Pups and their people find a warm welcome in dog-friendly Portland.
Stroll along any Portland street on any given day and it won’t be long before you encounter someone accompanied by at least one dog. Plenty of Old Port shops welcome well-behaved pups, offering treats from a jar on the counter and setting bowls of water outside on hot days. Dogs lounge at their owners’ feet on restaurant patios and feel the wind in their fur riding Casco Bay Lines ferries out to the islands. “There’s dog-friendly and then there’s dog-loving,” says Deb Collins, the “Chief Happy Officer” of the dog-centric business HappyME. “That’s the difference with Portland; people genuinely love dogs here.”
In 1998 Deb and her husband Mike came to the United States from Deb’s native New Zealand with their first dog, Kaye, a Labrador- golden retriever mix. They lived in various places around the country before deciding to settle in the Portland area in 2005. Mike grew up in New Hampshire, and as outdoorsy types, they both wanted to be close to ski areas and the ocean. They rented a house on the water in Cape Elizabeth, where they took Kaye for walks in Fort Williams Park and cross-country skied with her through Robinson Woods. “We hadn’t put our roots down, but as we wandered around the Old Port we loved the fact that you could take your dog into most of the shops,” says Deb. “They didn’t just say you could; they invited you in and served treats supplied by the local dog shop, Fetch (now The Fish and Bone)—it was beyond.”
Kaye influenced both Deb’s job search and the couple’s eventual purchase of a home—a colonial with a big backyard in a North Deering neighborhood close to trails along the Presumpscot River. “One of the biggest clinchers for me was when they told me they had bring-your-dog-to-work Friday,” Deb says of her decision to work with the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Visit Portland) as membership director. When Kaye eventually passed away at 15, “the whole membership community knew because she was kind of a celebrity,” says Deb. About 18 months later they acquired Ted, a.k.a. Teddy the Bear, an energetic yellow lab she describes as “the Ferrari of puppies.” The training period was challenging, to say the least, recalls Mike. “He never wanted to stop. All night long he’d be bringing you things to throw to him.”
At the same time, Visit Portland was beginning to get more requests from dog owners eager to learn about dog-friendly options in the city. Deb wrote a column for the organization’s visitor’s guide, having discovered many of the prime spots with Kaye. “She would come into the Old Port with us; we’d walk around and go to the Portland Lobster Company,” says Deb. “And she loved Mackworth Island; we wouldn’t have done half the hiking we’ve done if we didn’t have a dog,” Mike chimes in, adding, “Probably the only reason I even swim in Maine’s ocean is because my dog goes in.”
In 2011, Deb launched HappyME, an online retailer of Maine-made collars, leashes, and other gear with whimsical designs featuring a character called Hap and his pup Wag enjoying various outdoor activities. Deb also writes a blog, The Maine Wag, which offers guides to dog-friendly beaches, places to stay, and seasonal events, along with the occasional recipe for homemade dog treats. “I had worked in the dog industry in New Zealand, where I was the brand manager for Best Friend Pet Foods, a division of Heinz,” she says. “Having been with Visit Portland, HappyME merges my passions for dogs and for Maine.”
Several years ago, Deb’s Visit Portland connections put her in touch with Carolyn Ferraro, the restaurant manager at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa, who had heard about an event happening elsewhere called Martinis for Mutts. “I already had a relationship with the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland (ARLGP), so I connected them with the Regency and it went from there,” says Deb. “The idea was simply to have a fun happy hour where we raised money for the League and you could bring your dogs.” On August 23, the fifth-annual Martinis for Mutts, co-sponsored by the Regency and HappyME, drew another sell-out crowd to the hotel’s leafy Garden Cafe and cobblestone courtyard, complete with a green carpet—a tongue-in-cheek nod to the event’s VIPs. Humans sipped signature martinis—there’s a different recipe each year— and bid on raffle prizes, while their canine companions of all sizes and breeds posed for photos and nibbled martini-shaped dog cookies from Gourmutt Beastro and Barkery, which has donated them since the beginning. Proceeds benefit the ARLGP, which opened a new, state- of-the-art facility in Westbrook in December 2016, and the event has also helped to increase the number of dog-friendly hotel rooms in the city. Two years ago, the Regency’s general manager, Dave Tamulevich, announced during the festivities that the hotel would welcome four-legged guests to stay in the hotel.
“The Greater Portland community supports animals in general,” says Patsy Murphy, executive director of the ARLGP. “In 2017 dogs in particular are valued and cherished; they really are family members.” Incorporated in 1911 by Governor Percival Baxter, the ARLGP serves 14 communities over 750 square miles and has a 99-percent release rate for the animals it shelters until they are adopted. It sponsors 22 off-site adoption locations, including Planet Dog, The Fish and Bone, and Allagash Brewing Company, and puts on annual events, including the popular Ales for Tails, scheduled for September 30 at Thompson’s Point. “There are 1,500 people with their dogs, and the dogs all get along,” says Murphy. “I think that speaks volumes, and that we could all learn something from the animals.”
The ARLGP also works with Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, which has welcomed dogs for about 25 years, on a special dog-fostering program. The inn hosts one dog from the shelter at a time, caring for the animal until it is adopted. “Because we were so pet friendly it was an easy transition to start fostering dogs, says the inn’s public relations and Green Program manager Rauni Kew. “We don’t hire people who don’t like dogs, and our guests love dogs.” In just two years, 95 dogs have been adopted from the inn. “Blind dogs, 14-year-old dogs, dogs with no teeth—some are here three weeks and some 48 hours,” says Kew. “The Animal Refuge League is a terrific partner. They are good about flagging dogs that aren’t going to be too noisy—they have made this very possible for us.”
Inn by the Sea goes considerably further than most hotels in welcoming its canine guests, providing blankets from L.L.Bean, organic dog treats at turn-down, and offering doggie massage, dog-walking, and dog-sitting services. Dog owners can order for their pets from a menu that includes Meat Roaff, Doggie Gumbo, and K-9 ice cream made with soy milk. Pups may eat with their owners on the deck overlooking Crescent Beach or in the fireplace lounge, and are allowed in the lobby and on the hotel grounds. “Right after Columbus Day, before we shut it down for the winter, the pool is dogs-only for a couple of weeks,” says Kew, who also cites HappyME as a resource for guests. “We refer to her blog all the time and send guests there,” she says. The inn is a beloved spot for the Collinses to take Ted, especially in the off-season. “One of my favorite things to do in fall is to walk along Crescent Beach and then go up to the inn, sit by the fire pit, and order a Bloody Mary or a martini,” says Deb, adding that the beach walk helps tire their active dog out so she and Mike can relax.
Having worked hard to train Ted, Deb, who is also the trade marketing manager for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, and Mike, a senior marketing strategist with Ethos Marketing, can take him almost anywhere— for a lake paddle in their canoe, where he sits regally in the middle, wearing his red “life guard” jacket, and to Sunday River, where they spend nearly every weekend of ski season. They stay in a dog-friendly place they would prefer to keep a secret, but say that the Bethel Inn is a good option for skiers with dogs in tow. “In the mornings we take a walk to Cafe Di Cocoa for our coffee; you can go in with your dog and Ted loves that routine. When we hit the slopes, Ted hangs with the mountain dogs at Barker Brook daycare.” On Halloween, he greets trick- or-treaters at their door, sporting his Superdog costume, a hand-me-down from Kaye, and he is always a willing subject for Deb’s blog photos, posing on beaches and near lighthouses. “We love that our community just gets that dogs are part of the family,” she says. “Ted’s our social butterfly. Many folks around here know us as Ted’s mom and dad, and that’s fine with us.”