NEW YORK – The Honda Element has gone to the dogs – literally.

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. unveils an ’09 version of the boxy cross/utility vehicle, due at dealers this fall, with canine-specific enhancements such as a cushioned pet bed in the rear cargo area, an extendable and stowable ramp to access the back and all-season rubber floor mats with a raised dog-bone pattern.

“People love their pets,” James Jenkins, senior product planner-American Honda, tells Ward’s after the CUV’s introduction here. “They’re a part of the family today more than ever before.”

Other special items on the Dog-Friendly Element include a spill-proof water bowl and 12V rear ventilation fan for the rear cargo area; pet restraint system for the cargo bay and second row; washable second-row seat covers with a dog pattern design; and “Dog Friendly” badging.

Pricing has not been announced, but Jenkins expects a sticker in the low-to-mid $20,000 range – Fido not included.

Jenkins says inspiration for the doggie model dates back to the Wonderful Open-Hearted Wagon (WOW) concept Honda showed at the 2005 Tokyo auto show.

“That was the match that lit everything,” he says. “We got calls flooding into our public relations department asking when the WOW would come out.”

Honda, which won “Dog Car of the Year” with its ’07 Element from Dogcars.com, says research shows a pet-specific segment exists within the industry. The auto maker says 39% of all households own at least one dog, with the total U.S. dog population at 74.8 million. Pet purchases and related products and services totaled $43 billion in 2008. Sixty-two percent of all Element buyers own a pet.

Honda says its objectives for the Dog-Friendly Element focused on advancing pet safety, optimizing comfort for pets and owners and increasing the appeal of the model.

jamend@wardsauto.com