For the past 20 years, Ruffwear has been reinventing gear for dogs. The brand makes booties, jackets, collars, toys, and pretty much anything else you could want for your pup. But how do you design something when the end user can’t give you feedback other than incessant tail wagging? And don’t dogs get just as much enjoyment out of an old stick as the latest and greatest chew toy? In this second installment of our series exploring how gear gets made, producer Alex Ward reports on the unique process of crafting products for our best friends.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): So as I write this, it's the Monday after Thanksgiving. Cyber Monday, as it's known, when, if you work at a computer, you're bombarded with a lot of ads and emails for a lot of stuff you don't need, but which has been heavily discounted. And a lot of it is really standard stuff like shirts and jackets, but there's also this other category of thing that's really gotten big over the last few years on the internet, the tiny company that simply improved something that already exists, reinvents it. And then they have to sell you on the idea that their version will make your life substantially better than a standard version. So these products are totally legitimate. The socks being made right now are the most technical and well-designed socks of all time. Men's underwear has also taken great strides forward, thanks to a new generation of product designers reinventing something that we all took for granted. Mattresses too.
But all of these companies make something that you use everyday that's kind of at the center of your existence. So a small improvement really adds up over time. You spend a third of your life sleeping; probably two-thirds wearing socks; underwear, I guess it varies person to person. But then there's a company like Ruffwear, which for the last 20 years has been reinventing gear for dogs. And if there's any user group that's already totally happy with the standard version of gear, it's dogs. Dogs have been doing just fine for a really long time and yet Ruffwear is doing really well as a company. So what's going on here?
We first got interested in Ruffwear because we wanted to know how exactly do you improve on something when the end user can't talk to you about it. How do you make those tiny design tweaks that make a new product worth your money? But then we started wondering. does that even matter? Are Ruffwear’s products possibly not about the dogs at all? Are they designing stuff that makes humans feel good? Or dogs? So producer Alex Ward went to find out.
(audio of dogs barking at Ruffwear)
Alex Ward: This is what it sounds like in the production room of Ruffwear, or at least what it sounds like when a stranger like me walks in with a microphone. Ruffwear makes gear for dogs with a focus on the outdoors -- Patagonia for pups, one might say. There's harnesses, coats, booties, life jackets, backpacks, you name it, and on the day I'm visiting their headquarters in Bend, Oregon, the design team is in their weekly product meeting, huddled around a table covered in agenda items. There's prototypes of chew toys, dog beds, treat pouches, there's a circular disk thing made out of climbing rope and heavy duty fabric. It kind of looks like a steering wheel.
(audio from design meeting): The last thing on our agenda for today, that's the Fall-Winter 19 circular tugtoy. We got some feedback from Tracy, our Abby dog handler.
Ward: The thing they're trying to solve with this product is it's classification. At this stage, they all know it's a good toy, but should it be positioned as a fetch toy or a tug toy?
(audio from design meeting): We've been designing it as a tug toy, but it seems to be performing as a disc.
Ward: They sent prototypes to some dog handlers and now the designers are going through the feedback.
(audio from design meeting): Tracy's dog Jagger -- he said he's never seen Jagger go so crazy for a toy. It's just that this toy, so it would act as a reward, but it wouldn't be one that they're actively tugging with the dog.
Ward: This particular handler is basically saying he loves the toy for playing fetch, but suggests that it not be marketed as a tug.
(audio from design meeting):
Voice 1: But I think that's one opinion of one handler. I think it seems like they all kind of have their own cocktail that works with them and their dog and the same thing doesn't work for everyone.
Voice 2: So we’re going to steer away from positioning this as a tug toy based on that feedback alone?
Voice 3: I would say I wouldn't steer away from tug, but I would put our best foot forward, which to me it would be fetch -- but it would be fetch and then right behind fetch would be tug.
Voice 4: So I haven't been testing that with Bodie and he loves it, but only as a tug toy. I don't play fetch with my dog. (laughs) He's a mess. But as a decoy, it's been working perfectly.
Ward: If you ask Bernie, one of the many office dogs waiting for the humans to finish talking here and use the thing as intended, it doesn't matter. He just wants it.
(audio of dog playing with toy)
And herein lies the inherent tug of war when making dog gear: you're designing for animals but people have to buy them. As Monica Welker, one of the product designers explained to me, it's kind of like making baby products.
Monica Welker: It's the same type of struggle. You get through the whole process designing for your user, but then it's like, okay, it has to sell or else we're not a business and ogs don't get to enjoy it.
Ward: Which is sort of why I'm here in the first place, because in an industry where products are rigorously tested, designed, and redesigned based on feedback from users, how do you get feedback from a dog? Patrick Kruse, the founder of Ruffwear, says the first step in designing for dogs is making observations about how we interact with them and then coming up with product ideas from that.
Patrick Kruse: And so all those observations, all those things come together. They get put into the hopper and then they get distilled out and we go out there, throw them into a mosh pit with all the dogs, and then we get a lot of feedback.
(sound of dog mosh pit)
Ward: This is the mosh pit today, an open area right outside of Ruffwear's building. And if all mosh pits were like this -- just a dozen happy puppies running through sagebrush --I'd probably go to more concerts.
Kruse: Great place for us just to come out and do a quick check and see what's going on. But we'll often take off and head up to the trail, up to Phil's trail or go down to the Deschutes river, just kind of hammer the product. See what happens when it gets wet and grungy and it’s a lot of fun.
Ward: Having a diversity of environments is key to making this kind of gear because unlike outdoor activities that require certain equipment like mountain climbing or kayaking, most of the stuff you do with dogs isn't confined to one type of place. You can play fetch anywhere. And Patrick says that in the early days of Ruffwear this had a big impact on how they design products.
Kruse: Every time we came up with a solution, there were new challenges because people would take a coat or they'd take a bowl or a backpack into a different environment that we hadn't anticipated and they'd say, Hey, it works great for all these things, but could you make one for this? And so when you look at our apparel item, I think we've got over seven, eight coats now, but each one solves a unique challenge.
Ward: Patrick started Ruffwear in 1992, but he'd been tinkering with fabrics and designs since he was a kid. At age 12, on his mom's machine, he sewed together a custom backpack for Mariah, the family dog, at the time. And at 16 he got his GED and promptly went to go work on a sailboat, where his woodworking, mechanical and sewing skills were further honed. In 1989 he started a business making kayaking equipment called Salamander Paddle Gear. But back then in 1992, Patrick was on a mountain biking trip in Los Padres National Forest with his friend Liz and her dog Mokey or Rhodesian Ridgeback.
Kruse: She had ahead, she had brought this plastic bag because she was going to be able to water her dog on this mountain biking adventure and so we stopped and we were taking in the view of the channel islands.
Ward: Soon enough, they stopped writing for a drink of water and Liz took out the plastic bag, filled it with half of her water so that Mokey could reach it and held it out. Mokey stuck his snout in the bag, tried lapping the water up, but just was not having it. So now she was just holding a bag of water that she couldn't sit down and she didn't want to drink it, thanks to Mokey’s slobbery dog mouth. Liz told Patrick he needed to solve the problem.
Kruse: We finished out the ride, had a great day. And on the drive home, I started thinking, because I was in the whitewater kayaking business, we had garments that would keep water out and if we had fabric that could keep water out, could you keep water in? So I went home, talked with my samples sewer at the time and put together this bowl,
Ward: Patrick stitched-together dog bowl, AKA the Quencher, would become Ruffwear’s first product, but not quite yet. At the time, the Quencher was just a solution for him and his friends.
Kruse: I kind of dusted off my hands and said that one was solved and moved on, but I threw this bowl in the backyard and it sat there for the next nine months with my dogs. And everybody who came over was really intrigued with it. You pick it up and look at it and there was water inside, but it wasn't leaking out. And the more that folks looked at this thing, the more interesting it became. You could almost see the light bulbs going on over their heads. And, so I figured, well, maybe we should do something with this. And that was about nine months in -- spent the next few months coming up with a logo and a brand and a tagline and then I sewed up, 15 bowls, three of each color in red royalty, purple and black, and took them to an outdoor retailer where I put them on a card table next to our Salamander Paddle Gear products that we were offering for whitewater paddle sports. And at that show, LL Bean came by and ordered a thousand bowls.
Ward: This big validating order was like that first throw of a tennis ball to a Border Collie that's been waiting all day for you to get home. Ruffwear off and running and the industry of performance dog gear was born. And it didn't take long for Ruffwear to dwarf Patrick's other business at the time, Salamander Paddle Gear. At this time, around 1996, Patrick estimated the paddle sport customer base to be between 17,000-20,000 people. And meanwhile there were about 52 million dogs in the United States and Patrick was about to blow a giant dog whistle.
Okay, let's take a second to talk about the dog industry as a whole because part of the reason that Ruffwear is the leader of the outdoor dog pack is because they were so early into a business sector that just keeps growing. Current estimates put the number of dogs in the U.S. around 90 million with global estimates around 900 million. And it seems like people cannot stop throwing money at their pets.
Susan Strible: Whether that means buying them gear, vet care, better food, daycare for their dogs. That seems to be a trend that's growing.
Ward: That's Susan Strible, she's the marketing director for Ruffwear. She says last year people spent almost $70 billion on their pets. putting pet care and stride with industries like dieting and healthcare technology. And according to Susan, the reason for that is simple.
Strible: People are opting to have dogs and not children. That's certainly true in my case.
Ward: It's basically true when you look at the statistics too. According to the national center for health statistics, births in the U.S. have been steadily declining for the past decade, hitting a 30 year low in 2017 when 3.8 million babies were born. That's about a 3% drop in the birth rate over 10 years. Meanwhile, pet ownership is being herded in the opposite direction, growing 7% in that same 10 year window. Of course, maybe the economic recession plays a role in this time period because as we know, babies are expensive, but given the money that's being spent on dogs these days, we're definitely treating our animals more and more like humans.
Strible: How much money people spend on a car, on a vacation, on a home -- I think these are extensions of ourselves and we are sending signals to the world of what we care about and what's important to us. And I think for people whose dogs are an essential part of their lives, the way that makes them feel good is maybe spending more money. It's a reflection of how much we care for them and what they mean for us in our lives.
Ward: At the moment, the three fastest growing within the pet industry are high quality food, specialty services like walkers and daycare, and technology. There are robotic pet sitters, automatic laser play toys, self cleaning litter boxes, GPS collars, and apps that do everything in between. There's even a collar attachment where when your dog is active running around or barking, it'll trigger an automatic tweet from you or your pet's Twitter account. They've got that, we've got Netflix. And someone somewhere is probably working on Dog Netflix.
Maybe this is where I should come clean and say I'm actually kind of a cat person. I mean, the reason those dogs were jumping all over me when I walked into the office, they probably smelled my cat, Gary, who I snuggled with that morning. And as a cat owner, I got to say this whole performance gear for dogs spectacle, it looks kind of ridiculous. I mean seriously, you think your granddad's dog needed a fleece jacket and booties to herd cattle during the cold winter months? I mean there's all this stuff for dogs now and do they even appreciate it? Doesn't a random stick on the ground provide the same amount of joy as a tug slash fetch toy? Are you pampering your dog too much? I mean, with cats, you earn their respect, you don't buy their love. They also clean themselves. You can leave home whenever and they're just fine and they bury their own poop.
But then I would love to take Gary backpacking with me and I can't. And you simply wouldn't survive. Plus, as far as I can find, there is no Ruffwear for cats, no company solving problems that cat owners don't even know exist yet. So this isn't really a Cats vs dogs question; it's a question of whether or not the bowls and the jackets and the booties that Ruffwear makes, are actually benefiting the dog or is it just to make their owner feel like a better dog parent.
Whichever it is, it's working. For the past five years, Ruffwear has been nothing but arrows pointed upwards as a business, increasing sales by double digits in each of those five years. And last year in 2017, they cleared $22 million in sales. If you've seen the show Shark Tank, Ruffwear would be one of those companies where the sharks would be like, why are you here? You don't need us. And they'd be right. Ruffwearhas managed to never take outside investment at all and profits have been reinvested into R&D since the get go. I remember those first dog bowls that Patrick made and brought to a trade show back in the nineties. He sold them all that day and made 33 bucks .
Kruse: And I took that $33 that it took to make those 15 bowls, brought the proceeds back from those 15 sales and turned around and reinvested into buying more bowls, making more bowls. Every time that I'd sell a bowl, I'd put it back into the business and just continue to go. And that has enabled us to really dance to our own tune.
Ward: After the bowl, the next tune that Ruffwear dance too was dog boots, which I gotta say is the cutest thing they make by far. Little boots on little paws. However, Patrick was initially not on board with the idea.
Kruse: I wasn't a true believer of dog boots. It didn't make any sense to me. But, one day I'm on the phone, sending out product to one of our customers. A dealer called me from Colorado and said, Hey, you know, we really love your bowls. Have you ever considered making dog boots? And at the time I'm like, yeah, that's interesting that you mentioned that because I've got six catalogs that are sitting on my desk and they're all selling dog boots, but I can't make sense of these because these boots, some of them have suspenders, some of them look like Gogo boots that come way up the thigh. And she said, well, could you make them stay on? And I thought, well, yeah, that sounds pretty easy. And that was the challenge that allowed me to step into this dog boot arena.
Ward: So Patrick put together some boots for his dog, Otis and went on a run. Otis was an Australian cattle dog and was used to doing 13 mile mountain biking loops with Patrick. So it took a lot to wear him out. But when you finally did, Otis would have to stay off his feet for a day or two. Patrick wanted to see if the boots would have any effect.
Kruse: So I put the boots on, we went out for a run, came back, checked the boots, they look like they're staying on, looked at the wear and tear on the sole. But the interesting thing that happened for me was after 30 or 40 minutes of rest, he was ready to go again. And that's when it dawned on me, these boots are pretty amazing. It wasn't him being tuckered out, it was at, his feet were sore or he had stone bruising going on on his pads. And so the boots, that was a game changer for me, where I started to believe that boots really do make a difference on dogs.
Ward: With a proof of concept done, the next challenge was designing the boots so they could fit any dog, which is tough given that there's so much variance in size and shape of paws across breeds.
There's three main types of dog paws: webbed feet, cat feet, and hair feet, bred for swimming, endurance, and sprinting, respectively. For dogs, a simple number system doesn't work well.
Kruse: You can imagine walking into a shoe store and saying, I'm 176 pounds and what size shoes do I wear? It doesn't make sense.
Ward: Usually dog products were sorted by breed and weight, which makes things easier for the owners buying it, but maybe not so great for the dog. This shift into designing them from a dog's perspective was a game changer. It made more sense to use measurements, but it was up to them to come up with the dog measuring system.
Kruse: That's one of the biggest challenges, how do you measure a dog's paw? And what we did is we measured the width of the paw because the length of the paw can vary depending on if you're measuring the toenail and where is the heel. And what we use is the carpal pad up a little bit further on the dog's paw or leg. And so rather than be confusing, we found a way to take the dog’s paw, put it on a piece of paper, lift up the other paw so it's weighted and the paws fully splayed out, put a little mark on either side of that paw, and then you can measure the width. That gives you a starting point, a much better starting point than saying, I have a 40 pound beagle -- what size boot do I wear?
Ward: The measurement method worked and the boots were a big hit. And in a way it broadened their own market because outdoor enthusiasts with dogs tended to be people that would go to lots of different types of environments. Maybe you're backpacking through hard granite peaks one weekend and surfing on a hot Sandy beach the next.
Kruse: But when you take them and you put them in a totally new environment, you're asking a lot of them. And so by having these products that actually help them to join us on our adventures -- we're out there in some fancy gear, we got nice shoes, we got this high tech coat on, we've got a really nice sleeping bag and stellar tents. But they're out there in the same suit of clothes that they're wearing back home and we're taking them up to elevation or altitude, putting them into some unique conditions. And I think that's where our products start to shine. They allow humans to bring our dogs along. They're our companions, and why not just allow them to have a few of the items that we benefit from.
Ward: That's a good point. Honestly, it's hard to think of pampering when it's put that way. After all, as we invent gear that takes us humans further and further into extreme environments. Why not throw dogs a bone? Especially when you consider the things that we ask dogs to do for us. I mean, sure, there's the fetching and the rolling over and shaking paws, but there's also cadaver dogs that hunt for human remains. There's dogs that track scat in the woods for biological studies. There's avalanche dogs up on the mountain. There's even paratrooper dogs in the military that are trained to jump out of planes and into war zones to sniff out bombs and act as scouts. Seriously Google paratrooper dogs -- it's both very cute and very badass.
Of course, all of these different dog applications take specialized training, which takes specialized gear and as Ruffwear grew and started expanding their whole product line, they began filling these small voids to improve dog training. Like the treat trader for example.
(sounds of Ruffwear production lab)
That's product designer Liz Zarro calling her dog Bernie over. She showed me the treat trader, which is a small pack that clips on your waist. Think of a chalk bag for rock climbing, which inspired the design except it's kind of flask shaped and it fits snugly against the hip. But at its core, the tree trader is just a pouch to hold dog treats. It basically accomplishes the same task as a Ziploc bag only. It goes to do a lot more.
Liz Zarro: One of the things that we had in mind when designing this product was accuracy and speed in which you can receive a treat and being able to do it with ease., like with one hand.
Ward: for anyone that's trained a dog, you know, rewards are crucial for establishing good behavior, but the treats need to come quickly.
Zarro: If you miss the Mark by three seconds, that can do a lot with how a dog responds to the tree. They may not be interpreting it the way you intend.
Ward: The flap on the bag is magnetic and it makes this little snapping sound when it's opened and closed like that. The noise is really consistent. So unlike opening a plastic bag or loosening a string, the sound sends a clear signal that a command and a reward is coming. Plus the magnet only takes one hand to open and close.
Zarro: So if I ask Bernie to roll over and he begins to roll over, then I can reward him with a treat in my other hand. And so I've got two hands going at one time. And I know that the pouch is closed. The audible cue is great for him because it tells him that he just did something good even before he got the treat.
Ward: And finally, since the flap stays closed when your hand isn't in it, eager snouts won't be stealing treats and you can run around all you please with your dog without spilling. So if you adopt a puppy like Bernie from a foster home who had some behavioral problems to sort out when he was eight weeks old, keeping up with him might be a challenge. You want every advantage on your side so he can become the proud gentlemen he is today. Thanks to Liz.
The treat trader isn't the flashiest product that Ruffwear makes. In fact, you might not even notice it at first glance, but I think it's the best representation of their goal: improving the relationship between a pet and the owner. It makes a person's job more efficient while benefiting the dog's behavior in the long run, each one making the other's life just a little bit better. So, yeah, I guess performance dog gear can actually help the dog. It's not all about the owner's conscience or the Instagram feed, although a well behaved dog is easier to photograph with sunglasses on.
Ruffwear's next round of products is going to be even more functional. Patrick says they're now looking at redesigning the harnesses for guide dogs for the visually impaired. They've got these curved rigid handles that let you feel the dog’s small movements and tell you what's in front of them.
Kruse: They're basically a harness from the equine industry from back in the forties. And not much has changed over the years. And so we've been working on a harness that fits well on the dog. We've had a bunch of years building these things and I think we've gotten really good at it. And then designing a link between the handle and the harness that is less bulky, that delivers the subtle nuances of the dog as they're walking along -- they may step over a leaf or dodge out of the way of an overhead obstacle that the dog is trained to move around. And that feedback is felt in the harness and in the handle and it's delivered really quickly to the guide dog user.
Ward: With the new modern guide harness and a smart puppy at the helm, the barriers for the visually impaired could be knocked down even further, and guide dogs and their owners already have a special bond. But Ruffwear’s new harness is a good example of how quality gear can benefit both the owner and the dog, and during the design process, it turns out that getting feedback from dogs isn’t hard at all. It's obvious. They tell you, they just don't use words or surveys. Their motivations are simple, eat, be snuggled, repeat. So we know when they don't want something and their body language is crystal clear, if you're paying attention.
So pamper the hell out of your dog if you want to, they'll love you for it or don't, they'll still love you. That's the beautiful thing about dogs. You could buy your kid everything that wants and they'll end up entitled, obnoxious and spoiled. You spoil a dog, however, and you just end up with a better dog.
Frick-Wright: That's Alex Ward. He wrote and produced this piece. It was edited by me, Peter Frick-Wright. Music by Robbie Carver and Dennis Funk. It was brought to you by Adidas and they're all new line of Terrex outdoor gear. The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back next week.