Boots for dogs
Back in 1993, there was a major disturbance at Wymott prison in Lancashire, and during the riot several prison dogs were injured when they got glass and other sharp objects in their paws. Head of HM Prison Dogs Service, Steve Allen, decided it was time to better protect prison dogs, and set out to look for someone to help in solve the problem. Two year later, in 1995, a small article appeared in the Prison Service News July/August edition, with the headline ‘Prison Dogs get the Boot!’ He had found his man, the boots were now a reality. And their creator? Douglas Buchanan. Here’s his prison dog boot design:
And here’s a prison dog wearing them:
The boots had to solve several design problems. Firstly, dog feet flex in and splay out as they walk – you can replicate the motion by spreading your fingers as you open your hand and lay it flat on a table, and then lift it up again- the fingers naturally draw back in. Most fabric only stretches in one direction, i.e. in a straight line, and won’t cope with spreading in all directions at once. It’s similar to the grain in a tree, the threads are laid just one way, and couldn’t cope with the movement of a dog’s foot, so would rip, slip or get into tight, uncomfortable rucks. The answer, eventually, was Neoprene, which is wet-suit material. Neoprene is made differently to normal fabric so is able to spread in all directions at once, and is also, as a bonus, tough and water resistant, so could be worn in all weathers.
Secondly, the soles. If you watch a dog walking on a smooth surface, you can see that they naturally slip a bit (or a lot, if they’re running, especially if they then try to turn a corner!). When making boots for dogs, you have to try to replicate the same amount of natural slippage, otherwise the dog just doesn’t understand why its feet are suddenly just sticking to the floor in a strange way and can’t walk in them. Douglas went through lots of different rubber samples to find something that could cope with different conditions, wouldn’t get cut up by glass etc, and would be just slippy enough that the dog could walk normally. He then added metal plates and padding to the insides of the boots to make them truly protective.
Finally, sizing. Like humans, dogs come in different shapes and sizes, and were going to need different size boots. They also, peculiarly, usually have smaller feet on their back legs than at the front, so most dogs take two different sizes of boot. After some deliberation – how many sizes is a useful number to have? 2? 20? 100? – Douglas came up with nine different sizes, with most larger dogs like Alsatians, taking a six, seven or eight in size. Our domestic models, our pet dogs Bertie the labrador and Perdita the pointer, took a size four/five and five/six respectively. Perdita loathed the boots and always walked as though she was trying to step out of them, high-stepping like a dressage money, however Bertie was always chilled out and didn’t mind them so much – here he is getting his close up.
They were a huge success with the prison service, and we made thousands of boots for their dogs for some years. When I spoke to the Prison News magazine this year, they said that boots for prison dogs were standard issue now, very commonplace. We stopped making them years ago, but Douglas’s original idea has gone on to protect thousands of dogs over the years. He was always a dog lover.
However, the story does not stop there. Being a somewhat quirky idea, the idea of boots for dogs attracted quite a bit of media attention and, after appearing on TV, Douglas started to receive hundreds of letters from individual dog owners asking for boots for their dogs, often including paw prints, drawings and photos of the dogs, and details of all the individual ailments of their beloved pooches – allergies, chewing and sucking problems, injuries that wouldn’t heal… the list went on. He started to make a domestic version and we began a sort of impromptu mail order, sending them out to individuals who had written or phoned in, including to one person who had simply addressed their request to Mr Inventor, Ludlow. They were about to pale into insignificance, however, when our next client phoned.
Yes, you read it correctly, the Queen bought some boots for her corgis. Douglas mostly dealt with her staff, however, one day the Queen’s dog keeper did phone and say to Douglas that someone wanted to talk to him. ‘The voice!’ he said later. ‘That voice came onto the phone!’ The Queen herself told him that she thought his dog boots were marvelous. And, from one queen to another… this one always made me smile.
Danny La Rue! So, surely, this was it, the big time, fortune made. Well… as always, not so much. It turns out that it is very expensive to make a product that has so many different parts (off the top of my head, six parts per boot, so 12 for a pair, or 24 for a full set) that are all cut out, hand sewn and finished… in nine different sizes. We had to buy industrial sewing machines capable of sewing the thick, complicated fabrics, tools to cut out all the different shapes of Neoprene, rubber and more, wages to staff to sew them all together, and we could still only make so many in a day. To make the quantities needed to make enough to make some profit, we needed major investment in tools and staff time upfront. And we just couldn’t get either the investment or big enough orders to make it worthwhile. No company would buy enough of these quirky things, and replying individually to hundreds of dog owners was too time intensive to be worth the small amount that people were prepared to pay for them. There is an atmosphere in this country that loves a fun idea, that enjoys laughing at it, and then, ultimately, would rather stick with the way things are than look in anyway strange, new or different. Dog boots, whilst embraced by the prison service as useful equipment, were just a step too comical-looking for everyone else. Even now, all these years later, if you see a dog in boots, I bet your first instinct is to giggle.