Last fall, I attended the Assistance Dogs Int'l Training Conference in Estes Park, CO. During a break, I started talking with the fellow sitting next to me. He was very knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects related to dog training, and when we finally got around to introducing ourselves, I found that he was Mark Hines, Canine Behavior and Training Specialist for the KONG Company. I was completely embarrassed to admit to him that even after all these years of using KONG products, I had not realized that KONG is located in Colorado, practically in my backyard!
As we chatted, I mentioned that I was raising and training my first service puppy (Ruby was still very young and I hadn't brought her to the conference). Mark kindly extended an offer for my service dog in training and me to visit the KONG factory as his guests. I was thrilled at the privilege (KONG is not open for public tours), and after many months of scheduling correspondence, we finally were able to visit. I know Ruby enjoyed it, but not half as much as I did!
It's an impressive facility with all manufacturing done on site.
I was quite curious about the materials and manufacturing process, and Mark gave me a great tour. KONG toys are made of 80% natural rubber, the remainder being strengtheners and fillers, all non-toxic.
When it comes to safety, KONG holds its toys to the same lead standards as children's toys in America. So, if your kid starts chewing on the puppy's KONG, no worries, it's safe! Well, except for the swapping dog spit part. I don't think Ruby's sharing, though.
Bands of rubber are fed into the machine,
then heated at 350° where the rubber melts into liquid and is poured into the mold.
The amount of curing time will vary per toy size, but they're ready in a matter of minutes.
You wouldn't want to touch them, though, they're hot! If you click on the photo below to enlarge, and look very closely, you'll get a hint of the steam rising off the toys like a tray of freshly-baked muffins!
Once cooled, the toys are assembled, trimmed, cleaned, evaluated for quality, and packed, all by hand.
Toys that have simple defects (such as safe, small blemishes) are deemed "seconds" and donated to shelters, zoos, etc. Plus, any rejected toys evaluated to be a possible safety hazard will not be wasted. That product is crumbled into small bits and donated for use as ground cover in children's playgrounds.
The KONG toys we purchase are all first quality. As I passed by the bins, I thought they were really quite beautiful.
Ruby behaved admirably throughout the visit. As you can imagine, there was lots of puppy jubilation; after all, it's like taking Augustus Gloop (or me) to the Wonka Factory! But even amid the noise of a warehouse and processing facility, all the booms, bangs, whizzes, and pops, she remained calm and took it all in stride. Although she did get a little dirty.
Ha, just kidding, that's KONG's mascot, Chomps!
After our tour, Mark gave me a little history on the company. KONG was founded in 1976 by Joe Markham...and by Joe's German Shepherd, a retired police dog named Fritz. One day, at a Volkswagen repair shop, Fritz took great interest in a part from a 1967 Volkswagen van.
Joe saw the gratification his dog derived from the feel of the rubber car part, and as an inventor, he understood the genius in the simplicity. When he brought the part back to his shop, his partner said, "This looks like King Kong's ear plug!" And so a name, and company, were born.
With my interest in dog training, Mark also took the time to share some insight obtained from his amazing background. He works with veterinarians, shelters, trainers of every discipline, certified animal behaviorists, service dog organizations, and explosives and narcotics detection. He speaks at seminars, serves on military and police panels, and trains in explosive detection. He's also a sport dog trainer and handler (Schutzhund) and works in decoy, which he says, has taught him a tremendous amount about the body language between humans and dogs.
With the kind of opportunities he's had, he said he feels like "the luckiest dog trainer in the world" to be involved in such varied efforts to better the bond and relationships we have with our animals. Listening to him speak about his passion for dogs was inspiring.
What a great educational experience for Ruby and me. A million thanks to the friendly KONG family and to Mark Hines, for the invitation and for his kindness, hospitality, and generosity.
P.S. Stay tuned, folks. Mark gave me a special gift for a lucky Raising Ruby reader...details coming up soon!