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January 16, 2018

How a hands-free dog-walking device could save a family from losing their home

They adopted a pit bull and it turned their lives around

Inventions Pets
GearTAC Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

After getting laid off from a design job in 2015, Todd Anderson went into a spiritual funk. That all changed when the family adopted Darby, whose presence led the family toward an invention that could save the family home.

Todd Anderson is not the buttoned-down corporate type. Even though he spent 25 years of his life in that world, that becomes quickly evident as soon as you meet him.

He was a graphic and interior designer by trade and mind, but that all changed when a high-end wallpaper company laid off the 46-year-old Montgomery County man on October 15, 2015.

To hear him tell it, the Pottstown man – like many folks his age – fell victim to an economy where companies shed experienced employees to hire younger talent at less than six-figure salaries. Coupled with outsourcing and underbidding competitors, that makes for an uneasy world for people like Todd to thrive.

Sure, he said he left the company on decent enough terms. He understood their thinking. Heck, he just texted his old bosses the other day when he remembered they’d be going to a big conference in Europe.

“Nobody wanted to hire me at that age. I had a very specific skillset, so it’s not like I could use what I knew for just any job,” he said, standing at a table in his kitchen in early January. “It sent me into a depression, not that anybody could see it since I internalized it. I was beating myself up."

Still, he wasn’t exactly ready for his new world.

“It was a mid-life crisis,” he admitted. “There was a lot of resentment.”

The layoff weighed on his mind heavier than the undiagnosed Lyme disease that would’ve killed him if a doctor didn’t happen to see him struggling to walk through a parking lot outside his office.

It even felt worse than the bruises and aches inherent in taking up Muay Thai fighting in his late 30s and early 40s. And believe him when he says that fighting better-trained younger men hurts. Badly.

He tried the freelance route, but not many people were keen on paying for $150-an-hour talent when they could get a lesser-quality work done at one-fifteenth the cost.

"I didn’t want us to be more of the Addams Family than we already were.” – Lynne Anderson

All that left Anderson moping around the house “practically in tears.” 

His wife Lynne is a personal trainer, but her salary alone wasn't enough to protect their status quo. Something had to give so Todd could get his head back on straight.

“I was a jerk,” Todd said.

“He was a jerk,” Lynne agreed. “It was eating him up inside.”

So there he was, a married man with two teenage sons, and neither he nor Lynne knew how long they’d be able to keep the house they worked so hard to provide.

‘DON'T BRING HOME A PIT BULL'

Considering the circumstances, getting a dog was both a good and horrible idea.

It was good because dogs offer companionship. It was horrible because caring for a new dog isn’t exactly cheap, and when there's limited income, every penny counts.

Anderson’s was an animal-friendly upbringing, as his mom once owned a kennel, so when Todd told Lynne that he and the boys were heading to the Brandywine Valley SPCA on May 4, 2016, she had one request.

“I told him, ‘Don’t bring home a pit bull,’” she recalled with a laugh. “This neighborhood is all Labradoodles, Golden Doodles. I didn’t want us to be more of the Addams Family than we already were.”

Upon seeing Todd – who described his fighting demeanor as that of a “junkyard dog” – a pair of women at the SPCA had different plans, however.

NoneCourtesy/Lynne Anderson

Lynne Anderson and Darby atop the Art Museum steps.

They introduced him to “Denise,” an abused, 60-pound rescue who was fearful and cowering when he first saw her.

“Just spend five minutes alone in this room with her,” they said. “She’s perfect for you.”

Their prediction was a little off. It only took 30 seconds.

“She’s the greatest thing to happen to us besides the kids,” he said of a pup whose name they changed to Darby since Denise is a really weird name for a dog. 

“Two kids. No job. No income. We’re living off our life savings, off my 401K," he continued. “Now, here’s this abused dog that I have to get back to (normalcy). I snapped right out of it.”

Little did they know at that point that they weren’t saving Darby the pit bull, who would soon realize her new family was a loving one.

Darby was saving them.

‘PEOPLE CALL ME McGYVER’

This story of redemption isn’t just about adopting a dog in need.

It’s about how that adoption sparked a business idea that could see the Andersons' long-term fortunes change.

“It was Day One, and I had to take her for a walk. I had a harness and leash and thought it’s just weird to hold an animal like we do. It’s just not the right way to do this,” he said. “The first walk, when she pooped, I needed six bags to scoop it all up. I thought, ‘I’m never holding poop again.' It’s just weird.”

During his moping phase, he expanded upon a little freelance design studio in a corner of the basement. He called it Irondoor Studios.

“It was more of a hobby business since people call me ‘McGyver’ or ‘Todd Vila,’” he said, the latter reference a nod to the television home improvement guru. “When I get depressed, I make stuff.”

The poop-cleanup predicament got him to thinking about ways he could avoid carrying a huge bag of excrement back to the house each time he took Darby for a walk.

Quickly, he merged a water-bottle holder with a strap from his MMA gear. A huge Star Wars fan, he envisioned a “21st Century bandolier” much like the one worn by Chewbacca.

He realized the bottle holder could do more than hold water bottles: It could be used to store dog-poop bags, both empty and filled.

Inspired by the coin purses of his youth, they cut a slit in the bottom of the pouch. The opening would enable him to pull a bag out from the bottom. The opening up top would then serve as a place to store a filled bag until he got to the nearest trashcan.

Using clips and other equipment he had laying around, he hitched a dog leash to the contraption – a bandolier goes over one’s shoulder and across their torso – and worked up a military-grade prototype.

“I realized I’d just invented the world’s coolest poop holder,” he joked. “I thought it was freaking genius. That’s when the world really changed for us.”

About four months after Darby's adoption, the Geartac “hands-free dog walking device” was born.

Not only did it let him avoid carrying those bags of waste on their walks, but his hands were free to hold a phone, water bottle or anything else he might want to carry.

“You finally invented something that makes sense,” Lynne recalled of her initial reaction. “I honestly thought, ‘This is really cool. Holy crap. This is totally genius.’”

FREE LABOR

Lynne bought into Todd pursuing full-bore development of the product instead of returning to the corporate world.

“He needed this,” she said. “He wasn’t happy in corporate America.”

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Al Anderson at his post in the GearTAC basement production facility.

When it comes to the product, she wasn’t alone in her thinking.

Many people who saw the prototypes used by the Andersons while out for walks on the Coventry Lake Trail just across the street from their home or nearby French Creek State Park wanted to know where they could get one, too.

“Where has this been my whole life?” they remember one person asking.

Realizing that the product they’d invented could actually sell, Todd, Lynne, their sons and his father Al now spend many hours building the hands-free devices in the basement.

“Free labor,” quipped Al, an entrepreneurially-minded retired teacher, of his role in the production process.

If the Andersons have their way, Geartac – a family-operated, made-in-America outfit – will soon become a household term known for producing a revolutionary, hands-free dog leash and “poop holder.”

Granted, this isn’t the first-ever hands-free dog leash.

Todd estimated there are about “82 pages” of running belts/leashes on Amazon, and the Jaeger leash. (Todd considers the latter “a peer” instead of competition what with comfort differentiating the products. Neither have that “poop holder” feature.)

His creation was unique enough that he reached out to an attorney-friend who handles patent issues. While the patent’s still pending, at no point during the process has he heard that there’s a similar product on the market.

With a non-provisional patent in hand, production has ramped up enough that “the little old ladies” at a Wilkes Barre company now help produce the holder portion of the product. (If someone copies it, they’re covered, he said of that status.)

Jamie Durkin, contract sewing business and product development manager for A. Rifkin Company, said they’re “making the holder for the poop bags.” Todd visited their Wilkes Barre factory after the turn of the year.

“It’s really an amazing product,” she said. “We’re starting production now. He’s really glad not to have to do that now.”

They still make the rest in the basement.

From a medical perspective, they see it as a godsend for people with bigger dogs who like to yank hard when they’re on a leash.

It helps stop the dog from pulling the walker because "when you disconnect your hands from the leash, you release the energy frequency between you and your dog," he said.

With the bandolier, dog walkers can protect their arms and shoulders from injury while giving the pooches a sense of freedom. It also can help prevent older or younger people from getting pulled down should their dog make a run for it.

“I’m a powerlifter, so if I mess up my rotator cuff, I’m in trouble,” explained Lynne, sounding less like a pitchwoman than a dog owner who appreciates the tangible benefits of the $49.99 product.

NoneBrian Hickey/PhillyVoice

The Andersons produce the bulk of their GearTAC 'hands-free dog-walking device' in their Pottstown basement.

You needn’t take their word for it, though. Michele Boehmer of the SPCA where the Andersons first met Darby is more than happy to vouch for it.

She’s used one of the products walking Biggie, her American Staffordshire Terrier. She said it’s a godsend for multitasking people who like to take their dogs out in social settings.

“The hands-free aspect is amazing. You don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it again,” she said. “We’re working with him to go do some therapy. It’s a neat, unique thing.

“It’s surprising how many places are dog-friendly but you’d always have to hold the leash. Now, you no longer have the complication of trying to hold on while reaching into your purse while checking out (at a department store). It’s just opened up so much. We take Biggie with us when we go out to local bars on Friday night, or First Fridays. It’s just so easy.”

THE CLOCK'S STILL TICKING

When it comes to marketing, they’re just ramping up efforts now. Next month, Todd and Boehmer will head to New York City to shoot a segment of “Live It Up!

They’re hoping that appearance will snowball into more attention for the product. So far, they have spread the word at crafts, gun and other trade shows and conventions as far away as Atlanta and New England. (PhillyVoice first saw Anderson at a gun show in Oaks, Montgomery County last year.)

When they went to their first show, they sold all 25 they brought almost instantly. Their trick? Let people walk around with them to generate buzz.

In their first year, they made $4,000 in sales off the website. In 2017, revenues rose to $60,000, money that was reinvested into the business, including a trailer that Al deemed a “roving billboard,” courtesy of several sales made while driving to a show in Atlanta.

The Andersons have entertained the prospect of going the “Shark Tank” route, but decided to keep it more grassroots. They take a special pride in knowing they’re doing it all by themselves, in the basement of the home they’re fighting to keep.

“People have offered me the world for this,” Todd said. “But we’re unorthodox by today’s standards.”

Besides, he said, he’d be happy just being able to keep the house and put their kids through college thanks to an idea hatched to avoid carrying his dog’s poop.

They’re also relying on the power of YouTube. In a fun twist, they encountered the actor Harvey Keitel while filming footage near Washington Square in Philadelphia.

"If we don’t start selling these, we could still lose the house." – Todd Anderson

Keitel was trying to figure out a parking meter and quipped that he’d be happy to take a photo with them when he laid eyes on Darby, who looks intimidating if you don’t know her.

“I knew it was meant to be when I met Winston Wolfe from ‘Pulp Fiction,’” Todd said. “Global. That’s where I see this going. Everybody wants a better way to walk their dogs, right?”

While they’re clearly optimistic about the future, the Andersons aren’t out of the proverbial woods yet.

“It’s been tough,” he said of the past couple of years. “We still have some life savings left, about one year. If we don’t start selling these, we could still lose the house.”

But in talking to this entrepreneurial family in that house, it’s difficult to feel any sense of desperation. If it’s there, they do a good job hiding it behind a rosy outlook.

They’re especially happy knowing that their product can help with service dogs and therapy dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Both Todd and Lynne nearly broke down in tears talking about some of the people who they’d given free leashes in recent weeks.

One was an autistic girl whose mother told Lynne she’d never seen her as happy. The other was a veteran who said he had two weeks to live and just wanted a contraption to hold his morphine drip.

After talking for about five hours, it was time to get back to work. They needed 600 units to take to a trade show in early February, and they weren’t going to make themselves.

“We’re on the cusp of something great,” Todd said. “Before, it was going to say ‘He made wallpaper’ on my grave. Now, hopefully, it’ll say ‘he did something for people. He did something really cool.’”