By Emily Frazier
Hundreds of small boxes and empty goggle frames litter the living room of Aiden Doane as she flops down on the floor next to her two dogs, Tuckerman and Yaz. They’ve just finished up “a jog on the pass” – Teton Pass outside of Jackson, Wyoming, where Doane’s daily running, biking, and backcountry ski trails start above 8,000 feet. She is barely sweaty, her sunglasses pushed back over her chestnut ponytail, her 5-foot-2-inch frame the perfect picture of Wester-US fitness.
“Camo came in today,” Doane motions around the room, referring to the 300 empty camouflage goggle frames. At first glance, they look like funky ski goggles, but upon closer inspection, one can see the straps are too short for a human head, and there are small clips in odd places. They are Rex Specs, custom goggles developed for dogs by Doane and her boyfriend, Jesse Emilo.
“It’s been a challenge for me personally to say I make dog goggles – dog goggles are ridiculous,” said Doane, 31, as she told the story of what has become her business. “I laughed when I looked at other dog goggle options for the first time. I thought, we’re gonna make our dogs wear these things?”
Her dogs are a better indicator than Doane that they just finished a 6-mile run up a big mountain pass. They lay sprawled sideways on the cool floor, tongues hanging out of their happy mouths as Doane scratches behind their ears. According to Doane, Tuckerman “Tuck” is a 95-pound German shepherd mix, but he looks straight off the set of “Scooby Doo” with giant, great Dane ears and gangly legs that seem to stretch halfway across the room. Yaz, Emilo’s 50-pound Alaskan sled dog, has wiry, short fur and is still sporting a pair of the reflective goggles with a blue frame, a fashionable match for her all-white body.
But Doane and Emilo, 33, didn’t develop custom goggles for their dogs because they look cool.
The journey of Rex Specs K-9 started in March of 2013 when one of Yaz’s eyes was becoming continually inflamed. In a town that nestles itself 6,000 feet above sea level, being so close to the sun was giving her blue eyes a sunburn. “She would come home at the end of day and not be able to open her eyes,” said Doane.
Around that same time, Doane took Tuck to the vet and was told he had Pannus, a progressive, inflammatory disease of the cornea. She was given a choice by the vet: protect your dogs' eyes or leave them at home.
For two people who do everything with their dogs from fishing to skiing to running, leaving them at home was out of the question.
“Initiall, we bought some other dog goggles, but they didn’t work; the dogs would be running through the bushes and the goggles just kept falling off,” Doane said. “So we grabbed a pair of old ski goggles and started cutting them up to make our own eye protection.”
Jackson is a town of less than 10,000 permanent residents, but it serves a bustling tourist industry during both summer and winter for outdoor enthusiasts looking to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. And most people who live there permanently share the same love for the outdoors as Doane and Emilo. Once the dogs started wearing the goggles out on the trails, Doane said they became a conversation starter with anyone they encountered. “We thought, jeez, maybe more people need these than just our dogs.”
Pretty soon, they had multiple requests from locals to outfit their dogs. Doane, a native Vermonter, had just finished up grad school in Colorado for Business and was searching for a job, figuring she’d find something in operational strategy and supply chain work. She’d come back to Jackson after meeting Emilo, and it was starting to feel like home for the couple, but anyone trying to eek out a living in Jackson will tell you it isn’t the easiest place to settle down. The town continues to struggle to provide enough affordable housing for seasonal and permanent residents, and in a place that doesn’t have much of a growing season and is tourist-centered, other living costs aren’t cheap.
“The only way to make it in Jackson is to create your own opportunity,” said Doane, who, along with Emilo, has always felt pulled toward the entrepreneurial world. “The more we looked at Rex Specs, the more we thought this might be ‘it’ for us.” After finding an initial investor and coming up with enough cash to create a prototype and get a patent pending, they put in their first major order for the product, 500 units.
When asked if they want to sell Rex Specs because they look cool on the dogs, Doane is firm in her answer. “We’ll continue in the short term to focus on the military and working dogs, to prove the functionality of the product and develop it for those users first. We want to make sure we’re developing the product for a need rather than accessory.” This better explains the choice of camouflage lens frames – it was a specific request from the military and working dog trainers they’ve been testing with.
That gets back to her own challenge about telling people her business is selling dog goggles and saying it with confidence. “OR [Outdoor Retailer, an outdoor industry conference in Salt Lake] was great and exhausting because of that – some people are almost rude about it. It’s easy online, but harder to see some people walk by and roll their eyes and scoff and not even give me time to explain what the product is.” She shrugs. “But that’s the reality of putting a product out there.”
Doane and Emilo are so serious about making the best product for working dogs that they frequently do impact testing on the goggles, since military dogs often encounter shrapnel and gunfire. The first time they did this, they went out in mid-February and shot a 20-gauge shotgun at a batch of lenses from different distances. “We wanted to see how they took the blast,” said Doane. “They did pretty well but started to shatter when the lenses got colder – but that’s typical given the polycarbonate material.” They are now working with a professional firm to do the testing, but this kind of thinking is what makes Rex Specs different. The two are always brainstorming new tests they can run to determine how to better protect the dogs and how to ensure their product will continually evolve over time.
Doane has been shuffling through the boxes as she talks – hopping around the room with boundless energy, checking each of the frames to make sure they’re up to her standards. After she finishes that, she’ll go through the hundreds of black-tinted lenses that also came in. Emilo has arrived home from a carpentry job and curls up next to the dogs for a few minutes, then joins Doane in the quality control check. They’ll work like this until close to midnight before heading to bed, Yaz and Tuck running in their sleep beside them, content with warm bellies and another day chalk-full of big adventures.