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‘Eccentric doesn’t cover it’: dogs visit Santa Paws at John Lewis’s pet grotto

One definition of insanity is to do something over and again, expecting a different result. Another might be to find yourself in a busy department store on a Saturday morning, with two slightly out of control black labradors, sitting outside a Christmas grotto surrounded by “elves”, waiting to see Father Christmas.

Or, as John Lewis call him, Santa Paws. Yet, lo, unto Oxford Street we did travel with our dogs Dexter and Rocky, none of us knowing what awaited us in a corner of the third floor near the sofas and home furnishings section.

Eccentric doesn’t really cover it. The grotto is a festive feature of a number of John Lewis’s stores, and this one opened for business when a platoon of elves marched towards us chirping something Christmassy.

Parents and children aren’t the only ones who want a face to face with Santa

This chorus of cheerfulness would have charmed any children waiting to see the Big Man. And most of the time, the singsong is aimed at the little people with big hopes for what might appear in their stockings on 25 December.

But it turns out that parents and children aren’t the only ones who want to have a face to face with Santa. Why should pets be deprived of this special experience, asked (some) dog owners?

Why indeed. John Lewis started the Santa Paws Experience last year, and it is back by popular demand in nine of its shops. More than 500 tickets have been sold so far – up by a fifth from 2022.

On Saturday last week in central London, 20 dogs had been booked in; Dexter, aged six, and Rocky, six months, were first up.

Though the elves had made a fuss of them, our dogs remained wary as we dragged them into the grotto. To get to Santa, we had to perform certain simple tasks on behalf of our pets. My anxiety levels were rising, even if theirs weren’t.

The elves did their best to keep smiling as I fluffed a question most four-year-olds would have found easy. The dogs looked at me with pitying eyes. Then, through the final draped curtain we went.

No amount of ‘ho ho hos’ could stop Dexter and Rocky sniffing around the tree

And there he was! Fair to say, Dexter and Rocky initially took a dim view of the bearded man in the red and white suit sitting in front of them.

No amount of “ho ho hos” would distract them from sniffing around the Christmas tree and sticking their noses in the goody bags.

First attempts to get them to sit on his lap were unsuccessful. A degree of brute force and promises of treats finally persuaded them to play along.

Dexter maintained the resigned look of someone who had seen it all before (he really hadn’t). Rocky, however, was all puppyish enthusiasm.

He had his eyes on Santa’s fluffy white beard, as his tail swatted a number of baubles off the tree. Otherwise the meeting between them passed off peacefully, with all of us wondering what on earth we had just been through as we headed back into home furnishings clutching two “doggie bags” full of presents.

There, we found a long queue of people and pets waiting to go in. One couple had a terrier in a Christmas jumper. Another man was wrestling with a dog in reindeer antlers. The elves were ringing their bells.

Louise Black from John Lewis says customers “want to enjoy festive traditions with all the family”. She adds: “Well behaved dogs are welcome all year round in John Lewis shops and now they have a chance to tell Santa just how good they’ve been.”

• You can visit Santa Paws at John Lewis Cambridge, Cheadle, Cribbs Causeway, High Wycombe, Liverpool, Oxford Street, Peter Jones, Southampton and Welwyn. The cost of Dexter and Rocky’s visit has been donated to the Guardian’s Christmas appeal.