All Work & All Play

How avalanche rescue dogs inspired, tested, and fell in love with our new toys.

As snow blankets ski areas across North America each winter, avalanche rescue dogs go to work keeping us safe on the slopes. These highly-trained dogs and their ski patroller handlers train at their home mountains every day during ski season.

They work in the most extreme weather conditions and demand a lot from their gear – making them excellent partners for wear testing and developing new gear. This season, that gear came in the form of two new toys: the Pacific Ring and Pacific Loop.

Photo by Jay Dash

THE INSPIRATION

Avy dogs learn to find and dig out victims buried in and under snow by practicing in staged avalanche rescue scenarios. As reward for a successful search, they enjoy a play session with their handlers or the “victim” they dig out in digging drills.

Current methods use webbing and rags to engage the dogs in play during a successful dig, but those tools can be cumbersome and distracting to handlers / people in the hole. Attention should be keen on engaging the dog, and it’s a problem to have cold, gloved hands fumbling and failing to hang onto the item engaging the dog.

As Ruffwear product designers participated in these drills over the years, they saw first-hand where the current tools were falling short.

Our goal became clear. Let’s create a better solution for avy dogs and their handlers. Let’s make work more fun, enjoyable, and effective for everyone participating. And hey – if it works for them, it should work for a whole lot of other dogs and folks.

THE APPROACH

Spoiler alert: we started this project in search of a single solution, and ended up with two. Through initial development, two versions of a tug toy seemed to rise to the top. One was ring shaped, and the other was a bit loopy.

Both products were pitched to a bigger team with the intention of picking one and moving on to the wear testing phase of development. But the two toys each held promise – and the dogs in the Product Development room added their two cents by displaying a passionate enthusiasm for both.

The next step forward was clear: let’s test them both.

THE TEST

Field testing is an integral part of product development at Ruffwear. The rougher the dogs are on their gear, the better. Avy dogs and other working dogs like Conservation Canines fill this role perfectly. They get more hours of use and play in a week than most dogs do in a year, quickly revealing areas that need improvement.

For the Pacific Ring and Pacific Loop, we tapped into our network of avy dog teams, Conservation Canines, and some additional wear-testers that have historically proven to be extra tough on their toys.

Here’s a sampling of feedback we received that would impact design.


Pacific Ring Feedback

Don’t care for it as a “tug,” like it more as a Frisbee play toy.

He prefers to bite/tug on the fabric instead of the rope. He started to cause
some tearing in the fabric.

I love the fact you can throw it like a Frisbee!!!

We’ve been using it a few weeks (heavy use, working dog) and it’s holding up. Love the combo fly/tug.

Pacific Loop Feedback

I’ve seen no signs of stress on the seams. Everything is holding up well,
even dragging a 70-pound dog around with it. It has been taken and used as a chew toy. Again, fabric is tough as nails.

The seams appear really robust and give me confidence that it will hold up to rough playing.

I’ve been unintentionally nipped (front teeth grazing the knuckles). Bite Pad needs to be longer and thicker.

Dog doesn’t bite the foam pad. Always goes for thinner area near handles (and my hands).

Avy dog pulling a “victim” from the snow with the Pacific Loop in a digging drill.

THE RESULT

Test, feedback, adjust, test again. It’s a dance our product development team executes with every product.

With this season’s new toys, materials evolved, construction methods were refined, geometry and sizing shifted, and performance was dialed. Testing and feedback even unearthed the unintended appeal of the Pacific Ring as a fling-and-fetch toy in addition to its tug-worthy construction.

Evolution of the Pacific Ring (top) and the Pacific Loop (bottom).

These toys were years in the making and shaped by the very working dogs that inspired them in the first place. Seeing gear perform for them gives us (and hopefully you) confidence that it’ll work for just about everyone else.

Product Designer Monica gets first-hand experience with an avy dog after a successful dig,

Our post on our most recent trip to Wasatch Backcountry Rescue dives deeper into why we love working with avalanche rescue dogs and their handlers. You can learn more there, or feel free to leave a comment below.

One thought

  1. What a great concept! I had never thought of this before, normally you would think that a reward would be a treat but this was really interesting. I don’t think people really consider the thought, planning, design and refinement that goes into creating pet toys and how specialized they can be. Great job guys!

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