- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Valentine’s Day is a time when couples celebrate their union, buy each other jewelry, eat fancy dinners and retell stories of how they met, often through matchmaking friends.

Sometimes those matchmakers have four legs and a wet nose.

Take Augusta. It has been nine years, but Andy Szabo of Sterling, Va., clearly remembers the day he first laid eyes on her. She was energetic, fun and had brown eyes that sometimes looked blue. He knew they would make a great match.

As it turned out, Mr. Szabo was lucky in love twice that day. During his successful meeting with Augusta, a Dalmatian-pointer mix at a Fairfax County animal shelter, he spotted another beauty, this one human.

Mr. Szabo also met Sandee, who had gorgeous green eyes and was a volunteer for the Fairfax County Humane Society.

“I noticed Sandee right away,” Mr. Szabo says. “She seemed sincere, she was pretty, and I liked the fact that she volunteered for the Humane Society — a non-selfish thing to do.”

The couple’s mutual interest in and caring for animals has become an important glue in their relationship.

“To me, animal lovers are nurturing and caring people, more stable, more responsible,” Mrs. Szabo says. “They often will put their pets’ need before their own. To us — Andy and me — our pets are our babies.”

She says when she met Mr. Szabo, she was finished dating men who weren’t animal lovers.

“Quite frankly, if they weren’t an animal lover, they didn’t need to be in my life,” says Mrs. Szabo, who adds that not all pet owners are animal lovers. She saw examples of not-so-responsible owners while volunteering for the Humane Society.

The couple married in 2001. They still have 10-year-old Augusta but have added several other “kids”: cats, parakeets and Buckeye, a puppy.

Other animal lovers meet two-legged future mates in pet stores, dog parks and even online, but the common denominator is always the love of four-leggeds.

“People bond over the love for animals,” says Dan Cohen, founder of www.animalattraction.com, a dating and community Web site for animal lovers. “They know they have something in common from the very start.”

Mr. Cohen, who had been in sports marketing for years, decided after some research that starting a dating site for animal lovers made sense.

“I found out that 40 million singles in this country are pet owners,” he says. In 2003, pet owners spent about $32 billion on pet-related products. Big market, indeed. Bigger, he says, than the candy or toy industries.

Mr. Cohen tapped into some of that market with www.animalattraction.com, which he started in 2004. The site has close to 100,000 members around the country but with the greatest concentration locally. Mr. Cohen says he expects it to grow to about 250,000 by the end of the year.

Aside from dating possibilities — it allows users to post profiles from their pets’ perspectives — it also provides community information, such as plans for owner get-togethers and events.

Stephanie Alleman and Steve Dickstein, both of Frederick, Md., met through animalattraction.com and have been dating for a year.

“I’d gotten to the point where I only wanted to date people with pets,” Ms. Alleman says.

“It’s so important for me that the other person intimately knows the bond between animal and person,” she says. “Or they might start with the whole, ‘You love the dogs more than me’ thing.”

Ms. Alleman has three Tibetan spaniels.

Mr. Dickstein, who has two dogs, also felt that anyone he would date had to understand that “Jake is the love of my life” and not get jealous. So, he threw out a feeler on one of his first dates with Ms. Alleman.

“Now, the boys (meaning his dogs) sleep in the bed …,” he said. To which Ms. Alleman responded, “And your point is?”

They knew then that their hearts were big enough for everyone — two people and five dogs that the couple refers to as “kids.”

“To me, dogs are not possessions,” Mr. Dickstein says. “They’re living, breathing beings who deserve respect and love.”

Ms. Alleman says she feels the same way.

The two humans don’t live together but still worry about the five dogs getting along when they get together on weekends. It’s much like a blended family, in which children and stepchildren are as much part of the family equation as the new couple, Mr. Dickstein says.

“I still have to be very careful,” he says. “Stephanie’s Toby is just a puppy, and he gets on Jake’s nerves.”

Jake is close to 15 years old, blind and diabetic. Mr. Dickstein found him more than a dozen years ago, wandering aimlessly near the New Carrollton Metro station.

Theresa Mancuso of Brooklyn, N.Y., also knows a thing or two about rescuing dogs. Miss Mancuso, the author of “Dog People Do It Better: 200 Ways Our Dogs Teach Us to Love, Laugh, and Loosen Up,” has taken care of both rescue German shepherds and cats for many years and says animals, if we pay close attention, can teach us a thing or two about loyalty, generosity — even love.

“Many people will take on some of the dog’s characteristics — kindness and generosity — without even being aware of it,” says Miss Mancuso, who has seen many friendships and relationships start among dog owners in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where she has walked her German shepherds for more than 20 years.

And as far as love?

“Dogs can teach us to go the whole distance for those they love,” she says. “They love unconditionally.”

But not always inclusively, says Mrs. Szabo, who kept a close eye on her dogs’ behavior when she was single and dating.

“If they didn’t like the guy, that was it,” she says. “The dogs were kind of a barometer of dates.” Fortunately for Mr. Szabo, he had a favorable barometer reading.

Our dog-loving couples say they won’t be going out for fancy dinners on Valentine’s Day.

They would rather spend time at home with their best four-legged, matchmaking friends, sharing happy memories, perhaps over a glass of wine, some chocolate and a bone or two.

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