Melissa Heinonen sits on a folding chair in a large empty room eagerly waiting for friends to show up to the Secret Santa party she's been planning for weeks.
In about 10 minutes the room will be bustling with activity, old friends getting reacquainted and new ones shyly introducing themselves, but for now, the room is still.
Maybe, except for her co-host, who is running in circles and anxiously checking the door for the arrival of their guests. This co-host, like Heinonen, has long blonde hair and a welcoming smile.
He also has a whiskers, a tail and four legs.
That host is none other than her best friend Scout, a three-year-old West Linn golden retriever who is more famous than you or I will ever be.
Over the past three years, Heinonen has built Scout a huge following on social media. Photo shoots of trips to the Oregon Coast, playing dress up, holiday themes and an iconic "free hugs" sign have thrust Scout into stardom. With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram under the moniker @Scoutgoldenretriever, Scout can't walk through downtown without fans stopping and asking to take a picture or getting a hug — not that he'd want to refuse considering he's the most social ball of fluff you've ever met.
But that doesn't mean he's let fame go to his head.
"He's a dog, he doesn't think about fame, just his next meal," Heinonen said. "He enjoys all the perks of free hugs."
At the beginning of 2016, after several months of growing Scout's social media following and engaging with other golden retriever owners online, Heinonen decided to take a chance by organizing a meetup for local goldens. She met with three other owners and their dogs at the 1,000-acre dog park at the Sandy River Delta in Troutdale.
This past Sunday, the group hosted its 24th PDX Goldens meetup at LexiDog boutique and social club, appropriately themed as a Secret Santa gift exchange.
Around 1:30 p.m. a few of Scout and Melissa's guests begin arriving to the party. Among the first to arrive is Coco, a deep gold retriever, and her human, Caprice Piacentini of Portland.
Coco and Piacentini have been part of the PDX Goldens group since nearly the beginning. A year and a half later, the monthly meetups have become a great way for Coco to interact with other fun-loving, silly and mild-mannered goldens.
"It's like a kindergarten class," Piacentini said, a former a teacher. "Everyone is so excited and so sweet."
Coco is just two years old, so she's sort of grown up with the group. Piacentini appreciates she has a place to socialize Coco and contribute to the community with a percentage of the membership fees going to help pay for facilities and supporting good causes like the Golden Bond Rescue, Oregon Dog Rescue and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She also appreciates that whenever she has a question about Coco's health or training, she has a wealth of knowledge at her disposal.
"There is a lot of knowledge about dogs within this group," Piacentini said, gesturing around the room.
Present at today's meetup is another dog who's experiencing his first gathering, a five-month old golden retriever pup named Marlin who is an absolute heart-melter.
As Marlin prances around the room, you can see the twinkle in each owners' eye as they see a former version of their own dog in Marlin's youthful exuberance.
"Owning a golden means (we're) unconditionally loved and (we'll) always have a partner by our side," Heinonen said. "A simple social network has brought so many gifts into my life. I've met a diverse group of people brought together over a shared love of goldens."
When planning meetups, Heinonen tries to highlight locations across the Portland metro area that are dog-friendly.
Indoor dog parks, off leash dog parks, dog aquatic indoor pools, just about anywhere a pack of 30 goldens or more can romp around and do what they do best, play, qualifies.
One of Heinonen's favorite locations to host meetups isn't even in Portland, it's Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast.
"Cannon Beach has always been a favorite destination for our family. A special place where our dogs have the freedom to be dogs, get wet, roll in the sand and run free," Heinonen said. "Before Scout came along, we shared many wonderful memories with our previous goldens, Cooper and Chloe. This is also where we said our last goodbyes to them. Some places just fill our hearts and nurture our souls. For me, that's Cannon Beach."
"(I'm thankful for) the new friendships, philanthropy opportunities and connections that not only I have made personally but the other connections that may have not develop if not thru these meetups," Heinonen said. "I love the fact we don't think we are crazy dog people. We know we are the blessed ones that understand the love of a golden."