Dog clothes and harnesses handmade in the Shaftesbury area are being exported all over the world. Alfred visited Dorset Dog Togs in Shearstock to hear what well-dressed dogs are wearing and how rugby-loving dog owners are styling their pets.
For the past seven years, Sara Dutton and Jocelyn Jackson have owned Dorset Dog Togs. Business is booming as canine clothing has become more popular, but Jocelyn says the concept has been around for years.
“People have always used dog coats in really bad weather, particularly for dogs in centrally heated houses. The problem is most of the coats you can buy in the main pet stores are ‘one size fits all’ – and they don’t,” said Jocelyn.
And that’s the reason for the success of this North Dorset business. The coats are custom-made. Sherstock is the Savile Row for dogs. “We started off on quite a small scale and it’s gradually taken over more and more of our lives,” said Jocelyn.
Sara and Jocelyn’s working relationship started from conversations at the school gates. “Our children both went to Motcombe Primary School. We met there,” added Sara. Both women were employed in entirely different fields. “Sara was working in silver clay jewellery. I was giving her a hand occasionally with a bit of computer work. One day she said, ‘I’ve just seen this little business advertised which I quite fancy looking at. Come along and keep me company’. It was someone who’d been making a few coats for shows. She had some fabrics and a sewing machine and didn’t want very much for it,” Sara said.
“It looked like the makings of a good business,” she continued. “It sort of went from there. Initially, with a lot of the sewing and the fabrics, I kept it in my house. I had some space in a barn. We quickly realised we needed more professional premises. We wanted people to be able to come in and see what we were doing, try the coats and see the other products that we were stocking.”
Sara still remembers their first customer. “It was a springer called Charlie from Swanage. His owner still comes back to us. They’ve got a new dog now,” Sara said.
To make sure the clothing fits, the women measure each dog. “That’s always good fun. The best bit is meeting with dogs and owners. We get on our hands and knees, taking neck, girth and length measurements,” she explained.
I didn’t know that dogs have an inside leg measurement. “Some of them do,” laughed Sara. “The biggest thing we’ve made is a set of overalls for a show dog, a Newfoundland. Jocelyn could get into them almost, they were so big. Each breed has its distinguishing features, and you get so many crossbreeds now. They’re all such different shapes and sizes,” said Sara.
And she says you have to treat the dogs in the right way. “I just think you have to always remember that dog is an animal and maybe not approach it the same way you would children or adults. You respect the dog. You get down to its level,” Sara advised.
Jocelyn agreed. “If we get a dog that’s a bit nervous or anxious with strangers, I defer to Sara, our ‘dog whisperer’. She has a knack with highly strung dogs,” she said.
Jocelyn says each day is filled with a sense of job satisfaction. “One of the nicest things about getting the fit right is we often get people saying, ‘I’d love to put a coat on my dog, but it just won’t walk in a coat’. If it won’t walk in a coat, it’s telling you the fit is wrong. We try different shapes and styles. When we get it right, the dog carries on as if nothing has changed. That’s satisfying to see,” said Jocelyn.
With such a personal and specialised service, it’s not surprising that dog coat commissions are received from all over the UK and further afield. “We’ve had orders go to Scotland, Switzerland, Germany, Australia and America. We help them with a diagram of how to measure,” Sara said.
“The harness coat is probably our most successful design, because more dogs are wearing walking harnesses. When you put a coat over the top of the harness, it’s a problem for owners. We’ve got a coat that we’ve designed which will go on and come off easily over the top of the walking harness,” said Jocelyn.
Like humans, certain designs flatter different body shapes. “There are particular dogs where you need have quite a shallow pattern, that comes up off the shoulders at the front. Whippets and hounds need a particular pattern because of the curve,” said Sara.
Some owners have wanted to dress their dogs like themselves. “We have been asked for wax jackets but that’s not something we do for dogs, because the fabric is so stiff. Most dogs tend not to be comfortable in it.”
The women have learned which materials work best. “We use a four-ounce waterproof polyester. It’s a really durable fabric, but it’s also got a nice feel as well. Our most popular lining is usually a polar fleece,” Jocelyn said.
Colour coordinating with the owners is quite common and Jocelyn says it’s not uncommon for customers to show their pets the patterns and ask for approval. No dogs have responded – so far. “We’ve seen a lot of things, but we haven’t seen that yet,” she laughed.
Sara and Jocelyn have had some quirky requests. A local rugby fan wanted to show the world that their pet supported their team. “We’ve converted a Bath rugby shirt. The parents were big followers and they asked us to customise it, so the dog could be wearing Bath Rugby colours,” said Sara.
I waked upstairs in the split-level premises and dozens of patterns were hanging up on clothing rails, waiting for Sara and Jocelyn to fulfil the orders. “I do actually dream about dog coats,” said Sara. I asked if they were nice dreams, rather than dog coat nightmares. “Only at Christmas, when you’ve got to meet the post and you wake in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, asking yourself, ‘Have I done them all?’” Sara laughed.
Locals can stop and browse at the showroom. A simple sign indicates whether the woman are receiving visitors. “If the board is on the (Shaftesbury to Gillingham) road it means we’re open for visitors. We get people popping in to see what we’re doing, to try coats or they are looking for collars and leads,” said Jocelyn.
You can find the business online at DorsetDogTogs.co.uk.