Ween and Yappy Howl‑iday. For information, go to bit.ly/RitzYappy.