Beyond the land of tiaras for Tinkerbell, there's an expanding industry serving pet owners who want to do more than decorate their dogs. It's the world of pet-safety gear and Neo-Paws International is part of the sensible dog shoe revolution from its humble corner in east-end Toronto.
The hot-footed business is the purview of Roanna Sabeh-Azar, a Toronto native with a warm but no-nonsense demeanour. Neo-Paws is just one on a long list of successful endeavours she's led - ranging from a culinary travel TV show to a restaurant in Toronto's posh Yorkville area.
One day Sabeh-Azar began taking her dog out running with her. "When we started running, we used to come home and he'd have bloody paws. Nobody tells you these things, right? And I said: 'Why aren't there any running shoes for dogs?' " Sabeh-Azar began diverting time from her restaurant to design and plan what would become Neo-Paws: Neoprene dog footwear designed to stay on better than other dog shoes and crafted to take a beating in varying conditions.
The company, which she started in 1992, supplies a wide range of dog-safety gear such as eye protection and safety vests, as well as clothing like rain slickers, neoprene jackets and other items such as saddle bags. The gear is sold internationally through distributors, direct orders and the company's Toronto retail warehouse.
|Photo courtesy of Neo-Paws International|
|Roanna Sabeh-Azar has a wide range of clientele utilizing her neoprene dog footwear, which is crafted to take a beating.|
The Neo-Paws shoes remain the backbone of the business, however, with sales of about 35,000 pairs annually. The shoes, which are made in China, are available in regular, summer high-performance and winter high-performance, as well as "orthopedic."
They retail for $24 to $34 a pair. (Since dogs' feet are often different sizes front and back, Sabeh-Azar sells them in pairs instead of fours.)
And why would a dog need a high-performance orthopedic shoe anyway? Dogs who walk around even in natural, rural areas can be subject to a variety of things that could cut their foot pads or get lodged between their toes, Sabeh-Azar says. In urban environments, dogs may be subjected to unnatural hazards such as broken glass and winter road salt, on top of the usual nuisances of ice, snow and rough sidewalks or roads.
"With domestication, some dogs haven't been walking on concrete, or are picked up most of the time, so some of them don't develop as rough a foot surface," says Dr. Anthony Yu, an associate professor and veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.
Yu says ice, which can cut into a dog's foot, and grass seeds, which can be lodged between the toes, are common sources of infection that could be prevented by dogs wearing foot protection.
Though he acknowledges that many dogs are naturally suited to the outdoors, Yu believes from a medical standpoint, there is a definite preventive benefit to the dog bootie.
"Domestication has changed the natural environment of dogs regardless, so sometimes we have to help them out. If the product were not there, I'm sure we'd get along without it, but since the bootie product is there, there are ways to apply it."
The shoes can also be of use to older dogs who may have problems with slipping feet, arthritis or other difficulties walking. And of course, there are the reasons that only serve dog owners.
People also buy dog shoes because "the dogs scratch the hardwood floors, the dogs scratch the new leather seats on their boat, in the car ... people don't want that happening when they've just spent $10,000 on leather. Dogs' nails cut the pool liners on pools ... that's a huge problem," Sabeh-Azar says.
For Angela Granchelli, dogwear falls into two distinct categories: Fashion versus function.
Granchelli, who runs the Dartmouth, N.S.-based online dog boutique, Hounds Around Town, admits that while few dogs like wearing boots at first, they are a practical investment - particularly compared to what some owners consider important.
"I think there are a lot of frou-frou things out there that dogs don't really need that are just for the humans - sundresses and stuff. I don't really think a dog needs a sundress," Granchelli says.
Neo-Paws has been successful not only at targeting individual dog owners, but law enforcement and large institutions as well.
The company donated high-performance work shoes to rescue and recovery agencies working at New York City's Ground Zero in 2001, and has shod the feet of working dogs from Quebec to Germany, including many canine RCMP members in British Columbia.
"We've been using (shoes) on our canine units for a long time, and a lot of our dog handlers have even gone as far as making their own out of leather and things like that," said Cpl. Tom Seaman of the RCMP's E Division, which provides provincial, federal and municipal police services in B.C.
"In certain cases, where our dog units are used, there may be broken glass. In situations where bottles are being thrown at the police, anything like that, we don't want the dogs to get their feet cut up," Seaman says.
He adds that shoes also help protect the dogs against ice, debris and other injury risks that could take them out of service for weeks at a time.
"In some of our riot troop training, when the dogs are being really aggressive on cement they can wear through certain types of shoes very quickly, but I know this type did well, which is one reason we purchased a large amount," Seaman says of Sabeh-Azar's shoes.
Sabeh-Azar says she feels her eye on quality and honesty are what's made the business a success. "There are a lot of people that are belching shoes out the door, but nothing compares to Neo-Paws, which is something I'm still very happy about and fortunate for," she says of her patented design.
The company is in the process of expanding into Brazil, and continues to expand its product offerings - including at least one new concession to the fashion set: Pink dog shoes.
"It's been a really amazing process," Sabeh-Azar says. "There's always tons more business to get - that's why we're in business, right?"
(Liz Clayton can be reached at email@example.com)