When Jane McBride walks down the aisle dressed in white this September, a furry ring bearer named Mufasa will be standing at the altar next to the groom.
McBride, an assistant attorney general in Springfield, Ill., couldn't imagine her big day without the 85-pound Akita-shepherd mix bearing witness, she said. Her only worry is that the dog might tear her gown when the minister instructs the groom to kiss the bride.
"Anytime John and I embrace, Mufasa thinks he should jump in there with us," McBride said. "He thinks it's a big pack hug and he gets all involved."
People without pets -- and even some who own them -- may find it strange that others would choreograph pets into a wedding ceremony. But dogs participating in human nuptials are on the rise, if sales of miniature sequined wedding gowns, frilly bridesmaid dresses and tiny black tuxedos are any indication.
The attire has been flying off the shelves at pet boutiques this wedding season, say shop owners, as the idea of adding a pet to the wedding party becomes more socially acceptable.
"Couples don't have children but they do have a dog, so it only makes sense that they would stand up in their wedding," said Sheila Spitza, co-owner of Wet Nose Pet Spa in Geneva, Ill.
Jennifer Schoonmaker, owner of Cody and Carl's Blvd., a pet boutique in Barrington, Ill., said she had sold two white gowns (with veil) since she put a canine nuptial display in the window of her upscale store in May.
Marion Thompson, owner of Streeterville Pet Spa & Boutique in Chicago, has sold six or eight tiny satin beaded dresses for dogs this year. Ring-bearer tuxes and flower dog dresses are most popular, she said. Sometimes owners will dress a pet in a wedding gown to mirror the bride.
"They want the dog to feel it is part of the wedding," said Thompson, who has a seamstress on hand to alter dresses to fit any size dog.
John Stewart, owner of Alexis Creations in San Antonio, said he had watched sales of canine wedding apparel soar in the three years he had been in business making designer dog clothing.
"When we first started, we would get maybe one or two inquiries a year for formal wear for weddings," Stewart said. "Now we get that many a week."
Wedding planners, meanwhile, have added to their to-do lists such tasks as buying doggie biscuits and finding wedding venues that accept pets, said Chay Turner, owner of the Wedding Runners in suburban Matteson.
Turner said most dogs were led on leashes down the aisle. But she once planted a biscuit at the front of an aisle and then whispered, "OK, you're on," to cue a Yorkshire terrier to sprint toward the bride.
Including the pooch in the ceremony is typically the bride's idea, Turner said. At the Yorkshire terrier wedding, held in Maui, the groom only nodded.
"He was saying, 'Whatever you want, babe. I'm just going to be here that day,' " Turner said.
Courtney Caveney, a bride from Flossmoor, Ill., dressed her corgi-pit bull in a special rose-colored bow with a pouch for the rings and had the animal walk the aisle at her wedding, held last year at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
"She just trotted right down," Caveney said of the 11-inch-tall dog.
Judy Alden, a wedding planner with Ju Wil Wedding Consulting in Hoffman Estates, Ill., said she had twice worked dogs into the wedding ceremony, both held in private homes.
She's unfazed by the proliferation and cost of elaborate pet wedding attire that can run anywhere from $30 to more than $100, depending on the embellishments and type of fabric.
"Everybody is trying to jump on the wedding industry bandwagon," Alden said.
Of all the doggie wedding apparel, the bridesmaid gowns and ring-bearer tuxes sell best, Spitza said. She has seen sales of those items increase every year as more and more couples invite pets big and small to watch them tie the knot.
Once in a while, the attire isn't for human nuptials, she said. A few weeks ago, a couple browsed gowns and tuxes for an upcoming wedding between two pets for which they had rented a reception hall and sent out formal invitations.
"Who's to say what's right or wrong," Spitza said. "Everyone has their own level of eccentricity."
Schoonmaker didn't rent a separate hall for her own dog's knot-tying ceremony, held to promote her new boutique. Instead, the wedding and reception -- an elaborate affair with champagne, bouquets of white marigolds, balloons and presents -- were held at the pet spa in a Barrington mini-mall.
But Schoonmaker, a designer by trade, and co-worker Jeff McDaniel did send printed invitations to about 500 clients whose pets have visited the spa. They were written in cursive on colored paper with little paw prints, and requested "the honor of your presence at the marriage of their canine children."
"It's all in fun," Schoonmaker said.
Although boutiques and wedding planners have adjusted to the demand for pets in weddings, many venues lag behind the times. Most churches and hotels -- even many parks and arboretums -- bar animals or impose numerous restrictions, wedding planners said.
To avoid the hassle, McBride chose to hold her September wedding at Salvatore's Restaurant in Lincoln Park, Ill. About 50 guests have been invited to the English garden-themed celebration.
Mufasa, named after a character in "The Lion King," will wear a multicolored bow tie that can hold the rings. Party favors will include biscuits or some other animal-friendly treats that both humans and dogs can eat, McBride said.
She would never consider leaving Mufasa at home on her wedding day.
"Mufasa would just expect to be there," McBride said. "He's our boy. We couldn't quite imagine doing this without him."