Expo offers clever products to sooth, amuse or groom any pet

New York TimesMarch 22, 2014 

— The takeaway from the Global Pet Expo, at which 985 exhibitors of pet products were spread out over 13 football fields’ worth of real estate in the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, is that Americans really love their dogs. And yet, perhaps as a result of so much love, those dogs are increasingly anxious, bored, overweight and messy, and they have terrible breath. They suffer from separation anxiety, and they worry about thunderstorms, traffic noises, visitors and vacuum cleaners. Their joints ache, and they eat too fast; they chew the furniture and bedevil the neighbors with their barking. Also, drool happens.

But such a thicket of issues encourages ingenuity – as does, presumably, the promise of a huge payday. Last year, Americans spent $55.7 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association, the group that sponsored the three-day event earlier this month. And next year’s spending, it estimated, will rise to $58.5 billion.

There were more than 3,000 new products at the show, and while Pet Expo is theoretically a big tent that aims to address all appetites, this reporter noted only a smattering of booths devoted to the affairs of cats, reptiles, fish and small rodents. Really, dogs are more interesting than betas, if more problematic behavior-wise. And you can dress them, too.

On the way to the farthest, chilliest corner of the convention center where many of the new exhibitors were planted, there were fleece dog snoods (the Doggy Dickey, from American Dog Apparel, $25); hand-smocked dog dresses from Oscar Newman Pet Couture ($72 to $79); and natty raincoats with detachable hoods (starting at about $40) from Push Pushi, whose chief operating officer, Steffen Kuehr, has another company that makes protective gear such as kneepads for the military.

Also trawling the aisles was Lauren Darr, founder of the International Association of Pet Fashion Professionals (motto: Unleashing Pet Style, One Designer at a Time). Don’t snicker. Darr said her organization, started in August, already had 2,000 such pros in its database.

She stopped to chat with Chris Martin and his 14-year-old daughter, Brooke, newbies at the show. It was a golden retriever’s separation anxiety that led Brooke, now a ninth-grader in Spokane, Wash., to invent the iCPooch (about $150), a video-chat/treat dispenser that works with a smartphone, tablet or computer. Last year, when Brooke brought the notion – inspired, she said, by Pez dispensers and the abundance of wireless monitoring technologies – to Spokane’s annual Start Up Weekend, a 54-hour workshop and business competition, she received a standing ovation. Since then, she has raised nearly $30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and “several hundred thousand dollars more in angel funds,” her father said.

Grinning at Darr, the pet fashion group founder, and perhaps imagining an iCPooch in every household with dogs (there are 56.7 million such households in the United States, according to the pet products association), Chris Martin added, “Imagine their embarrassment if they weren’t properly attired when you called to talk to them,” meaning the dogs.

It was dog slobber that spurred the invention of the Fetchbee, a Frisbee-esque plastic disc (about $25) with a clip-on/clip-off arm that enables you to hurl it over and over again without getting drool all over your hands. Or mud. Or having to bend down.

Adriaan Smit, its creator, is a South African engineer living in Portland, Ore., who earlier invented the WavyWand, a human toy that makes trippy light trails with LEDs. His company, Real Innovators, was also presenting the Tabby Tamer (about $15), an orange plastic clip like those that close the tops of potato chip bags, only this one is designed to grab the scruff of a cat’s neck and immobilize it.

Driven to ecstasy

Three generations of the Hamill family were presenting the adorable iFetch (about $100), an “on demand” battery-operated ball launcher. It’s made for relentless, fetch-obsessed canines; you know who they are. Clever dogs can learn to drop a small ball into the opening on top, and then the iFetch, which has an appealing, biomorphic design like a white plastic teakettle, shoots the ball out of another opening.

Judging from the video, most dogs are driven to ecstasy by the device. It was developed, said Grant Hamill, 20, for Prancer, the family’s toy poodle, whose incessant ball dropping was making him crazy. Unfortunately, he added, “Prancer is kind of dumb, and he only likes it when Mom throws the ball.”

The K-9 Kannon Mini from Hyper Pet (about $26), does require the human touch, yet its range of 75 feet would certainly buy time. Like the Fetchbee, the Kannon is made for hands-free pickup, to separate you from drool-soaked balls.

Elsie Hamilton, an artist from Denver, had harvested dog hair from her miniature Australian shepherd, Lilly, to demonstrate her product, the Be Forever Furless Lilly Brush (about $20). You wonder what the baggage handlers made of her fur-filled luggage. In any case, Henry Strazza, her colleague, had taken a Zyrtec.

Hamilton, who wore a rickrack-trimmed apron that she had made herself, spread Lilly’s dark fur onto a white cotton mat and then Lilly-ed it up, for three days straight. The floor of Hamilton and Strazza’s booth wore clumps of Lilly’s hair. Hamilton invented the brush a few years ago while she was recuperating from a heart attack and was forbidden to use a vacuum cleaner by doctor’s order. Lilly spent those weeks keeping Hamilton company on the sofa, shedding enthusiastically, though with love.

Thunder protection

For truly anxious dogs, there is the Kong Anxiety-Reducing Shirt (about $35), an iteration of the ThunderShirt, a product made by a Durham-based company. Like the hug machine that Temple Grandin, the autistic scientist, invented for herself when she was a child, these shirts soothe dogs with gentle pressure, said Anna Jane Grossman, owner of School for the Dogs, a training program in Manhattan, whom I phoned after the show.

“It’s like swaddling, and they are in the category of what I call, ‘Can’t hurt, might help,’ ” Grossman said. “Particularly for dogs who are afraid of thunder. Maybe it’s the change in barometric pressure, or the static in the air. You could use an Ace bandage, or any tight shirt.”

The Kong shirt is made from a stretchy black fabric and comes with a lavender sachet, in six sizes, from teacup to Rottweiler.

We stopped short, gape-mouthed, at the booth of Corey Drew, a furniture designer in Savannah, Ga. There was a louche black-leather lounger topped with a sheepskin and a sleek metal, bamboo and Ultrasuede daybed with an orthopedic cushion (about $170 each). Here was the Design Within Reach of pet furniture; note the sisal-and-bamboo cat scratcher ($149) and the acacia-wood-and-stainless-steel pet bowls ($39 for a set of two).

But despite our effusive compliments and the attentions of a representative from AmazonCanada, Drew was fretting. His booth’s design materials – made from white plastic and laminate, as in a high-end nightclub – had been fabricated in South Florida and trucked to the show. Or that was the plan. Drew said the truck had been pulled over for speeding and the driver arrested on drug charges. He would have to collect his materials from the evidence room, he said he was told by the police.

“I’ll look legitimate tomorrow,” he said. “Today I look like a flea market.”

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