|A Tail We Could Wag
High in the peaks of central Idaho, six different mountain ranges converge on a breathtaking resort destination called Sun Valley. Nestled in this valley, amid wintry ski slopes and rushing Spring rivers, is the town of Ketchum.
Ketchum is a place that gives new meaning to four-legged friendly. Dogs are welcome just about everywhere, even in the local bank where the goody jars are filled with doggie treats instead of candy. It’s one of the only places in the country where you can take your dog cross-country skiing, and on Saturdays and Sundays, the streets of town are alive with the canine set. It’s that attitude that earned Ketchum the honor, even as far back as 1970, as one of the dog-friendliest places. What better place, one might ask, to set up a dog-related business? That’s exactly what Wendel Wirth did. Wirth moved to Sun Valley in 1988 shortly after earning her undergraduate degree in photography at Denison University in Ohio. She immediately fell in love with the area that has a love affair with dogs. “It was such a beautiful place, and amid all this natural beauty were so many dogs and so many people who loved dogs,” she says.
Wirth’s business tale is proof that some of the best ideas spring from the unlikeliest of sources. Throughout her years in college, she says, she often wore a colorful cloth sash from Guatemala. Shortly after she arrived in Sun Valley, the sash broke and Wirth decided to make it into a dog collar for her dog Aiko, a Newfoundland-Lab mix.
“ After that, wherever I took him, and I took him everywhere, people commented on the collar,” Wirth says. “They told me I should start making them and selling them, but the potential didn’t really sink in at first.”
In 1989, Wirth reluctantly left Sun Valley for graduate school in Maine. She didn’t know it at the time, but only a few months later she would return with a new vision.
While in Maine, Wirth read a poem by W.H. Auden that would eventually supply the remaining inspiration she needed to start her company. She was particularly captivated by a line of the poem that read, “In times of joy, all of us wish we possessed a tail we could wag.” It was the truth of the words, the idea of being one with dogs, which spoke to Wirth. She copied the poem onto a photo of her beloved Aiko.
“I was just driving one day and I had this revelation. It all came together, the poem, the collar and the concept,” she says. “I used the words of the poem ‘a tail we could wag,’ and that was the name and the vision for the company.”
With her vision in mind, Wirth returned to Sun Valley and began acquiring the Guatemalan sashes through a distributor in New York and turning them into collars. She worked in bar and grill in Ketchum where she also sold the collars to locals and other dog-loving tourists. “Those first ones weren’t adjustable, so they would have to tell me their dog’s neck size,” she says. “But they could pick from several colors and things really went well.”
Later that year, Wirth traveled to New York with a backpack full of her collars. Without appointments, she walked into nine trendy pet shops and managed to open accounts with eight of them. “I was walking into an empty market,” she says. “Back then, collars were all one-color and nylon. I was offering them something they really hadn’t seen before, and they liked it.”
After conquering New York, Wirth journeyed to craft shows and folk festivals up and down the East coast. In Newport, Rhode Island, she got a message that the folks at Eddie Bauer were interested in her collars. Thinking the message was a practical joke by her friends, Wirth decided to return the call for a laugh. She was in shock when she learned it really was Eddie Bauer and they wanted her collars included in their upcoming catalog.
With the catalog deal in the bag, Wirth knew she had to get busy making collars. She called on her New York supplier for more sashes, but to her horror, found out that the company had gone out of business. Four days later, she was on a plane bound for Guatemala.
Wirth says losing her supplier and having to go to Central America was one of the best things that could have happened to her budding business. She met a family that wove fabric for her while she was down there, and she says she learned a lot, both about the fabric and the amazing people that created it. She returned home with enough rolls of fabric for 2,000 collars.
Things grew from there bit by bit. Her trip to Guatemala had opened Wirth’s eyes to the material possibilities. She discovered that different villages created different styles and patterns of fabric, and, by learning how the weave works, she was able to design her own patterns and have them woven by the natives. The collars became fully adjustable and capable of fitting breeds from Jack Russell-size all the way up to Mastiffs.
Besides the beauty of the Guatemalan fabric, Wirth says what sets a tail we could wag apart from the rest is the durability of the products, designed to withstand swims in the river and treks across the mountains. “We took the basic product and added strong hardware and a sturdy backing,” she says. “We were slowly combining the product strength and durability that American consumers demand with the beauty of the Guatemalan artisans.”
Other products have been added to the company’s offerings over the years, including key chains and fashionable belts for men and women made from the same Guatemalan fabric. Baseball caps, t-shirts, dog leads, toys and treats are just some of the many things retailers can buy wholesale from the company. Wirth says all of the products have the same message at heart: recognizing the connection between humans and dogs.
Today, a tail we could wag has over 500 accounts in 47 states. The company is also selling products wholesale to retailers in Japan and well-known UK department stores Harod’s and House of Frasier.
Wirth says she would like to see the business increase its market penetration. Besides adding more retailers to the sales list, she says she’s trying to get present suppliers to carry more of the company’s products, thereby offering customers increased selection.
Regular visits to the Guatemalan highlands give Wirth an added incentive to see the business prosper. She says the work the company provides for the weaving villagers has allowed many families to improve their lifestyles. Wirth works directly with an American woman named Erica who handles communications for one of the fair-trade export groups. “I asked her how we are helping these families. She told me about one family that has been able to buy a house and a car, and has just named their newborn daughter Erica after her. And they are just one example family.”
As a fresh-out-of-college idealist, Wirth says her humanitarian desire was squelched by a feeling of helplessness. “I didn’t see how I could make a difference in the world. Large companies with lots of assets have a greater ability to help. But what I realized was that even small companies like mine can supply these disadvantaged people with work and a means of making money through a tradition that is their own. They’re doing something that is close to their hearts, under their own conditions, and they’re prospering from it. Recognizing that was very exciting for me.”
Wirth says it’s important to her that the Guatemalans never get haggled about pricing. The work they do is amazing, she says, and they deserve every bit of compensation.
The fun she has with her customers everyday is yet another reason why Wirth keeps coming back for more. “Working with dog lovers is a great thing,” she says. “We get some great letters and photos from people and their dogs. It’s the ones who really get the Auden poem that appreciate my products? the ones who have a genuine enthusiasm for their pets, who look at their dogs and see the joy in life. … If there’s one thing I would say to my customers, it’s thanks for all their support.”