Fashioning a cure for canine identity crises

Deziner Dogs founder Heather Lehrman.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Heather Lehrman has learned a thing or two about Kickstarter campaigns.

Her effort to raise $17,000 through the popular crowdfunding site to expand the wares of her burgeoning pet-fashion enterprise is less than two weeks old. But with only $1,329 raised through Wednesday afternoon – a whisker below 8 percent of her goal, with 10 days down and 35 to go – she understands Kickstarter might not be the answer for Deziner Dogs LLC.

At least, not yet.

One of the first things she learned about online crowdfunding, Lehrman noted, is that the bigger your following going in, the better your chances of hitting your fundraising goal. And while her five-year-old Glen Cove-based dog-walking and pet-sitting franchise, In Home Pet Services, has a healthy herd of customers, Deziner Dogs just incorporated in January and her e-store went live just one month ago.

In short, Lehrman’s puppy-love product line hasn’t had a chance yet to reach the masses.

yorkieWhen it does, Lehrman is sure this dog will hunt, especially if she’s able to raise that $17,000 and expand her product offerings. Right now, DezinerDogs.com offers apparel and accessories for certain smaller breeds – a blue hoodie for your Pomeranian, a pink tank-top for your French bulldog – but the inventor is setting her sites on bigger things, literally: Her goal is to outfit larger breeds, too, with on-demand customization for dogs of virtually any size.

Lehrman’s dreams of becoming the Prada of pets stems from her In Home Pet Services franchise, which she launched five years ago. As the exclusive provider for several Gold Coast hamlets – her territory spans Nassau’s North Shore from Glen Cove to Manhasset – the entrepreneur has become a busy pet-service provider, with over 250 clients, and she and her rotating staff of dog-walkers are often stopped by passers-by inquiring about particular breeds.

“People asked me or my dog-walkers every day, ‘What kind of dog is that?’” she said. “So my lightbulb went off.”

The dog-lover soon conceived an apparel line that not only kept Man’s Best Friend warm and dry, but identified an animal’s breed and even its gender.

Lehrman designed her company’s logo, a paw print noting “I Am A” followed by the dog’s specific breed, and “went straight to an attorney.” The logo and the “Deziner Dogs” name – not to be confused with “Designer Dogs,” a common catchphrase describing popular crossbreeds like the YorkiePoo – are both in the process of being trademarked, she said.

Rather than wait for those trademarks, Lerhman plunged ahead with her startup, incorporating and launching the e-store last month. The setup now is a little different than what she envisions for the future: Post-expansion, the entrepreneur wants customers to be able to select a garment and customize it based on their pet’s size, breed and gender, with that wider range of available sizes and new selections including doggie raincoats.

But for now, customers must choose from Deziner Dogs’ supply of pre-printed hoodies and tank-tops, which are shipped to Lehrman’s Glen Cove storage unit from Bangladesh with the logos already filled out – a supply of medium-sized “I Am A Cockapoo” tank-tops, for instance.

Also available are pink and blue retractable leashes with the “I Am A” logo, as well as “Bullied at the Dog Park,” an illustrated children’s book written by Lehrman and featuring her beloved Boston terrier, Herbie. Based on a real-life misadventure, the book uses pups to help children deal with a real-life social issue.

“Bullying is such a big issue,” Lehrman noted. “The book is based on a true story where my dog was bullied by a bigger dog and was attacked and hurt.”

Herbie survived the ordeal, and Lehrman saw an opportunity: a book about overcoming bullying featuring an all-canine cast.

“It’s great for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade,” she said. “They really relate to it.”

The new enterprise also devotes 5 percent of its proceeds to SNORT, the Short Nose Only Rescue Team, a regional, volunteer-only 501(c)3 dedicated to the rescue of what Lehrman called “smush-nosed” breeds like pugs and bulldogs. The entrepreneur also runs the Long Island Smushed-Face Dog Group, a Meetup.com club for owners of Shih Tzus, Boston terriers and other smaller breeds with smushed faces.

Lehrman’s association with that group, which meets every few weeks at Eisenhower Park (and held a winter get-together this month at Petco in Garden City Park), should be a boost for Deziner Dogs, along with the 250-or-so-customers Lehrman has collected as an In-Home Pet Service franchisee. She’s also spreading the word via social media and is planning to push Deziner Dogs in person whenever possible, including an appearance at the Long Island Pet Expo, scheduled for March 4-6 at Suffolk County Community College.

Lehrman and Herbie (in his hoodie) will both be in the Deziner Dogs booth, which will not only promote the fledgling company but the Kickstarter campaign, which runs through March 17. The expo will be the first of several events the entrepreneur and her faithful companion will use to promote the new LLC.

“Another month or so should really be my big time,” Lehrman noted. “I can really get out there to specialty shops and street fairs and other shows. I really feel like this company is going to take off in the spring and summer.”

Whether or not she’s able to bolster her product line before then remains to be seen – although if the Kickstarter campaign falls short, Lehrman has no plans to turn tail. She’s already investigating the possibility of a small-business loan, with long-term plans to important “blank” garments from Bangladesh (the raincoats, like the retractable leashes, will be made in China) and customize them with domestic silk-screening operations.

She’s also planning some new products, including those raincoats and an “I Am A Special Mixed Breed” logo for mutts – and plans to push ahead whether Kickstarter comes through or not.

“It’s very hard, running your first Kickstarter campaign,” she said. “You need a big following. I might have waited until I had a few more followers, but I’m learning as I go.

“I know those raincoats will become a big seller in pet apparel, so I’m going to make this happen either way.”