When Roxanne Pettipas looks at her 17-year-old dachshund, Buddy, she sees the weight of the world on his shoulders – the dog world, at least.
Ms. Pettipas is founder and chief executive officer of a company called Class Art Productions Inc. and inventor of the Buddy Belt, a canine collar that takes the pressure off a dog's neck and distributes it across the shoulders instead.
"It started when Buddy was young," explains Ms. Pettipas, at her factory in a funky industrial building in Toronto's Queen Street West district. "He was wearing a neck collar and choking. I thought it was allergies, but he really was choking, so I decided to design a harness myself, which I made out of tire rubber."
From this modest beginning, Ms. Pettipas, a former art teacher and curriculum designer, has built an international business that has grown in a decade to nearly $800,000 a year in sales from $80,000.
Shaped vaguely like a kinky bra with two holes cut out ("We get comments," Ms. Pettipas admits), the Buddy Belt is far from the only shoulder collar for dogs on the market.
To maintain and grow her marketing share, Ms. Pettipas and her team offer two product lines – a made-in-Canada leather harness that sells for as much as $160 mostly through website and direct sales at public events, and a cheaper synthetic product called BB2 that's sold at pet shops and big box stores.
Ms. Pettipas's company faces the exciting yet daunting challenges of many small businesses that have blossomed – managing exports, international marketing, production in several countries, new product lines and protection of intellectual property.
To say that there is a market niche for a different kind of dog collar is perhaps an understatement in the booming pet care and accessory market. In the United States, one of 16 countries where Buddy Belts are marketed, 46.3 million households owned dogs in 2011-12, according to the American Pet Products Association's annual survey.
"[Dog care] is a $3-billion industry in Canada," says Class Art Productions' general manager Steve Beamish. Indeed, a third of Canadian households have dogs. "In my three years here we've nearly doubled in size. Last year was our biggest year-over-year increase in sales."
The company has come a long way since Ms. Pettipas began fiddling with a prototype shoulder harness for Buddy back in 2001, when her dog was five years old. She had worked as an art teacher at the Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario, where she learned how to improvise for her students with available materials.
After the first rubber prototype and some trial and error, Ms. Pettipas began working with leather, gathering material from old coats at vintage shops in Toronto. She pulls out a carpet bag full of harnesses of all shapes and sizes. "This is my museum," she explains. It took a lot of trial and error, including experimenting with Buddy, to get the shape right.
Today, Buddy Belts are made for all breeds and types of dog. They range from tiny belts with openings barely the width of two fingers ("for a rat, really," Mr. Beamish jokes) to sturdy harnesses made for dogs of 45 kilograms or more.
Customers order the deluxe leather models from the company's website or from booths at street events such as Toronto's Woofstock. To reach out to retailers with her lower-cost BB2 line, Ms. Pettipas and Mr. Beamish travel to pet industry trade shows in the United States and Europe.
"We're looking to do something in Japan and maybe in China," says Mr. Beamish, noting that the synthetic BB2 line is manufactured in China.
The higher-end leather models are put together by a full- and part-time staff of 11 in the Toronto factory. Buddy Belts are cut from a template and then their backing is pressed into leather by one of several stamping machines that Class Art Productions purchased.
Mr. Beamish, a former fashion communications student at Toronto's Ryerson University, has designed many of the company's belts. He says he still prefers to draw the templates and cut them out by hand, even though it can be done now with sophisticated software such as Adobe Illustrator.
Buddy Belts are patented in Canada and have patents pending in other countries. Both Mr. Beamish and Ms. Pettipas say they worry a bit about imitators and have had to consult lawyers. "But in the end, there is only so much you can do," Ms. Pettipas says.
The company sold about 20,000 high-end harnesses last year, and in the first six months since launching the mass-market line they have wholesaled more than 10,000 BB2s to stores. About a third of their sales are in the United States, says Ms. Pettipas; the leather models are marketed most successfully through the Internet and social media channels, via the company's Facebook page, YouTube demonstrations, Instagram photos and so on.
Word of mouth is important, she adds. "A number of retailers say they have heard of us through customers who come in looking for a Buddy Belt."
The aged yet still remarkably peppy Buddy is never far from Ms. Pettipas' side at the Queen West headquarters. He figures prominently in the company's marketing, and already Ms. Pettipas and Mr. Beamish have been planning for the time when he is no longer around.
They have commissioned a local animator to develop a Buddy character, much in the way that KFC animated its founder Colonel Harland Sanders after he passed away.
"It's really about the strength of the brand," Ms. Pettipas says. "People tell us they put a Buddy Belt on their dog and it never comes off."