ST. PETERSBURG — How far will dog owners go to make their pooches part of the family?
A long, long way. At least, judging from the crowd at the most recent Bark in the Park last month during the Tampa Bay Rays-Kansas City Royals game at Tropicana Field.
Chihuahua buddies Buttons and Tig sported one-of-kind dresses created by a designer in Alabama (think a Rays jersey with a ballet tutu at the bottom).
Owners Lynne Tonte of Wesley Chapel and Heather Cranford of St. Petersburg say the outfits cost $65 apiece. And the bill gets pretty steep with multiple canines around the house.
Cranford's six dogs can choose from more than 150 custom dresses. Tonte has more than 100 outfits for her five pets. Both women fill two closets with doggy fashion.
Cindy Erickson of St. Petersburg brought her female Italian greyhounds, Tori and Zoe, both 9, in matching yellow poodle skirts and pink dresses so they'd stand out amid the sea of Rays regalia.
She drives Zoe to Crystal River on holidays to ride in her brother's boat and regularly takes the pair to Beach Drive for gelato. "I call them our fur-children.
"And our home is their fur-ever home," she said.
Like two previous events, last month's Bark in the Park sold out all 700 tickets for humans and 500 for dogs. A ticket package for one dog and one human costs $30.
Most Major League Baseball teams and many minor league clubs put on similar promotions. Twenty teams in Florida alone offer "bring your dog'' events, said Anna Cooke, editor of the New Barker, a glossy dog-lovers magazine published in Dunedin.
The Rays hold the event at the tbt* Party Deck and the adjoining concourse on the third level behind left field. All dogs must be on nonretractable leashes. "Dog Relief Stations,'' a big square of artificial turf, a plastic fire hydrant and a waste bin, are located on balconies where smokers gather during regular games.
Of course, accidents happen when fans get overexcited at such a big puppy playdate. That's when Cheresee Rehart and her crew from pet cleanup contractor Yard Guards on Doody move in.
"Urine and beer — it happens with this many dogs all day long," Rehart said. "We clean up a lot of beer. It looks just like urine.''
Bark in the Park wasn't all fun and games. For Hope, a 3-year-old female German shepherd mixed breed, the event was therapy. Neighbors found her 2 1/2 years ago, pregnant and tied to a tree in Valrico by owners who had moved out.
Hope still isn't comfortable around men, said Cindy Davis, a veterinary technician who adopted and named Hope.
"This is her first big social outing,'' Davis said. "It's a big step. She's not growling or nervous."
Hope hung out with Davis' other dog, a pit bull named Abbey. Both sported Rays T-shirts and tiny plastic helmets with chin straps fashioned from ice cream cups.
Meanwhile, Buttons and Tig, the designer dress chihuahuas, can hang up their fancy duds, confident that more big adventures await.
"We rent limos and go on a sunset cruise or a boutique crawl," Tonte said. "It's unconditional love. She will follow me to the ends of the Earth."
Paul and Chrissie Brady of Riverview made it a weekend of celebrations: Paul's 36th birthday and the couple's 10th anniversary. Captain, their 71-pound black Labrador, was there as the couple renewed their wedding vows.
"People used to go out with friends or couples," said Cooke, the magazine editor. "Now they're going out with their dogs in tow, folks without kids or empty nesters. Their dogs have become their family.''