Duluth company cushions sled dogs' steps in Beargrease
You could say the suiting up process for the 390-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon kicking off this Sunday begins in a backroom of the Goodwill building along Garfield Avenue.
That's where Louise Russell and other women work at sewing tables making dog booties out of colorful stacks of tough fabric.
They are three of a cadre of eight who sew full time at Dogbooties.com, which has quietly grown into one of the biggest dog booty makers in the world.
"These other companies don't even compare. She's gotten so big," said musher Matt Rossi, owner of Bark River Racing and Rides, in Herbster, Wis.
A 12-year competitive dog sledder, Rossi goes through about 3,000 booties a year on his dogs, and now is sponsored by Booties.com.
The company has shipped booties to dog owners and mushers through all 50 states, along with Australia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Spain and New Zealand.
And while business particularly picks up when the snow falls, this year has been particularly feverish, after a brief mention Dec. 16 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the company's products.
"It's been a little nuts," admitted Russell, the company's owner. She has received more than 2,000 Internet orders since the mention in the paper.
Russell, who was a nurse before buying this business, originally didn't envision becoming a heavyweight in the dog booty business.
She originally bought the Arrowhead Fabric business in 1991, where she mainly supplied pieces of tough fabric to people to repair outdoor items like sleeping bags and backpacks.
In 1996, some area mushers asked for something to cover their dog's feet. By 1999 it became by far the best-selling item she made, Russell said. In 2008 alone, the company made 140,000 booties. The company also makes leashes, collars and jackets for dogs.
Renee Johnstone, co-owner of Top Dog Boutique, started ordering the booties last month, and already has sold about 300 sets of four to customers.
"I wish I would have done it two years ago," Johnstone said.
She said the biggest advantage of these booties over the myriad she's tried through the years is the design. They fit more snuggly on paws however small or big the dog and, thanks to a Velcro strap, they don't slip off.
But don't mistake this company's products as catering primarily to the pampered pooch types. The opening line of the company's Web site features a dog sledding team.
"Ours are not cutesy bootsey," Russell said.
In cold weather, the booties are used to keep snow from getting between pads of the dog's paws.
In extremely hot areas, customers buy them for dogs to keep their paws from getting too hot on the pavement.
"We get a lot from people in Arizona," Russell said.
The company sells eight colors and different materials -- some geared for larger dogs running through snow, others for protection from salt or mud in the street or backyard. Some owners buy the booties for elderly dogs requiring more traction on slick wood floors, or as protection on a paw as a wound heals.
The booties look similar to mittens, with a Velcro strap that wraps around the top.
Professional mushers often go through 2,000 booties a year, particularly during races, where they'll put new ones on between checkpoints.
"Once we're in the snow we booty every dog's foot every run," Rossi said.
For dog sledders they're a necessity, especially when it gets well below freezing.
"The snow almost gets abrasive like sandpaper," said veteran musher Mark Black of Grand Marais. "Louise has some of the best booties around," he said.
Unlike other companies that have exported the labor to Asia, the manufacturing is all done locally in Duluth, Russell said. Still, she says she can sell her booties slightly cheaper than some competitors, at $10 for four.
For information on the company, go to Dogbooties.com.