Bringing Solutions Stateside
U.K.-based The Company of Animals is focused on helping dog owners in the U.S.-and around the world-tackle a variety of common pet issues with an innovative lineup of training and behavior products.
When considering the many vendors in the dog training and behavior category, what better pedigree can retailers look for than a company developed by a world-renowned animal psychologist who has worked on the behavioral issues of dogs belonging to presidents and even the Queen of England? That is precisely the type of credibility that puts The Company of Animals firmly at the head of the pack.
Bred from the practice of Dr. Roger Mugford, a world-renowned animal psychologist and the founder of the Training and Behaviour Centre in Surrey, England, The Company of Animals was established in 1979 with the launch of the HALTI headcollar—a product that was originally developed to help Mugford in his work with canines. “I was working with big, aggressive dogs, including this Irish wolfhound named Lupo, who weighed about 200 pounds,” he explains. “I have lower-back problems, so I thought, ‘How am I going to handle this boisterous dog?’”
The solution came from making some key adjustments to a head halter that was used for calves on the working farm housing Mugford’s Training and Behavior Centre. “I found out that it worked really well, and I could handle the dog with just one finger,” he says. After a few more simple modifications, the HALTI headcollar was born and quickly became popular not only in Europe, but also in the American market, where it was distributed by an established U.S.-based pet product manufacturer.
A first-of-its kind training device, the HALTI was unique in that it allowed pet owners to easily control their dogs while providing maximum comfort and safety for the animals, a big departure from the products that were used for training at the time. “Thirty-five years ago, it was an era of trainers with spike collars and choke chains—just horrible training approaches,” says Mugford. “I wanted to lead a big culture change. It was just so weird to me that dog trainers hadn’t really thought through motivations, or even acknowledged that dogs could have emotions. I wanted to import these concepts.”
The HALTI headcollar has been further refined over the years, going through four major redesigns since its original incarnation.
Using the Training and Behaviour Centre as a research and development lab, Mugford has continued creating products that reflect his approach to dog training, which focuses on positive—rather than negative—motivation. “It has been about making the science behind dog behavior more accessible,” he says. “So, we’ve introduced a range of other training products, including harnesses, long lines, clicker training—all areas in which other companies have introduced products, but we were pioneers.”
Even as The Company of Animals was developing its own comprehensive lineup of dog-training products, it was also building a burgeoning import business that brought popular, complementary American pet brands to Europe. “They’re all somehow connected to welfare or better animal care,” says Mugford, noting that at one time, his company distributed Kong products in Europe. Today, the company brings products from companies such as Sporn, Tuffy dog toys, Pet Head and Fetch … for pets! to that market.
While it is much broader in Europe, the Company of Animals’ import business also extends into the U.S. market, where it distributes the Nina Ottosson line of Swedish interactive puzzles for dogs and the award-winning Green Slow Feeder. “The third-party brands bring some freshness to what we’re about,” Mugford says. “For example, the Green Slow Feeder is a truly great product for saving dogs’ lives because it stops them from getting gastric torsion. The Nina Ottoson interactive games are about improved quality of life for dogs and their people.”
While Mugford was content to have his HALTI headcollar distributed in America by a third party for about two decades, five years ago, he decided that it was time for The Company of Animals to start marketing its own products (including the HALTI) in the U.S. “We had no management of the brand in the United States,” says Mugford. “As we started seeing ourselves as more and more of an international player, we felt like we had to bring the brand back in house, so we could control it.”
The company’s U.S. operations, which are based out of Bridgeport, Conn., are still relatively modest but growing. According to Mugford, technology has been instrumental in enabling the company to seamlessly expand from its U.K. home. “The integration of IT means that we know exactly what goes on in our warehouse 4,000 miles away,” he says. “We are one team, even though there is an ocean between us.
“Technology has also allowed us to take a world view of the pet industry, not just a U.S.- or U.K.-based view. Many companies see an end in itself to be a big fish in their own domestic market. We want to be a medium-size fish in the world market.”
Despite all of the growth that The Company of Animals has experienced over the years, Mugford has stayed true to the roots that originally inspired the invention of his first pet product. “I’m still a farmer, and I still treat dogs,” he says. “I still see about three or four challenging dog cases every week. I still give a lot of lectures to veterinary audiences and academic audiences. I’m still very connected to animals, and that is a side of life I really enjoy.”
Mugford explains that this experience makes him particularly fond of working with small, independent retailers, with whom he feels a certain kinship. “I’m from a peasant farmer sort of background,” he says. “I feel much more comfortable being self employed and dealing with those same independent, family-owned businesses. They’re the salt of the earth, and I would hope that many of them are attracted to the business first because they love animals, and second because they love people.”
Looking ahead, Mugford says that The Company of Animals will continue its focus on offering products that can effectively help pet owners deal with a variety of training and behavior issues. For example, the company is bullish about the Anxiety Wrap, which lessens fear, hyperactivity, insecurity and shyness in dogs. “This is our year of the Anxiety Wrap,” says Mugford. “We are fascinated by the effect of compression, and we bought [The Anxiety Wrap] business started by [dog trainer] Susan Sharpe. We’ve redesigned some elements of the product, and it has been really well received.”
Mugford says that the company is also looking into a variety of other approaches to managing anxiety in dogs. “It’s a good place for us to be, because we don’t want the dogs to be unhappy,” he explains. “A frightened dog is very likely a dangerous dog, and better anxiety management can help.”
Another way that The Company of Animals wants to continue innovating the training and behavior products category is by introducing the concept of longer leads into the U.S. market. “There are a bunch of good companies making dog leads, but most are three feet long,” says Mugford. “I personally believe that dog leads should be longer—[they should be] seven feet. You get so much better control of the dog on a long lead, which sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. That is an education challenge that we face in America.”
When it comes to educating U.S. pet owners on effective training and addressing behavior issues, Mugford is committed to putting an end to outdated harsh techniques. “I’m still distressed at the amount of punitive treatment that goes on with dogs,” he says. “Dog trainers in America are much more harsh than their equivalent in Europe. They’re more likely, for example, to use electric-shock devices. I’d like people to think carefully about the consequences of using shock collars on any dog and look for alternatives.”
In addition to utilizing more subtle psychological approaches, Mugford suggests alternatives such as The Company of Animals’ Pet Corrector, which emits a hiss of compressed gas that safely disrupts a dog’s unwanted behavior. Ultimately, he says, the challenge is to reduce the number of dogs surrendered to shelters each year. “Rescues are carrying somewhere in the area of 10 million dogs a year that are either re-homed or euthanized,” Mugford explains. “And when you consider the total population of about 50 million dogs [in the U.S.], it’s a staggering statistic.”
With so much work left to do in changing the training and behavior paradigm in America, Mugford says that retailers should expect The Company of Animals to remain committed to importing its own science-driven approach stateside. “We are in the United States to stay, and we’ve got an approach that we’re proud to tell Americans about,” he says.