story by Ginna Parsons // Photography by Lindsay Pace
When Kathey Garrett’s daughter and son-in-law, Mary Sydney and Michael Reist, were planning their wedding, they knew they wanted their dog, Archie, to be part of their big day in every way.
What they didn’t count on was rain.
“At the event, Archie went from groomsmen, to fathers to mothers – he was a wet mess,” Garrett said. “The groom’s father almost missed the mother-son dance at the reception because he was taking Archie away from the crowd.”
That’s when Garrett realized they really could have used someone to help guide and take care of the beloved pet during the May 2019 celebration.
“That’s where the concept started,” she said. “I started doing some research. There were companies out there that took care of pets during weddings, but none in Mississippi.”
Garrett had fostered pets before in her home, so getting re-certified in pet CPR was easy. Next she took some business and marketing classes at Ole Miss to freshen those skills.
And in August 2020, Wagnolia Bells was born.
The business is named for the Garretts’ beagle, Magnolia Belle, who was 17 when she died a couple of years ago. Garrett’s younger daughter, Shurden, suggested changing Magnolia to Wagnolia and dropping the e from Belle and adding an s, to echo the idea of wedding bells.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a typical pet sitter,” Garrett said. “I wanted to give brides peace of mind that their pets were taken care on their wedding day or wedding weekend. Our focused mission is to give the bridal couple the knowledge that their pets are well-cared for and loved while they’re celebrating.”
Garrett, or one of her crew, chaperoned dogs at six weddings in the first year, then did another 20 in 2021. So far, she’s got 16 weddings lined up for 2022.
“I need the bride, or groom, to contact me ASAP,” Garrett said. “We’re already turning people away. This has gotten bigger than I thought it would, but I knew there was a need because I lived it.”
Garrett said the first thing she does when she meets with the bridal couple and their pet is determine the behavior of the dog, or dogs.
“How do they react in a crowd or around people?” Garrett said. “How do they react around kids, especially, and men? Are they jumpers? Are they barkers? Do they pull on a leash? Are they comfortable riding in a car?”
Sometimes, a bride doesn’t know how involved she wants her pet to be in the wedding. Maybe it’s just there for photos; maybe it’s there to walk down the aisle. Garrett helps with those decisions.
“I’m basically the event planner for the pet,” Garrett said. “We pick the pet up, transport it safely to and from the venue, and coordinate with the event planner and photographer so I know when and where to be.”
Garrett said if a dog is calm enough, it can walk down the aisle and stay with the couple during the ceremony, or be taken aside.
“Some dogs stand where guests enter and greet the guests, then we take the dog away to a quiet area and meet up for photos afterward,” said. “And we’re not just limited to dogs. We haven’t had a cat yet, but I’ve been waiting for one. But the same rules apply – the pet has to be on a leash.”
Another mission of Wagnolia Bells is to help other pets. Ten percent of each custom package is donated to an animal shelter or rescue of the couple’s choice.
Garrett and her chaperones – she has six and is looking for 10 more – are all pet CPR certified. They have done weddings in Oxford, Hernando, Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Birmingham – and places in between.
They’ve handled small dogs, like Pomeranians, and big dogs, like Great Danes. The ratio is usually one chaperone per pet, although a chaperone might handle two small pets at once.
“No one has been bitten yet, but another chaperone and I were pulled down into chairs once by a dog,” Garrett said. “But it was a funny pull-down. We laugh about it now.”
Garrett, who was a teacher for many years and also worked in retail, and her husband, Jim, moved from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Oxford in 2016 for his job.
This is now their home.
“I love what I do,” Garrett said. “If you love what you do, you do it more and more. I get to spend time planning, and I get to work with pets. It’s a dream come true.”