A photo caption in yesterday's Metro section misidentified the two golden retrievers posing with Doggy Santa. Their names are Monte and Nicole. (Published 12/07/1999)

There was always the happy chance that something weird would happen on "Photos With Santa" day. A few years ago, a woman showed up with two huge boa constrictors and coaxed a nervous volunteer Santa into posing with one of them. She draped the other around her own shoulders and welcomed her cat into the picture. Just as the photographer began clicking, the boas started constricting.

The snakes have not returned since, but most of the other participants at last week's Santa photo op at the Olde Towne School for Dogs were longtimers. A traditional charity event for many of the area's well-heeled, Friday's "Photos With Santa" reunited Missy and Alley, two of the school's illustrious graduates from the Class of 1995. Missy and Alley had dressed down for the occasion. In contrast, many of their old schoolmates were garishly decked out--sashaying like poodles in pricey red holiday bows, ornate Christmas caps and silver chains that jingled merry tunes of affluence and indulgence.

But why not live it up? The Dow was up 298 points by 11 a.m. on this day, the economy sizzling. It was a good time to be a strutting German shepherd like Missy, or a regal Rottweiler like Alley--or any other dog belonging to the financially secure.

So there they patiently stood as noon passed, grinning dopily and, in a show of lessons well-learned, urinating nowhere on the cobble streets outside the Olde Towne School, which is the institution of choice for the canines of the upper crust.

The place offers a nice pedigree. Olde Towne schooled Pamela Harriman's pooches and frequently trains the four-legged family members of White House aides. As a status symbol, the place is a cross between Andover and Camp Lejeune. There's even a school bus for those dogs that can't bum a ride to class.

At Olde Towne, dogs receive rigorous obedience training or, as Missy's owner, Sarita Schotta, puts it, "citizenship refinement for the urban dog." Missy and Alley were in the same class, Schotta said, "and that explains why they're close. . . . They deserve Santa."

In a back room, the day's elves were applying the finishing touches to the day's Santa, 40-year-old Christine Ezell, who moved to the United States from Germany eight years ago and works part time as an animal care technician at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, the shelter receiving the proceeds from Olde Towne's Santa shoot.

By the time she emerged in her Santa wig and beard, Ezell so looked and sounded the part that a few spectators mistook her for a man. She is just a whisker under 6 feet, and when she lowered her German-accented voice down to a baritone--"Ho, ho, ho! Santa is here!"--the effect was the desired one, with humans and golden retrievers alike looking up reverentially.

Santa took her seat next to a little Christmas tree and nodded. Missy and Alley approached with teeny, leery steps. "You worry a little," Ezell had said the day before, "because you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes they have a bad smell. So you hope they've been bathed and that they're not too stressed."

Missy hesitated. Skittish, perhaps?

A veteran Santa, Ezell specializes at photo shoots in soothing the skittish--from poodles to ferrets--but every once in a while she encounters a pet beyond help. A little Yorkshire terrier became overwrought in her lap once. "It was totally terrified," Ezell recalled. "It was shivering and trying to bite." She groaned. "And then it EMPTIED ITS ANAL GLANDS ALL OVER ME."

But she's never considered hanging up her Santa suit. "Most of the pets are really well-behaved. You can see their owners want to make them happy. . . . And people here can afford to do what it takes."

And what might that be?

A few patrons chatted idly about what holiday gifts they had in mind for their pets--everything from tasty bones to colorful sweaters. Prosperous times in Alexandria and elsewhere mean that more owners can afford not only Doggy Santa photos but also the lavish offerings of pet catalogues, like the latest Neiman Marcus holiday catalogue: "NM Pet."

There, on Page 6, is the deluxe Neiman Marcus four-poster dog bed, available for $950. Eighty-eight dollars will get a pooch a pair of black velvet slippers--and, should a cynic point out that this still leaves two paws vulnerable to the elements, you can always buy the canine in your life Neiman Marcus "Paw Balm" for $15. Or maybe a 3.4-ounce bottle of Neiman Marcus dog cologne, at $54.

Lenin must be smiling somewhere.

"Photos With Santa" was, relatively speaking, at the low end of doggy consumerism--just $24.95 for a packet of photos, with the profits headed for charity. "I love helping the shelter, and I love seeing Missy with her friend," said Schotta, a systems consultant. "We all love our dogs. They're family."

She bent, eyes closed, and hugged Missy, who had last been to Old Towne with Alley for the canine equivalent of Girls' Day Out--each dog got a pedicure, bath and hot oil treatment for $44, like Alicia Silverstone on the loose in Beverly Hills. "You want her to look good just like yourself," Schotta said, sighing. "Ahhh, do you see her over there?"

Missy had taken her position next to Santa's right knee, Alley at the left knee. The photographer crouched. A third dog jumped on Doggy Santa's lap. The trio were as poised as Cindy Crawford.


"Very, very good," pronounced Doggy Santa.

A tail-wagging Missy shuffled off the set toward Schotta, who cooed, "Oh, I can't wait to see your picture."

Pruned poodles and debonair Dalmatians quickly moved to take Missy's and Alley's places. Doggy Santa is a volume business.

CAPTION: Golden retrievers Phebe and Tucker pose with Doggy Santa (or at least Santa's boots) at the Olde Towne School for Dogs. The annual fund-raiser at the school benefits the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria.