Working Dogs of Cape May

Text by Lauren Suit Photographs by Patti Goyette / June 2015

This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue. Some information may have changed since publication.

They’re the hardest-working canines in town. You’ll see them in your favorite shops, hotels, and inns. They’re four-legged Cape May ambassadors, the ones guests and customers love to visit with, sometimes even if they’re not buying anything or staying there. Here are your friendly neighborhood dogs, and the places you can find them.

Mr. Freckles – Wanderlust

Mr. Freckles is an eight-year-old spaniel/Jack Russell who loves inspecting the plush chairs, helping customers check out, and napping in the sun by the front door at Wanderlust. He belongs to shop owners Brandi and Bob White, and has a special relationship with the sun and warm weather, having been born on the beaches of St. Croix, where the Whites have a winter home. The runt of the litter, Mr. Freckles was abandoned soon after birth.

“Abandoned puppies are so common that the people on the island have a special term for them. They call them ‘pot cakes,’” Brandi noted. “They’re picked up and taken to the local shelters where many of them are euthanized.”

The Whites hadn’t planned on getting a dog when daughter Avery first saw the little ball of white fluff.

“He was just so cute, even with the mange he had on his head,” Brandi said. “One look and we knew he had to become a part of the family.”

The family couldn’t leave Mr. Freckles behind when they were ready to head back to Cape May, so they had him altered so he could leave the country, as local law requires. On the flight, Mr. Freckles spiked a high fever, and his condition deteriorated upon arrival.

“I couldn’t help but think that we’d rescued this poor dog, just to have him die,” White said.

Cape May Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Robert Moffat administered an antibiotic to bring his fever down, but when Mr. Freckles started to feel better, he began acting out.

“He was wild,” White said. “It was like living with a crazed beast. I think it was because of his lack of socialization. He went from being born, to being abandoned, to a shelter, to a world away.” White gave Mr. Freckles a socialization boot camp, and, after about six months of hard work and lots of bacon, his calmer, sweeter personality emerged.

Guinness and Jameson – Billmae Cottages

Guinness and Jameson, Rhodesian Ridgeback/Siberian Husky brother and sister, play concierge at the Billmae, along with owners Bob and Linda Steenrod.

Dogs have always been a part of the Steenrod family, so when Bob wanted to transform the aging structure next door into guest cottages, Linda said they had to include dogs.

Linda joked that when she first started dating Bob, she had to ask if he was a dog person. “Then I warned him that my dogs were in my life first and if someone has to go, it wouldn’t be them,” she laughed.

“Dogs are like family to us, and we understand that people don’t want to leave their furry family members behind when they go on vacation,” said Linda. “So we knew we had to make our business dog friendly.”

The Steenrods opened the Billmae Cottages in July 2001. Dogs of any size and breed are welcomed, and the Steenrods have hosted couples with one dog to a dog sitter caring for 13. They pride themselves on everyone having an enjoyable stay, including a “yappy hour” where human and canine guests mix and mingle.

Guinness and Jameson were born shortly after their mother was rescued as a stray. A friend adopted the mother, and contacted the couple, asking if they’d be interested in taking a puppy. Two four-week-olds were still available, so the Steenrods took both.

They’re named for an Irish vacation that ended the week the Steenrods brought the pups home. They started training them separately, but that didn’t last long.

“If you were in a half-mile of the house you would’ve thought we were murdering someone,” Linda said. “They would just howl when they were separated.”

They have a close bond but very different personalities. Guinness, explained Linda, is laid back. “When he isn’t napping, he likes to play with other dogs,” she said. “And he’ll whine if he can’t get his way.”

Jameson, on the other hand, is full of energy. “She loves to chew and spends a lot of time searching for squirrels and rabbits during walks,” Linda noted.

“My dogs keep me sane,” said Linda. “They’re wonderful stress relievers. With one look, they remind you of what’s important.”

Sammy – The Mason Cottage

Sammy is a 10-year-old Australian Cattle Dog/Pit Bull mix who still enjoys taking the stuffing out of toys and dozing on Goyette’s couch when he isn’t busy charming his fans.

Goyette and Sammy have come a long way from where they started their adventures together—Pittsburgh, to be exact.

“Sammy was everything that I wasn’t looking for in a dog,” she said about rescuing him. “I was actually looking at the dog next to him.” The one-year-old had a sign on his pen that he was shy, but within moments of meeting Goyette, he acted like he’d known her all his life. “I sat down on a beanbag chair, and he walked up to me and sat on my lap,” she said. “Everyone at the shelter had never seen him do that.”

Goyette knew she had to bring him home. “I was thinking about names on the way home and we passed a deli called Sammy’s,” she said. “It just seemed to fit him.”

After a couch met an unfortunate end, Sammy and Goyette enrolled themselves in puppy boot camp. “I was a single girl living alone in a city and I wanted Sammy to be a watchdog,” she said. “I wanted him to bark and be protective, but I also knew that I had to be in total control of him. I had to be the alpha dog.”

When Goyette took the job at the Mason Cottage in March 2009, bringing Sammy along took some negotiation, and another round of boot camp to unlearn his watchdog ways. “It took one weekend,” Goyette said. “And then he learned not to bark as guests came and not to go past the office door. It was a relief, because we were a package deal. I wasn’t going to take the job if he couldn’t come along.” Now the owners are now just as head over heels for him as his fans.

“We get notes from guests we’ve never met that mention they can’t wait to see Sammy,” Goyette said. “Other people want me to send pictures of him, and some guests even send him Christmas presents.” Even though he’s adapted to a life full of human interaction, he enjoys time to himself. “He’s quirky like that,” Goyette laughed.

Sammy walks himself by carrying the end of his own leash and prefers the peaceful off-season to stroll through town or along the beach. He keeps his toys in a basket by his favorite couch, where he sleeps underneath a painting of a dog that shares a resemblance. And while he’s comfortable in Goyette’s apartment, he doesn’t go into the kitchen, not even for his favorite foods, watermelons or carrots.

Sammy is getting up in years, but he joins Patti during yoga practice and wrestles with Goyette’s boyfriend, Will Frame.

“Sammy’s the greatest example of forgiveness and unconditional love,” Goyette said. “And he’s taught me the importance of naps.”

Joy – Victorian Motel

John and Suzanne Cooke, who manage the Victorian, have a special place in their hearts for Golden Retrievers. Ellie was the first to oversee business at the motel, enjoying her job for over 12 years before she passed. The Cookes knew their home and the motel wasn’t the same without a dog.

After some research, they found a breeder, visited a new litter, and it was love at first sight for both the Cookes and Joy.

Suzanne decided on her name, because what else would you call a dog who’s just so joyful and expressive and made everyone around her so happy?

Joy was enrolled in puppy kindergarten at Cape May Obedience Club. “Goldens are great dogs, but when they’re puppies it can really test your patience,” said John. “Let’s just say that there were some tear-filled nights.”

The couple lives on the motel property, so it was especially important that Joy understand boundaries, respond to commands, and learn how to interact with guests. Joy quickly started showing off her obedience class smarts. She now knows she can’t go beyond the gate in the motel’s office and how to react calmly to guests. However, she can’t hide her excitement for two of her favorite long-time guests, both named Jim.

Jim Cressen frequently vacations in Cape May, and when he stays at the motel, Joy is there when he checks in. “All I have to say is ‘Uncle Jim is here’ and Joy’s at my side,” said John.

For Jim Crawley, the Cookes let Joy break the rules by visiting his room and sitting with him in his wheelchair.

Joy is also fond of children and always gives them a special greeting.

“She loves kids and knows exactly how to respond to them,” said John.

When Joy takes walks around town, people want to stop and meet her. “They could care less about whoever is walking her,” he said. “It’s all about Joy.”

Sometimes people slow their cars to yell out a greeting or hand out treats while she’s out walking. Her popularity has inspired John’s writing and photography, and Joy’s been the subject of a few of his blogs and star of her own Facebook page.

When Joy isn’t at the front desk, she enjoys walks along Poverty Beach in the mornings and exploring Higbee Beach in late afternoon. “She loves her adoring public, but it’s nice to escape the crowds and let her run and just enjoy being a dog,” said John.

Weener and Chewey – Cape May Carriage Company

Weener, a Chihuahua/Cairn Terrier, and Chewey, a Chihuahua/Beagle, are often perched on a carriage driver’s seat, greeting visitors and occasionally showing their protective side.

Chantel Semanchik, owner of Cape May Carriage Company, didn’t think she’d ever own little dogs. “Weener was an accident,” she laughed. Five years ago, she visited friends in Arizona who owned an unneutered Chihuahua. During Semanchik’s stay, the dog was accidentally let out with a male dog. Nature took its course, and, when a litter of puppies arrived, Semanchik’s friends suggested she take one home.

“There was a runt that the mother was starting to alienate and neglect,” she said. “They were only four weeks old. I really didn’t want to take on such a young dog, and I certainly didn’t want to make the trip back to New Jersey with a puppy.”

Nevertheless, that runt went home with Semanchik.

“She was about the size of a hamster and I honestly didn’t know if she’d be able to survive a long road trip. I tried to stay detached, but when you’re stuck on a cross-country road trip with a puppy that needs constant care, it’s impossible not to bond,” said Semanchik. “When I’d stop at a motel, I’d pull out the nightstand drawer as a makeshift bed for her. She ate with me, slept with me and went everywhere with me.”

By the time they returned home, Weener and Semanchik were inseparable.

“I was doing carriage rides in New York City then, but Weener was so young I wanted to have her with me. So, I started bringing her to work,” Semanchik said. “She started her carriage dog career riding in my shirt pocket.”

Now, Weener navigates her way to the driver’s seat, where she sits proudly. Semanchik said that couples who rent carriages for weddings sometimes request that Weener join them. “She has a tuxedo just for those special occasions,” Semanchik said.

Chewey joined Semanchik’s family about a year ago, part of a litter that was dumped at the shelter. Semanchik said the puppies were so young that the rescue group caring for them didn’t know if they were Chihuahua/Jack Russell Terriers or Chihuahua/Beagles.

“We thought she was part Jack Russell but as she grew, she acted and looked more like a Beagle,” Semanchik said. “She got her name because she chews everything.”

The pair loves to work. “They know the way to work and about a block away, they’ll start flipping out in the truck,” she said. “They’ve got their own special beds there, and toys and treats, but what they really love is showing off.”

Semanchik said both dogs like the horses, and are closely monitored when interacting with them, but Weener is more fearless, while Chewey gives them more space.

“I’m so lucky to be able to work with my dogs. It’s humbling because not many people get that chance,” noted Semanchik. “My typical day starts at 9am and can go until midnight. It would be terrible to be away from them that long. Plus, I think it helps with keeping a good attitude. Whenever we’re stressed, they’re there to lift our spirits, and customers tend to be in a better mood around them. Who could be upset when you have these two showing off?”

Mariah, left, and Millie

Mariah – Washington Street Mall

Mariah is a three-year-old black Labrador Retriever owned by Kathy Burns, and she’s become a mall ambassador. Burns works at Fit & Chics and the Stockton Inn, but spends her free time with Mariah.

“She goes everywhere with me. More people know her than me,” Burns said. “And everywhere she goes, people seem to fall in love with her. She’s really an exceptional dog.”

Burns bred Labradors with a partner for years, and Mariah was from the last litter she bred. All the puppies were to be placed, but Burns had a special bond with Mariah. “She had such a wonderful personality, and even as a puppy she was the picture-perfect version of a Labrador, with a beautiful coat, large eyes and a kind face.”

Still, Burns thought it might be better if Mariah was placed elsewhere, since she’d be moving to an apartment in Cape May.

“Even after I’d made what I thought would be my final decision about not bringing her home, I’d still call my partner and ask about her,” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

Meanwhile, Mariah was growing from a fun-loving puppy to a mature, laid-back adult dog. She took to obedience training so well that she started training as a therapy dog. The only thing she didn’t have was a permanent home.

Burns finally decided that her life wasn’t complete without Mariah, and asked her landlord’s permission to bring her home. “When she came to live with me that was the second best decision I ever made. The best one was moving to Cape May,” Burns said.

Mariah’s popularity runs the gamut from seniors in Victorian Towers to strangers on vacation. “She’s even been in people’s Christmas cards photos,” Burns said. “There are people who’ve stopped me during the holidays while we’re walking and asked if they could pose with Mariah. So somewhere out there, she’s on a Christmas card.”

Burns said that Mariah’s a personable but calm canine. “She has a good sense about who needs some time with her,” she said. “And I think that’s especially true for people who’ve had a Lab. They just want to pet her.”

Tug – Galvanic

If one of Ryan Platzer’s employees were to fall asleep or take frequent ice cream breaks, it wouldn’t go over well. However, he lets it slide when it comes to Tug, the four-year-old Chocolate Labrador who accompanies him to Galvanic, his men’s clothing shop on the Washington Street Mall.

Ryan and his fiancée, Samantha, had been dating when they decided to get a dog, one that would fit their active lifestyle. They looked into various shelters, rescue groups, and breeders until they found Tug. The pup was born in Detroit and flown to Philadelphia, where the couple picked him up.

“His plane was delayed and we were waiting around with other people who were picking up dogs. When he arrived and they took them out of the crate, everyone commented on how big he was,” said Platzer. “The guy managing the dog pick-up said he’d seen a lot of puppies, but never one as big as Tug.”

Tug continued to grow until he more resembled a brown bear than a Labrador. He’s now 120 pounds and tall, strong, and full of energy. But Tug’s the kind of dog who fits well into the couple’s busy schedule, including running the shop.

“He loves meeting new people and making a connection with them. Customers stop in just to say hi to him,” Platzer said.

“A lot of people relate to him because he’s a Lab and they had or knew a Lab once,” he added. “And some customers are on vacation, had to leave their dog behind and just like spending time with a loveable guy like Tug.”

Tug has calmed down a little, but Platzer said he still gets over excited and that gets him into trouble. His enthusiasm for human interaction is only trumped by his love for snacks, especially ice cream. Despite his size, he’s been able to sneak out to the ice cream shop next door, where he likes to sit with customers and beg for a taste of their treats.

“The first time he did it, we were freaking out looking for him. No one saw him leave and we were panicked thinking of where he’d gone,” Platzer said. “Then someone came in and said a giant brown dog was eating ice cream next door. We ran over and he was sharing a cone with a little girl.”

But some days even the promise of meeting new people and sneaking an ice cream cone isn’t enough to motivate Tug.

“He loves to get his beauty rest and some days he’d love to sleep in and not have to work,” said Platzer. “Just like most people, he needs a day off.”

Ziggy Sunset Liquors

When Katy O’Hara goes to work at her family’s Sunset Boulevard store, her black Lab mix, Ziggy, is at her side. O’Hara adopted Ziggy six years ago while a college sophomore in Colorado.

“I lived in a town that was very dog oriented, and it was normal for people to take their dogs everywhere,” she said.

O’Hara started looking at local shelters before connecting with a 13-week-old puppy and adopting her. Inspired by her love of David Bowie, O’Hara named the pup Ziggy Stardust. The pair became inseparable.

“I guess I was just lucky to have gotten such a relaxed dog,” O’Hara said. “She didn’t need special training. She’s always been well behaved and content to go where I go.”

After college, Ziggy and O’Hara traded the Colorado mountains for Cape May beaches, and Ziggy’s laid-back demeanor fit right in with the Sunset Liquors staff.

“I call her the designated greeter,” O’Hara said. “She welcomes everyone to the store and gets excited when our regular customers come in.”

Customers often bring their own dogs in, and some have bonded with Ziggy, including Tug from Galvanic, and a Dachshund named Martin.

“We’re pet friendly at Sunset Liquors,” O’Hara said. “We have dog treats at the counter, and are always willing to accommodate customers with well-behaved pets.”

Because of the long hours O’Hara works, she’s thankful she’s able to bring Ziggy into the store. “Otherwise I’d never see her and I don’t want her sitting home alone for hours,” she said. “She’s much happier making friends at the store or sneaking outside to nap in the sun.”

When the duo isn’t working, they go to Higbee Beach, and Ziggy also loves running alongside O’Hara, pulling her along on her skateboard.

During the off-season, the pair takes road trips to Colorado, where Ziggy plays while O’Hara snowboards.

Ziggy is teaching O’Hara’s sister’s 13-week-old puppy, Maizey, how to be a well-behaved shop dog, so the tradition of having a Sunset Liquors canine greeter will continue.