The Harness Maker
This artist, turning down a lucrative job offer to instead follow a path of entrepreneurship, created an innovative harness that has formed the cornerstone of her successful pet products company

Full-time, well-paying jobs for art teachers can be hard to find. So when the Toronto school board offered Roxanne Pettipas a full-time, salaried position with benefits it was a golden opportunity, a rare and coveted break that might never happen again. But instead of ecstatically exclaiming she would take the position, Roxanne turned it down.

“I just felt I had to take a risk,” explains Roxanne. “If I didn’t, I would regret it.”

The risk involved a manufacturing venture, namely, launching a pet products company. Today, the former art teacher turned inventor is the creator of the Buddy Belt, an innovative, easy-to-use harness that takes pressure off a dog’s neck and trachea when walked on-leash.

It all started in the 1990s when she took her one-year-old dog, Buddy, a Miniature Dachshund, for walks on-leash and was alarmed to find he was choking. Roxanne wondered if the collar was putting pressure on his windpipe. She looked around for harnesses to solve the problem but was disappointed with what she found, discovering them to be awkward and bulky.

An art teacher by profession, Roxanne is an imaginative, creative person with a flair for visual design. She was also used to improvising with everyday materials for her art projects. At the time, Roxanne was using rubber in her art classes. Could she use it to fashion something for Buddy?

She came up with a funky design that looked somewhat like a ladies’ brassiere—except there were holes where the cups should have been. Roxanne put Buddy’s front legs through the two loops of the ‘bra’ and then fastened the strap at his shoulders. “It was a bit crude but it worked,” explains Roxanne. “He was much more comfortable on walks and there was no stress on his neck.” It also put her more at ease on walks because she didn’t have the stress of listening to her beloved pet gasping for air.

After fashioning the rudimentary rubber model, Roxanne started to experiment with leather, roaming vintage stores for old-fashioned leather coats and gathering remnants from leather shops. Roxanne continued to test her evolving design on the always amiable Buddy and soon, the miniature Dachshund was sporting ever more fashionable iterations. Buddy gained the attention of onlookers whenever they went for walks. “Kids would ask, ‘Where did you get that harness?’” Roxanne recalls, “and then they would say, ‘I want one.’”

And so this art teacher started making harnesses by hand to fill the growing demand. “At the time,” Roxanne explains, “I had no templates, and I was using the enlarging and reducing buttons on the photocopier to create patterns of different sizes.” She also faced another challenge when she had to learn how to use a heavy-duty industrial sewing machine.

“The demand just kept coming,” explains Roxanne, “and so I didn’t stop.”

In 2003, she acquired a clicker press, a widely used die cutting machine, which enabled her to cut the leather by machine instead of by hand and thus expand production. She also asked veterinarians and other health care specialists to review her design. Dr. Leo Rosenberg, a certified animal chiropractor who works with Pets in Motion, a Toronto-based company providing adjustments to pets’ spines and extremities to improve range of motion and joint mobility, tested her creation and validated her own findings, concluding the “Buddy Belt enhances proper function and health.”

As a teacher, Roxanne had no training in the nuts and bolts of running a business. The aspiring entrepreneur decided to study with Biz Launch, one of the largest small business training companies in North America. Developed by entrepreneur Andrew Patricio, an internationally recognized business expert, the company offers a wide range of seminars, webinars, and resource guides designed to teach budding business owners. “The courses were given by actual entrepreneurs and tailored to meet the needs of creative, industrial, entrepreneurial types,” explains Roxanne. “It was much better than taking ‘Business 101’ at university, where I would have just fallen asleep.”

By 2003, Roxanne was ready for the next step and moved her steadily expanding business into a Toronto factory space. The company now employs more than 30 people and showcases its products in pet stores throughout North America as well as internationally. They offer two product lines, a high-end leather harness as well as a less expensive synthetic leather product, called Buddy Belt 2 (BB2). The harnesses are available in a multitude of colours and designs, and fit tiny dogs weighing less than a two pounds to those weighing 100 pounds or more. The company also sells accessories such as matching ID collars, leashes, and liners. Sadly, Roxanne’s beloved Miniature Dachshund, Buddy, passed away a few years ago at the age of 18. The little dog was a vital part of her family and she knew that losing him would be hard. Even so, she says, she never anticipated the deep and long-lasting pain that his loss caused her, though she takes comfort from her business named in his honour. “Because of him,” she notes, “I made something that matters and brings joy to so many families.”