SportDOG: Gear the way youd design it

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My dentist, Doc Biehn, was a waterfowler and I always got to check it out when I got my teeth cleaned as a kid. I remember one visit when he handed me a new, Marlin Super Goose he extracted from his closet. I’d never seen anything like the 10 gauge, bolt action shotgun that took a 3.5 inch shell and came with a two-shell clip and full-choked 34-inch barrel. That beast weighed a whopping 10.5 pounds, making it a virtual shoulder-cannon for waterfowlers. I could barely lift the heavy artillery let alone work the bolt without significant muzzle rock. My amazement turned to confusion, and in the end I couldn't see how that firearm would replace my side-by-side or pump in the blind. The Super Goose must have been designed by someone who didn't hunt geese.


SportDOG, the Knoxville, Tennessee manufacturer of sporting dog tracking collars, ecollars, beepers, and other training aids, understands how to develop product. They're hard-core upland bird hunters just as they are serious waterfowlers. Since dogs are an integral part of their personal and professional lives they make "gear the way you'd design it."

My first-hand experience with SportDOG development came several years ago when the grouse and woodcock numbers were rag-tag low. To find them I hit the woods at legal shooting time and stayed as late as the dogs would run. After four grinding days with one SportDOG 1875 ecollar spread across four setters I noticed the battery was running low. That lasted a long time, for my camera battery quit two days earlier. The only reason my cell phone registered 15% was because I had a car charger...and aha, that's it! When I quit the woods a month later one of my first calls was to Gretchen Goodson, the SportDOG marketing manager.

"I think I have an idea for you," I said.
"I'm listening," she said.
"What about making an ecollar battery charger for a truck?"
"The guys said the same thing last year," she said. "It's one of the accessories we're unveiling at SHOT in a month or so."

Answers like that always endear me to a company. And that's SportDOG in a nutshell.


Were it not for karma bolstered by team-play, SportDOG might not have happened. "All of the pieces sort of magically fell into place," Lance Tracy, the COO at Radio Systems and founder of SportDOG said. "After getting an engineering degree and working for a few different companies, my friend Mike Westricht hired me to work at Innotek, the company he founded. Mike's goal was to fill a need for a variety of sporting dog ecollars. In those days, hunters had a selection limited to one very large Tritronics collar which came with one stim level. Mike and I created a product line that would make dog hunters of all types smile. They were smaller, waterproof, and had varying stim levels capable of training all kinds of dogs. Sales were strong and we all worked great together.

"Things changed in 2000 when Innotek was sold to a private equity group. At that time I was the Vice President of Sales and stayed on for a year and a half following the merger. One day, I took a call from Willie Wallace, a former colleague, who moved from Innotek to Radio Systems Corporation. RSC wanted to expand into the sporting dog business, and Willie asked if I would head the division. All that Willie had trademarked was the name, so we founded SportDOG in 2002 and attended our first trade SHOT Show in 2003.

"Having a large parent company like Radio Systems is a tremendous benefit for SportDOG. There is a type of halo affect where technology developed for products of a significantly larger market carries over into our niche vertical. Several years ago I was on a Great Lakes grouse hunt and my setter ran way out ahead. Conversation turned to 'wouldn't it be nice to have a GPS tracking collar to see where the dog is? TEK 1 was born out of that hunt, and its improved version TEK 2 is widely used by bird doggers and houndsmen alike. I'm fortunate to work with so many talented folks, all of whom hunt and look for innovative ways to build products that make running dogs more pleasurable. Our company is like one-big family, and since we all love what we're doing it's common not to notice that it's 7 PM and it's time to go home."


Associate Director Darrell Douglas joined SportDOG following a career at Cabela's. "In college I worked at the Sydney, Nebraska retail store," he said. "After graduation I became a buyer, and SportDOG was one of my many vendors. When an opportunity to join them came up I didn't hesitate. One main reason was because I always appreciated their customer-centric culture. Relying on customer feedback and creating solutions-oriented products for them is a company cornerstone.

"Product development centers around an analysis of what needs are currently not being served in the market. We rough out potential new product ideas and vet them through internal focus groups. Later on we cross-reference decisions by including external users who are among the most-experienced dog trainers and handlers in the country. Additional research continues and ultimately results in prototypes. When we believe a product is ready we'll send samples into the field for testing. Our new SportDOG Brand X-Series is a great example. It includes 21 different stim levels along with vibration and tone. Any handler can find the exact level of training stim across any breed of dog. The fact that we all hunt with products we've designed really makes us like our customers."

Sometimes passion outweighs reason, and that's why Category Manager Clay Thompson left a lucrative oil and gas career to join SportDOG. "Lance knew my dad, and we first met on a hunt 30 years ago," he said. "Interestingly enough I next saw Lance on a dove hunt some 16 years later. He had a position open, and offered me a job. I never thought I could have a career in the hunting space, but coming to Tennessee was a dream come true. It's sort of a family joke because my grandfather is convinced that all I do is hunt. I do hunt a lot, but the majority of my time is spent studying spreadsheets.


"Finding ways to push the technological envelope and to help hunters enjoy more of their time in the field is what SportDOG is all about. The ultimate compliment comes when a customer tells me about his dog's great retrieve that came about from better off-leash control. We work hard to design products that resolves hunters' pain points. Our customers love to participate in our surveys as some results post industry-unique 75% response rates. Our customers talk because they know we're listening; it's a wonderful experience."

Many folks encounter Josh Miller, the Product Training Specialist and Pro Staff Manager. When the Eukanuba Pro Staffer is not breeding or training dogs at his own River Stone Kennels, Miller is on the road working with retailers and pro trainers, or speaking with customers at trade and consumer shows. "Getting feedback is what SportDOG is about. That means we'll listen to the good as much as the bad," he said. "I channel end-user feedback to our research and development team which translates into redesigned and innovative new products. I'll work with field trialers, hunting guides, heavy-users, and casual hunters all-year long. Everyone has experience with our products, and the more we hear the better our product can be."



SportDOG isn't just about developing high-quality ecollars, beepers, anti-bark collars, or bird launchers. As a company they're fully vested in hunting. Every year their Conservation Grant Program donates cash and products to national organizations like Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, and Quail Unlimited. They also donate to grass-roots level chapters that seek to improve habitat, open space, and better quantities of game. To date, SportDOG has donated over a quarter-million dollars to these projects. Conservation donations is just another way the company enhances time spent in the fields and marshes with family, friends, and, of course, dogs.



To paraphrase the late Gene Hill, when hunters finally find a product they like they should buy 10; the odds are high that at that time the manufacturer will discontinue it. 20,000 Super Goose bolt actions were made, but I'd bet the odds are high that no one owns several. But there is no reason to stockpile SportDOG products, either. With a motto of 'gear the way you'd design it' SportDOG always has new product every year that you just can't live without.

 


About the Author

Tom Keer
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Tom Keer owns The Keer Group, an outdoor marketing company which works perfectly with his freelance writing career. He casts his four English setters in Northeast upland coverts and Southern quail fields with fortunate regularity. Hes been lucky to be surrounded by people and dogs that are much smarter than him. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or at www.tomkeer.com

 


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