The History of our Dogger Dog Stroller
As we are about to begin a new year I cannot help but look back at all that has gone into building Dog Quality over the past decade. And no Dog Quality retrospective would be complete without a look at the history of our Dogger stroller, a challenging but rewarding product that is at the heart of this company. The road has certainly not been easy, but the Dogger represents so much more than just a product for me. The journey it has taken me on, the impact it has had on my own life with seniors dogs, as well as the difference it has made for others, sets the Dogger apart from everything else that I have done and it will always hold a very special place in my heart. This is its story...
The Dogger was inspired by my very first dogs Churchill, a frenchie and Mackenzie, a pug. When Churchill turned 12 he started to have major health health and mobility problems, but despite his challenges he had so much spirit to keep living life to the fullest. To this day I think back on how he fought so hard to continue to do the things he loved to do against all odds. When he was no longer able to come on our walks I was heart broken at the thought of leaving him behind because his mind was willing, even if his body was letting him down. This is when I bought my very first dog stroller and it changed our life. Churchill was able to come on our walks, which helped him to continue to enjoy life and when Mackenzie also started to struggle, he could hop inside with his brother. I remember thinking that this is the greatest thing I have ever bought for my dogs.
It wasn't long before I saw the glaringly obvious shortcomings of the stroller we were using and I saw an opportunity to create a new type of dog stroller that rivaled the quality of the best baby strollers on the market. Dog Quality at the time was tiny and the idea of designing such a complicated product was overwhelming, but I was determined to find a way.
I first started trying to find manufacturers in Canada, but since there are no North American stroller manufacturers I hit one dead end after another. I even tried to convince manufacturers in other industries to help me out, but no one wanted to be involved. Undeterred I started to reach out to baby stroller manufacturers in China. I purposely avoided manufacturers of pet strollers because I was aiming to create something far superior to all the pet strollers on the market and I knew I would only achieve this goal by working with those in the business of making baby strollers, which are held to a much higher standard.
Having zero engineering experience at the time, the first few factories I approached I only had some vague requirements and loose measurements. Not surprisingly, the outcome of the first prototype was a pretty terrible, but I learned a lot of lessons in dealing with overseas factories in the process. When it became clear that I wasn't going to achieve the quality or design I was hoping for, I kept looking and I refined my approach with each new discussion.
At the time I did not have the ability or knowledge to create CAD designs, but I knew in my head what I wanted so I asked my amazingly artistic brother (Simon Fleming) to help me create a sketch of what I had envisioned. The sketch I have included in this blog post is the very drawing I used to explain what I was looking for to the next baby stroller manufacturer I connected with, who I am happy to say is still one of our suppliers today more than 10 years later.
One of the amazing benefits to working with overseas factories is their willingness to provide engineering support at no extra cost, so they are able to work from a sketch like ours along with additional details such as desired measurements and create CAD design files to help bring your idea to life. Having the sketch gave me the visual I needed to communicate what I was looking to create and it became a huge turning point in the development of the Dogger. So much so that I always find myself looking back at this sketch to remind myself how it all started. I also had help from my younger brother (Stuart Fleming) who came up with the name Dogger which is short for Dog-Jogger. That will forever be Stuart's claim to fame.
After many months our first prototype was finally completed. It was crucial that this stroller be made with the needs of senior dogs in mind. It needed to be smooth and comfortable since senior dogs are often dealing with sore joints so rear suspension was a must-have. It needed to be able to handle every type of terrain so senior dogs could live a life filled with fun and adventure, hence the 12" air-filled tires. The basket needed to be shallow so senior dogs would not need to stand up to see out and we needed a canopy that gave dogs maximum visibility to truly enjoy the outdoors and still be able to see their mom or dad at all times. Before it shipped to me for testing I was able to make some last minute changes. For example I eliminated the brown basket which looked good in the sketch but awful in reality and we simplified some things to make manufacturing easier. With these changes behind us the prototype was ready for real world testing.
I remember so clearly receiving the first Dogger prototype. I was living in a tiny apartment with my sister Jennifer and my brother Stuart, operating Dog Quality out of my bedroom and working a full-time day job. We all gathered around this box as I pulled out the most amazing stroller I had ever seen. It literally took my breath away. Before I had even tried it I knew we had a winner.
Over the next 6 months I tested the Dogger and as with all prototypes, I had to make several improvements. Sadly I lost Churchill before he was able to try the Dogger, but he was in my heart and in its design and of course Mackenzie was more than happy to reap its benefits. He absolutely loved it and so did I.
After resolving all the issues I had identified I was able to move into the manufacturing phase, but I had a major problem. I had zero money to pay for a production of this very expensive product. Thankfully I managed to convince the factory to cut their minimum order quantity requirement in half in hopes that if successful, our future orders would be larger. I was also able by some miracle to get a very small personal line of credit since my business was far too small to qualify for any type of business lending and sales of our Washable Wonders dog diapers (our first product line) was growing.
I knew once people saw and used this awesome product and experienced the impact it would have on the life of their senior dogs, that it would literally sell itself. I kept reminding myself of how I felt when I pulled that first prototype out of its box and that gave me confidence. I began posting videos of Mackenzie using the Dogger prototype and I was able to secure 22 pre-orders. In the beginning I had to order assembled units as I was literally a one person company trying to juggle Dog Quality and my full time job, which meant I was starting my day at 4:30am every morning and working evenings and weekends to try and grow Dog Quality.
When I received our first order, which came in a 20 foot container, I had to unload it by myself. It was a daunting task, but also so darn exciting. To see something go from being in your head and heart, to being a commercial product is really special. To watch a video of my very first, and almost comedic Dogger unloading click here
Thankfully by this time I was now living in a house and had a large garage to store this new inventory. I learned the hard way that even fully assembled strollers needed to be tested prior to shipping to catch any problems and make any necessary adjustments and this took a lot of time. I decided to hire Jennifer to help manage the customer service and shipping so I could spend my time testing Doggers. It was exhausting, but the amazing feedback from customers kept me going.
Dog Quality soon grew big enough that I was able to leave my day job and purse my business full time. I decided to relocate Dog Quality from the Vancouver area to the interior of British Columbia where I knew I could operate at a lower cost, so both myself and my sister made the move. The move was made financially possible by renting a house just outside of 100 Mile House that served as both Dog Quality's place of business and my sister's place of residence, splitting the rent to save money. I moved into my own property on Canim Lake. After some time my sister moved on to explore her own opportunities and I made my first non-family hires taking over the whole house as Dog Quality's headquarters.
As sales grew and my volume of testing significantly increased, I realized that so many of the issues I was finding could be avoided if it was caught prior to assembly. I tried many times to resolve these issues with the manufacturer without success so rather than continuing along this route I came up with the bold idea that Dog Quality should build the Doggers ourselves, ignoring the fact that no company was building strollers in North America these days. My thinking was that we would care exponentially more than the factory would and that in and of itself would create an even better product. I also saw that we would be able to fit more parts into a shipping container than we would ever be able to fit fully assembled units, which would allow us to increase our production volume and save money on freight.
After a few key hires, the purchase of two rivet machines and some practice assembling almost 300 parts to make a Dogger, we were ready to begin building Doggers in-house. The parts were stored in the basement and the assembly took place in the garage. The Dogger team would build the Doggers and I would test them on the road during the warm months and indoors in what used to be the living room during the winter. Unfortunately, the busier we were, the more noticeable our activities became in an otherwise quiet neighborhood and I soon had a by-law officer knocking on our door. Now that we were under the manufacturing umbrella, we were no longer allowed to operate from a residential location and were told that we needed to move into a commercial location zoned for industrial use.
While financially terrifying, we did find the perfect location in 100 Mile House with the correct zoning. There were two side by side units that we were able to combine to give us enough space for warehousing, production (which included a sewing department) , shipping and receiving. This move truly became a turning point for us and enabled us to increase our production volume considerably.
Over the next few years we continued to make improvements to the parts and the assembly process which has led to what I honestly believe is the best dog stroller ever made. We have a team of dog loving people that work so hard to ensure that every Dogger exceeds expectations and they are motivated, as am I, by the happy stories we hear from our customers on how the Dogger has made such a difference in their life and the life of their senior dog.
People don't realize how much heart goes into each and every Dogger. It is such a challenging product since if even one part is not perfect the entire stroller is impacted, so we spend a lot of time evaluating the parts, making adjustments, sewing portions of the basket and testing everything all before shipping. It's also a very expensive product to make and now that we import parts to build Doggers, the overall expense per Dogger, because of the extra labor, has increased significantly. However, the end result is so awesome that it is totally worth the effort and cost. And I know that there is no company in the pet stroller market that goes through more to ensure the very best product possible than we do and I think that is incredibly special.
Each and every one of my own dogs at some point has relied on the Dogger. In fact I don't know what I would do without it. We take it everywhere and I am so grateful for all the joy it has brought to my four-legged family and I want each and every customer to experience the same. I am so proud of how Dog Quality and the Dogger have evolved over time and I see so much more growth ahead of us, including the much anticipated launch of our Big Dogger for large breeds (or those looking for a party bus for their small dogs). The road will always be filled with challenges, COVID sure has tested our limits, but we are determined to change lives, one senior dog at at time.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of innovative assistive products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs and the families that care for them.