"Where the hell are the basset hounds? I better see some bassets soon."
Debbie Palocin muttered each time she was subjected to yet another comedian or Lions Club president. Palocin is one of the dogless dog lovers who make a big fan base for parades like this one, the annual Doo Dah Parade/BoardWaddle in Ocean City, N.J. She had traveled five hours from Hoboken to see a herd of hundreds of bassets bringing up the rear of the procession. Though honored guests like Soupy Sales or Larry Storch of "F Troop" could amuse her, they could not appease her.
Finally there was a sign. Celebrity basset Mr. Jeffries rode by on the back seat of a red convertible. (Mr. Jeffries, grandson of the most famous basset of all time, the official Hush Puppies mascot, is himself now enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records with the longest pair of dog ears: 11.5 inches.) His handler proudly flashed his immense ears and the crowd went wild.
Soon, small packs of bassets were passing by. Or, more often, not passing by but stopping to get admired and receive a pat or two. Bassets dove into crowds of delighted kids with the same instinct, enthusiasm and trust that punk singers must use to dive into mosh pits.
Some were dressed up: There were Hawaiian hounds, ballerina bassets and a dog showcasing his bulky build in a Philadelphia Eagles linebacker uniform. At its peak, hundreds of bassets were loping, lumbering and lingering down this beach town's main street and boardwalk.
The 2004 Waddle season has begun.
Pet gatherings are as old as, well, pets. Probably the first hounds to move in with the cave dwellers got together for a romp in the park the next weekend. But basset waddles, along with mob scenes of beagles, golden retrievers, mutts and other breeds, are part of the super-sizing of pet parades. Unlike dog shows, agility trails and organized hunts, these mass gatherings require no discipline or skill, just a critical mass of dogs and the people who love them. Sometimes they are fundraisers for breed rescue groups or local humane societies -- sometimes they are just for the spectacle of it all.
Hard-core fans travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to attend these shows. But you don't have to: There are several in the region to enjoy in the coming season, from a Basset Ramble in Williamsport, Md., and a Virginia wine-tasting party for golden retrievers (and their owners) in May, to a Beaglefest in Chantilly in October.
Waddles, in particular, were invented by Jo Anne Smith, an officer of Michigan Basset Rescue, who in 1993 had the epiphany of putting the bassets in a local festival, Celebrate Birmingham. It's become a yearly tradition, with this year's event drawing more than 650 dogs from 45 states; dogs often march wearing a banner of their home state.
Other breeds have their own variation on festivities. The closely related and equally affable beagles have Beaglefests around the country, including two a year in Virginia. The older beagles sit on lawn chairs, but inevitably a chase starts among the younger dogs, says Laura Charles Johnson, director of Beagle Rescue and Education and Welfare.
Bassets are not that frenetic a breed. They are much more a plop-down-in-the-street-and-refuse-to-budge kind of dog. And it's this sloth attitude that makes the basset waddle the best form of dogs en masse art.
Here owners trot out the one breed best suited, or perhaps charmingly ill-suited, to parade marching. Bassets quickly divert off the route to greet their adoring public. Or they lie down in passive resistance to the burdensome task of walking several blocks straight. And finally they need to be scooped up in their owners' toy wagons or hauled out on a flatbed that serves as a "Pooped Puppy Patrol."
The next waddle in the region is the beach-themed annual Basset Ramble, in Williamsport. (Picture more than 150 bassets in aloha wear lumbering three miles up the C&O Canal towpath in this river town just south of Hagerstown.) The Williamsport event stands alone, as does the boisterous annual Walk-and-Wag, a pledge-raising promenade and pet festival June 12 open to all breeds in Frederick. Other events leash themselves to bigger happenings, like the basset waddle that brings up the rear of the Holiday Parade in Charleston, S.C.
Even at events that are breed-specific, security is notably lax and plenty of other breeds join the march. But if you would still rather be with a basset at a basset event, Basset Rescue of Old Dominion has a rent-a-basset service. For $20 (and your driver's license) you get the companionship of a basset (usually one of the potential adoptees). You're free to enter all the contests with your new pal, says BROOD's president, Melinda Brown.
Dogs at the Tri-State Basset Hound rescue in Ocean City, N.J., in April treated the parade like a leisurely social victory lap around town before they got to the party at the end.
Here, they had other chances for glory: trick and photo contests and even a chance to snatch Mr. Jeffries' World's Longest Ears title. (A local dog, Otis Sagen of Belmar, beat Mr. Jeffries by a full inch, but sadly a German dog, Jack vomForsterWald, has since taken the crown and, unless he's surpassed, will be in the next Guinness Book.)
Waddles often have kings and queens. In the Michigan waddle, royalty rides in a horse-drawn carriage. Knowing how eagerly stage-mother dog owners seek such waddle prestige, Michigan organizers now auction off their top honors. The gambit may be shameless, but it brings in about $3,500 per dog crown. If they can't afford stature, dog lovers can at least buy what is affectionately referred to as "basset crap." Such "slobber shops" are a feature of most gatherings, where shirts, hats, basset statuary, basset stationery, basset, well, you know, crap.
BROOD has a resplendent store, both online and at its Williamsport waddle: basset fabric, zip pulls, signs that say "CAUTION You are entering Basset Hound drool zone!"
For BROOD, the ramble makes up about 25 percent of the group's annual budget. Each year it takes in 130 to 150 bassets from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Washington, southern Pennsylvania and the Outer Banks. It spends an average of $500 and a month of volunteer time preparing the dogs for adoption.
As for the bassets, they tend to cap their long waddles with long naps -- often on the drives home.
However bewildered they are by these events, they understand this much: Every dog has its day and these are theirs.