All for the love of goldens
Melissa Heinonen sits on a folding chair in a large empty room, eagerly waiting for friends to show up to the Secret Santa party she's been planning for weeks.
In about 10 minutes, the room will be bustling with activity — old friends getting reacquainted and new ones shyly introducing themselves. But for now, the room is still.
Still, that is, except for Heinonen's co-host, who is running in circles and anxiously checking the door for the arrival of their guests. This co-host, like Heinonen, has long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. But he also has whiskers, a tail and four legs.
He's none other than Heinonen's best friend Scout, a 3-year-old golden retriever who has built a huge following on social media over the past three years. Photoshoots of trips to the Oregon Coast, playing dress up, holiday themes and an iconic "free hugs" sign have thrust Scout into stardom.
With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram under the moniker @Scoutgoldenretriever, Scout can't go far without fans stopping and asking to take a picture or get a hug. But that doesn't mean he's let fame go to his head.
"He's a dog. He doesn't think about fame, just his next meal," Heinonen says. "He enjoys all the perks of free hugs."
At the beginning of 2016, after several months of growing Scout's social media following and engaging with other golden retriever owners online, Heinonen organized a meet-up for local goldens. She met with three other owners and their dogs at the 1,000-acre dog park at the Sandy River Delta in Troutdale.
On Sunday, the group hosted its 24th PDX Goldens meet-up at LexiDog Boutique & Social Club in downtown Lake Oswego. Apprpriately enough, it was organized as a Secret Santa gift exchange. And at around 1:30 p.m., a few of Scout and Melissa's guests began to arrive.
Among the first through the door: Coco and her human, Caprice Piacentini of Portland, who have been part of the PDX Goldens group since nearly the beginning. A year and a half later, the monthly meet-ups have become a great way for Coco to interact with other fun-loving, silly and mild-mannered goldens.
"It's like a kindergarten class," says Piacentini, a former teacher. "Everyone is so excited and so sweet."
Coco is just 2 years old, so she's grown up with the group. Piacentini says she appreciates having a place to socialize Coco and likes the fact that a percentage of the membership fees that help pay for facilities also go toward good causes like the Golden Bond Rescue and Oregon Dog Rescue.
She says she also appreciates that whenever she has a question about Coco's health or training, she has a wealth of knowledge at her disposal.
"There is a lot of knowledge about dogs within this group," Piacentini says.
Sunday's meet-up was the first for Marlin, a 5-month-old golden retriever pup. As he pranced around the room, you could almost see the twinkle in each owner's eyes as they saw a younger version of their own dog in Marlin's youthful exuberance.
"Owning a golden means (we're) unconditionally loved and (we'll) always have a partner by our side," Heinonen says. "A simple social network has brought so many gifts into my life. I've met a diverse group of people brought together over a shared love of goldens."
When planning meet-ups, Heinonen tries to highlight locations across the Portland metro area that are dog-friendly. Indoor dog parks, off-leash dog parks, dog aquatic indoor pools — just about anywhere a pack of 30 goldens or more can romp around and play will do.
One of Heinonen's favorite locations to host meet-ups isn't even in Portland. It's Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast.
"Cannon Beach has always been a favorite destination for our family. A special place where our dogs have the freedom to be dogs, get wet, roll in the sand and run free," Heinonen says. "Before Scout came along, we shared many wonderful memories with our previous goldens, Cooper and Chloe. This is also where we said our last goodbyes to them. Some places just fill our hearts and nurture our souls. For me, that's Cannon Beach."
One of Heinonen's other favorite things to do with the group is feature local companies who make products for dogs. For example, a Halloween birthday party for Scout in 2016 featured birthday cakes from Pup Pawtissiere in Portland.
Another meet-up was used to bring in several different local companies for owners to learn about their products, such as Gingerbeds dog beds, Greyhound Collections collars, Lightening Soft Paws paw butter and Unleash the Hounds bandanas and leashes.
"(I'm thankful for) the new friendships, philanthropy opportunities and connections that not only I have made personally, but the other connections that may have not developed if not through these meet-ups," Heinonen says. "I love the fact we don't think we are crazy dog people. We know we are the blessed ones that understand the love of a golden."
For more information on PDX Goldens, look for @PDXGoldens on Instagram or visit http://www.instagram.com/pdxgoldens.