Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Story by: BENJAMIN LERNER
Photography courtesy: SPOT THE DOG
From the winding woodland paths of the northern Appalachian Trail to the secluded freshwater beaches of Lake Champlain, Vermont’s stunning natural landscapes provide ideal environments for dog lovers of all ages to come and enjoy the great outdoors with their canine companions. When hunting season reaches its peak in the late autumn months, visibility is key to ensure the continued safety of every person and pet who venture through the Green Mountain forests.
Offering a variety of stylish and distinct reflective safety-wear options for dogs of all shapes and sizes, Spot the Dog’s fashionably practical product line has won over the hearts of dog owners across the country. It all started in 1993, a few years after Spot the Dog CEO Mark Brooks left the hectic and bustling avenues of New York City and moved to South Hero Island in Northern Vermont with his wife and business partner Mary Powell. Mark says that from the very first time Mary brought him up to her family vacation home on Lake Champlain, he “fell in love with Vermont. It’s an incredible place. There are so many wonderful communities throughout the state that are filled with such genuine and caring people.”
After moving to Vermont, Mary created the first line of Spot the Dog products to help better protect their dogs during hunting season. When Spot the Dog officially went into business a year later in 1994, many of their friends were skeptical of the growth potential behind the concept. Mark explains that he and Mary “have always had a lot of dogs. She wanted to create a reflective safety vest for our dogs so that they would be more visible to hunters, and on any road with cars. When she started, most people told her that she was crazy. They thought that no one was going to buy fluorescent protective wear for dogs, but it turned out that they were completely wrong. People really connected with the products. It has been absolutely incredible to witness the growth of the company over the years.” Available in a number of eye-catching designs such as “Classic Orange” and reflective red and green “Puppy Plaid”, the current protective wear product line includes a dashing assortment of reflective vests, collars, and bandanas. Mark attributes Spot the Dog’s continued success and adaptability to the visual appeal of their products and the continuous incorporation of customer feedback into their research and design process. Mark says that when Spot the Dog was originally founded, “there was nothing on the market that occupied our niche. Years later, there is still nobody that we’re aware of that makes bandanas the way we make them. For us, the formula for success has always come down to a balanced mixture of aesthetics and practicality: the product has to look good and perform well. It has to be both appealing and easy to attach. Everything that we make is always tested out on our dogs first. That's where we find our mistakes. That’s where we get our development ideas. We look at it as part of our growth.”
Mark explains, “We also like to incorporate personal feedback from our friends, our local community members, and our customers. People have been wonderful over the years in terms of telling us what works and what doesn’t work for them. It’s not uncommon for people to stop us out in public in Vermont and ask about our products when they see them on one of our dogs. It works the other way, too. Sometimes we’ll be out and about and see one of our products on a dog walking by. I often start conversations with people by saying, ‘I see you’re using one of our products. How is it?’ That’s one of the things I love about Vermont: the people are very honest. You can get instant feedback and you can take that information and continue to incorporate it into your product development. It’s a wonderful way to conduct research. As we continue to incorporate this feedback into our design changes over the years, the question always remains: ‘How do you reflect the largest amount of light possible while still making a stylish and appealing product?’ What’s incredible is that if a dog goes into a dark area with one of our products on and you shine just the tiniest bit of light in its direction, it just lights up brilliantly. The light drives around the edges where we’ve put the reflective piping and bounces off of it with wonderfully intense brightness.”
As Spot the Dog expanded, their customer base grew well past the confines of the dense and rural forests of New England. Feedback from their newfound suburban and cosmopolitan clientele offered key insight into the usefulness and versatility of Spot the Dog products. As Mark points out, “It’s not just about protecting the dogs, it’s about protecting the owners, as well. A lot of the time when people use our products in suburban areas, they’re not necessarily going out into the woods. They may be in a park or out walking on the street. Safety is important everywhere, no matter where you go. Whether you’re walking through the woods or running through the city, having the ability to both see and be seen is essential for peace of mind.”
When Spot the Dog’s products were chosen as one of Oprah Winfrey’s “Favorite Things” in 2019, the celebrity co-sign helped Spot the Dog expand their market reach even further. Mark describes the process of working with Oprah’s organization as “a wonderful opportunity. Oprah’s team does a lot of research. They found us on social media platforms and asked us if we wanted to be considered for involvement. It was a long selection process after they contacted us. They didn’t just choose us and throw us on the list. We had to prove that our inclusion would be beneficial to the viewers and readers that had grown to trust Oprah. It was an incredible platform for growth. In my experience as a business owner, that’s the kind of recognition that you just can’t buy. It’s not like buying an ad. It’s getting the stamp of approval of a trusted celebrity choosing your product and saying, ‘we tried this, and we think you will like it!’ Sales went up immediately. We reached new markets in parts of the U.S. that we’ve never been able to reach.”
Mark believes Spot the Dog wouldn’t have been chosen for Oprah’s list, if he hadn’t gotten assistance from other Vermonters.
“Early on in the process, I didn’t know anything about how to navigate the selection process. Dave Bradbury at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology was very helpful. He opened up connections in Vermont for us with other businesses who had also been chosen before by Oprah. Having access to people who genuinely want you to succeed is just fantastic. We got the most incredible input and advice from the Runamok Maple Syrup team - especially their President, Curt Alpeter. They supported us through the whole thing. That’s another thing that’s great about Vermont: the business community is so helpful and gracious. Working with Oprah was a wonderful ride. We had a great time with it.”
Spot the Dog has also made an adventurous foray into the emerging market of inter-species snacks with their “Yaff Bar” product line. Made with all-natural ingredients, the bars are safe for both canine and human consumption. Bringing people together through a novel bonding experience, Yaff Bars allow dog owners to share a healthy and tasty treat with their pets.
Mark says that “the idea for the Yaff Bar came into being when Mary suggested to me that I should make an edible treat that we could share with our dogs. It was one of those small conversations that turned into something big. When you’re training a dog, the dog is going to listen and learn a lot faster if you have a treat for them. I wanted to develop something that people could share with their dog, but it had to be delicious. With that idea in mind, I used my skills from my other career as a classically-trained, French chef to develop recipes for the Yaff Bars. I wanted to make an energy bar that could hold its own against the top-selling energy bars on the market that were marketed purely for human consumption. It couldn’t just be good. It had to be great.”
Available in “Honey-Cran-Nutty”, “Blueberry Crisp”, and “P-Nutty Buddy” flavors, the bars are the official snack of Mark and Mary’s dynamically diverse group of dogs. Known collectively as the “Yaff Crew”, their adorable outdoor adventures are chronicled on the official Spot the Dog Instagram page. Mark says that although there are too many beautiful spots in Vermont to pick a favorite place to take the dogs, he and Mary love to “take them up to Mansfield and to Camel’s Hump. They love the lake as well, so we’ll find beaches where you can take dogs and hikes that will lead you to the lake and take them there. I think Vermont is a great place to both raise a dog and bring a dog to visit. The natural beauty of the state is awe-inspiring.”
Mark says that one of the other primary reasons that Vermont is a great state to raise a dog stems from the fact that “there are a lot of groups in Vermont that help to match rescue dogs in desperate need of permanent homes with prospective adopters.” Through a philanthropic partnership with Golden Huggs Rescue, Spot the Dog donates 10% of their sales to the Waitsfield, Vermont-based nonprofit rescue organization.
Mark and Mary share a personal connection with Golden Huggs, as several of the dogs they have brought into their home have been adopted from there. Mark describes Golden Huggs as a “marvelous organization. It’s been incredible to partner with Brigitte Ritchie and everyone else who works there. Being able to help them provide homes to dogs in need has been so fulfilling. What I love about Vermont is that it’s small enough that you can connect with people who really care. You can connect with people that want to make a change.” Mark and Mary are firm believers in the healing power that many people experience through connection with their dogs. They believe that the time an owner spends with their dog helps to stimulate emotional growth and also helps people open themselves up to other meaningful social connections.
According to Mark, “having a dog in your life forces you to take care of something other than yourself. When a dog needs to eat or drink, they need you. When a dog needs to go outside, they need you. I think when you adopt a dog, it makes you reach beyond yourself. It changes your priorities. It doesn’t just connect you to other dogs, it connects you to other people as well. Dogs just have a way of opening your heart. They don’t always listen. You have to find effective ways of convincing them to cooperate with you. I don’t think that you can force dogs to do anything that they don’t want to do. I think that you have to work with them in a kind and loving way. From my experience, owning dogs has given me the chance to develop into a more patient and loving person.”
By creating a line of nutritious snacks and safety products that bring people closer to their dogs, Mark and Mary have helped dog owners everywhere strengthen their symbiotic bond of love and trust with their pets. By helping potential owners connect with animals in need through their partnership with Golden Huggs, they have brightened the lives of dog lovers throughout the state of Vermont and beyond. As Mark puts it, “when we become willing to take a moment to help a dog in need, we get back more than we ever expected in return.” The reflective surfaces of Spot the Dog’s products serve as a material testament to that exact philosophy: when you shine a light in the darkness where it’s needed most, it shines back at you just as bright.
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