New to the outdoors: Kurgo Dog Products

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.

One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

Cars aren’t exactly dog-friendly zones — but adventurers often depend on vehicles to reach the starting point of an outdoor trip with their friends along for the ride.

Kurgo Dog Products focuses on designing products for dogs that resolve transportation issues, as well as functional, creative gear and toys for the destination.

“We’re devoted to helping people and their dogs get out in the world and enjoy that together,” said Kurgo co-founder Gordon Spater.

Zelda, an energetic 70-pound plot hound mix, inspired the company’s genesis. Zelda loved to hop — or fly — over the center console to say ‘hi’ to Spater brother, Kurgo other co-founder Kitter Spater. Kitter realized that there had to be a better way of getting from point A to point B with his four-legged pal.

With a background in industrial design, Kitter created a prototype of what is now known as the Backseat Barrier (MSRP $45): a cloth boundary that attaches to the back of the front seats so that the pup can’t jump on or over the arm rest. The dog can still peer through a mesh top-window, and the driver can still reach over to pet his friend.

 Kurgo Back Seat Barrier

Kurgo Back Seat Barrier

After Kitter created the Backseat Barrier the brothers realized that there was a need in the pet and outdoor markets: Dog owners may have a collection of toys, but may not have the necessary tools to aid the drive to-and-from the play day.

With an MBA from HarvardBusinessSchool, Gordon’s business-oriented insight pairs well with Kitter’s creative half, and the two founded the company in 2003, attending their first Outdoor Retailer a decade later. They also got some entrepreneurial genes and lessons from their parents, who owned a boutique women’s clothing store in their hometown of Chester, Vt. The shop sold screen-printed wrap-around skirts and designed t-shirts, including a handful of the first-ever Burton Snowboards tees.

“Seeing [our parents’ business] influenced my expectation for how I would have my career as an entrepreneur and was a huge part of what we knew in terms of working hard, creating something on your own, and also having some flexibility,” Gordon said.

Today, 32 percent of dog owners take their pooches with them in the car when they are away for two or more nights, the Spaters said. “The overall trend is that more people are bringing their dogs with them than ever before,” Gordon said. Plus, nearly half — 46.7 percent — of the U.S. population owned dogs in 2012. That percentage has continued to grow with the pool of dog owners expanding from 46.3 million to 56.7 million households. “From a retailer perspective, I would guess dog ownership is higher within the outdoors demographic," Gordon said. "So, if you say 50 percent of people in the U.S. own a dog, and 50 percent of the people who come into the store own a dog — how do you make it so that they can bring their dog with them?”

He said outdoor retailers should provide those products right in their own store, rather than sending customers somewhere else — such as a pet store — to find them. In the same note, the majority of Kurgo’s sales are through retail stores with a small portion of online direct-to-consumer sales.

Kurgo’s vehicle-tailored designs are two-fold: they increase the safety of the environment for the dog and the driver, while also protecting the car’s interior.

Kurgo was first in queue to release a handful of never-before-seen doggie-care items such as the Auto Zip Line, a zip-line that hangs between any two fixed points in the vehicle. The design comes with a detachable leash (MSRP $25) and a harness of the driver’s choice (separately sold). One harness choice is Kurgo’s Tru-Fit Enhanced Strength Harness (MSRP $73), a protective crash-tested harness that doubles as a walking harness.

 Kurgo Auto Zip Line

Kurgo Auto Zip Line

 Kurgo True Fit Enhanced Strength Harness

Kurgo True Fit Enhanced Strength Harness

Other innovative accessories include the durable Loft Bench Seat Cover (MSRP $55), a tough-and-wide, comfy backseat blanket constructed of waterproof Microtomic Ripstop material, in bright colors. And, the newest outdoor accessory: Skipping Stones, which are stone-shaped, floatable fetch toys made of non-toxic PVC (MSRP $13).

 Kurgo Loft Hammock

Kurgo Loft Hammock

As for the industry's leader in dog products, the Spaters admire Ruffwear for its quality products, and they actually don't view the company as a direct competitor.

“[Kurgo] is focused on how you get to your destination and [Ruffwear] is very focused on when you’re at your destination,” Gordon said. “We are more of a compliment than a replacement for each other.”

Keep your eyes peeled for Kurgo Dog Products at the upcoming Outdoor Retailer Summer Market (#PV3091).

--Morgan Tilton

Does Kurgo Dog Products have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.