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Honda Element s special features are for the dogs

A new offering from Honda Motor Co. may get dogs more interested in checking out theinside of their ride rather than hanging their heads out the window.

The Japanese automaker showed off a "Dog Friendly" version of the Honda Element SUV at the New York International Auto Show onThursday. The concept features a cushioned pet bed with safety restraints in the cargo area, a spill-resistant water bowl, and even a ventilation fan tokeep canines comfortable. A folding ramp gives animals an easy way to get in and out.

In the back seat, there's an integrated pet carrier and machine-washable seat covers to make it convenient and safe to carry smaller pets. Therubber floor mats feature a toy-bone pattern, and paw-print emblems on the side and back of the vehicle draw attention to its pet-friendly status.

Honda says it's still finalizing the features, but the Dog Friendly Element will be available this fall.

"Pets have become more like family, more important to households than ever before," said James Jenkins, a senior product planner for Honda. "Wefelt this was the perfect vehicle to offer such dog friendly features." The Element already is appealing to pet owners because of features such as itseasy-to-clean flooring in the cargo area and its wide doors.

Honda showed an interest in pets through the "Wonderful Openhearted Wagon" concept the company unveiled in 2005. That demonstration modelincluded pet-friendly materials, a place for small animals to ride right up front, and a larger pet carrier that popped up from the floor in the back seat.

Pet owners quickly started clamoring for Honda to put the features into production, Jenkins said.

The new Element may help Honda find a powerful niche market to revive sales of the Element, which are down 61 percent in the first threemonths of this year.

It's no secret that pet owners are willing to open their pocketbooks to pamper their pooches. There are about 75 million dogs in the U.S., and themarket for pet products and services totaled more than $43 billion last year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Pricing for the Dog Friendly Element hasn't been disclosed, but standard versions of the vehicle start around $21,000, including destination charges.

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