They call it puppy love: Honda's dog-friendly Element

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- Hercules, a Chihuahua mix, went car shopping recently without the slightest worry of pushy salespeople, high-pressure tactics or getting a loan.

Hercules looked over a new "dog friendly" Honda Element at a dog park here at the invitation of USA TODAY, which got a peek at the vehicle prior to its public debut Thursday at the New York International Auto show.

The new version of the Element is sort of a rolling Ritz-Carlton for the canine set. It features a built-in bed in the cargo area, a private electric cooling fan, a spill-proof water bowl and a mesh net to keep animals separated from people. Rubber floor mats are embellished with a dog-bone design.

Being shown at the show as a concept, a final version of the pooch-coddling 2009 Element will go on sale in late summer, setting up a dogfight of sorts with Toyota.

Honda's rival has outfitted its Venza crossover with its own canine-friendly features and displayed it at a few dog parks and events around the country.

The Venza offers doggy seat mats, barriers and other items designed to make dogs and their owners more comfortable.

Honda and Toyota officials say the curious timing of the twin debuts is just coincidence. In an age when dogs join HMOs, get massages and see therapists, it was only a matter of time before they could have their own limousines.

More empty-nesters dote on their dogs now as their children have scattered, says James Jenkins, a Honda product planner.

Who let the dogs in?

It's no small market. About 63% of U.S. households have a pet, the American Pet Products Association found in its 2007-2008 pet owners survey. More households, 44.8 million, own a dog than a cat, 38.4 million.

The average owner spends $580 to $875 a year on food and care for their dog, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says.

Honda started thinking about a dog version of the Element after unveiling a concept vehicle focusing on the same theme at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005, Jenkins says. The "WOW," for "wonderful open-hearted wagon," fit nicely into the nonsense that often defines the Tokyo show, says Jenkins, but Honda received a surprising barrage of support from fans.

The Element, largely unchanged since it was developed as a youth-oriented, surf and camp funmobile in 2003, seemed well-suited to the dog-loving crowd. Besides its large, boxy space in back, Element has a relatively low floor for a crossover SUV and an interior designed to be easy to clean.

Besides the bed and other dog-friendly features, the dog-oriented Element even has a fold-out ramp for dogs that can't, won't or shouldn't (because some breeds can develop bad backs later in life) make the leap into the Element's rear.

The Element EX retails for $22,385, but the price with the added pet features has not yet been specified.

When it comes to Toyota's Venza, owners will have to choose from an a la carte menu of accessories. They include $44.99 for a "zip line" to keep an 80-pound or larger dog confined in the back seat or $99.99 for a "bi-fold pet ramp."

The idea grew after Bob Zeinstra, a Toyota national marketing manager, read an article on the growth of the pet market a couple of years ago. He saw the potential. "A lot of times, we throw ideas against the wall, and they don't stick. This is one of those ideas that really resonated," Zeinstra says.

Toyota has made a direct appeal to dog owners around the country. It has sponsored dog-oriented television shows on cable television and started showing off the Venza at dog parks around the country.

At the Redondo Beach dog park, Hercules toured both the Venza and the Element before rendering a verdict: a big paws-up and tail wag for the Honda.

"My dog likes the Element, and I like the Venza," said Hercules' human companion, Andrew Gardiner, a movie location scout from Lawndale, Calif.

Leaders of the pack

Hang around at a dog park, and you soon see how dog owners choose their vehicles with their dogs in mind.

One of them is Romy Friedman of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who works in real estate and who is shopping for a new car.

"I am buying the car for the dog," says Friedman, who happened by the dog park with Buster, her golden doodle (golden retriever/poodle mix). She had looked at Hyundai, Lexus and BMW, but prefers the Element. "He's a big dog. I want him to go in the back, not on the seat."

No matter which vehicle an owner chooses, experts say the key to carrying pets safely in cars is to make sure they're restrained, tethered or kept in crates with tie downs so they can't interfere with the driver.

"About 30,000 accidents a year are caused by pets," says Lindsay Wood, director of animal training for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colo. Wood has been working with Toyota on its Venza program. "It's a much safer option to have them restrained."

She says she practices what she preaches when it comes to her two Labradors. "Their safety is important to me," she says. "They like their crates."